In 1964, I was 10 years old, and I thought Carroll Baker was the naughtiest woman I had ever seen. I don’t know why the parental units decided to take me the drive-in theatre to see The Carpetbaggers, but I sat in the back of the station wagon eating popcorn and wondering what it was all about. I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to Alan Ladd and George Peppard, but I knew what Baker as Rina Marlowe was up to when she was scantily clad on top of a chandelier or rolling around on a bed telling Peppard to “…love me, Jonas, love me!“.
The Carpetbaggers was the fourth biggest film of 1964 and became one of those bad-movies-I-love, a camp classic. After the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, the studios were on the lookout for the next blonde bombshell, and Baker was the first flavor of the month to appear. Unleashed on the American public in the spring of 1964, the film pushed the censors of the day about as far as they could go, including a brief nude scene with Baker.
In spring 2014, I happened upon a story by Margaux Laskey in the Vows section on the New York Times about the nuptials of Patrick Suraci, a former actor turned clinical psychologist, and the improbably named Tony Randall Perkins (he said of his name: ”The ‘Psycho Odd Couple’, My mother was a frustrated actor”), a modeling agent. They met in the 1980s, dated, fell in love, split, but then dated off and on for years, finally marrying in 2014. Their story is just terrific, but I was struck by one sentence:
”After he [Suraci] was discharged from the army in 1962, he moved to Hollywood, returning to New York in 1965 to study acting with Uta Hagan. A move to Rome in the late 1960s was inspired by his admiration for Italian directors, chiefly Federico Fellini. There, he befriended Carroll Baker, the American actress, and acted in a few spaghetti westerns and giallos, or gangster movies.”
This had me thinking about Baker and her many gay connections, most especially her starring role in Tennessee Williams‘ lurid, controversial film, Baby Doll (1956), directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach. That part came to be career-defining. Her association with the film character remained a constant throughout Baker’s long career.
The film, adapted from Williams’ one-act play 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton, is about a feud between two rival cotton gin owners in rural Mississippi; after one of the men commits arson against the other’s gin, the owner retaliates by attempting to seduce the arsonist’s 19-year-old virgin bride with the hopes of receiving an admission by her of her husband’s guilt.
Baby Doll provided plenty of controversy when it was released. The Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency tried to have it banned, after a promotional billboard on display in Manhattan depicted an image of Baker lying in a crib, sucking her thumb. After the billboard was erected, Baker received a phone call from a journalist:
“Your film Baby Doll has been condemned by the Legion of Decency and Cardinal Spellman has just stepped up to the pulpit and denounced it from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What have you got to say?
Spellman, the closet-case Archbishop of New York City, advised both Catholics and non-Catholics to boycott the film, claiming it a moral “danger”. Spellman’s sermon was unprecedented.
Despite moral objections to the film, it received good reviews, Kazan won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director and the film was nominated for four other Golden Globes, plus four Academy Awards and four BAFTA Awards.
The film originated the name and popularity of the “babydoll” nightgown, from the costume worn by Baker’s character.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Baker’s range of roles from young ingénues to brash and flamboyant women established her as both a sex symbol and serious actor. After studying under Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio, Baker began performing on Broadway in 1954. She was recruited by Studio member Kazan to play the lead in Baby Doll. The role brought her BAFTA and Oscar nominations.
Her other early film roles include George Stevens‘ Giant (1956), playing the love interest of gay actor James Dean. Baker appeared in the controversial independent film Something Wild (1961), directed by her then-husband Jack Garfein, playing a young college student from the Bronx who is raped one night in St. James Park, and later held captive by a Manhattan mechanic (Ralph Meeker) who witnessed her subsequent suicide attempt. In preparation for her role, Baker lived alone in a boarding house in New York City’s Lower East Side and took a job as a salesgirl; her method approach to the role was profiled in LIFE magazine in 1960.
She went on to star in critically acclaimed Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, including The Big Country (1958), How the West Was Won (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
In the mid-1960s, as a contract player for Paramount Pictures, Baker solidified her sex symbol status playing the hedonistic widow in The Carpetbaggers. The film’s producer, Joseph E. Levine, cast her as Jean Harlow in the biopic Harlow (1965). Despite significant pre-publicity, Harlow was a great big bomb. In an interview, Baker sardonically commented: “I’ll say this about Joe Levine: I admire his taste in leading ladies“. Baker sued Levine over her contract with Paramount Pictures and was fired by Paramount and had her paychecks from Harlow held back during the contentious legal dispute. Baker was left with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Baker:
“My husband thought it was all terrific as long as I kept bringing in the money. I started objecting to everything, but it was too late. The sex-symbol image had already started. I turned down parts and they blacklisted me. The press attacked me viciously at every opportunity. I came very close to suicide.“
She relocated to Italy where she spent the next 10 years starring in hard-edged exploitation and horror films. Many of these films feature her in roles as distressed women, and often with nude scenes, which few major Hollywood actors were willing to do at the time. Then she regained her American career as a character actor, first in the Andy Warhol-produced comedy Bad (1977), where she plays a Queens beauty salon owner who provides hitmen with jobs, starring alongside Susan Tyrrell and Perry King. Baker:
“You can hardly call making an Andy Warhol movie a ‘comeback’. It’s more like going to the moon! The subject is totally unique.”
Baker appeared on stage and in supporting roles in movies in the 1980s, including the lurid true-crime drama Star 80 (1983) as the mother of murder victim Dorothy Stratten, and the race noir Native Son (1986), based on the novel by Richard Wright. In 1987, she had a supporting part in Ironweed (1987) opposite Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Through the 1990s, Baker still wanted to work so she took guest roles on television series and supporting parts in big-budget films, such as the comedy Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a gigantic hit that was filmed in Astoria, Oregon, and David Fincher‘s thriller The Game (1997).
She announced a retirement from acting in 2002. Today Baker is an underappreciated icon, but the image of her sucking her thumb on the Baby Doll poster seems a little icky.
Baker was born Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She spent a year at a junior college before becoming a magician’s assistant in vaudeville and a professional dancer. She moved to New York City, where she rented an apartment in Queens, working a nightclub dancer and chorus girl.
While working in the chorus, she was introduced to Louie Ritter by the headliner of the show, who asked if Baker would stay at a hotel Ritter owned, for free. Ritter gave her jewels and furs and then married her. He was 54 years old and she was 21. He and had been married five times before. In her memoir, Baby Doll: An Autobiography (1983) she writes that Ritter took her virginity when he raped her. After a year, they divorced.
After the divorce, Baker studied at the Actors Studio and became friends with James Dean, who recommended her for the lead role in Rebel Without A Cause. She turned down the part. She landed roles on Broadway and in commercials. This was when she met Garfein, a Holocaust survivor she met at the Studio and for whom she converted to Judaism. They had two children, Blanche Baker, an actor, and Herschel Garfein, a composer and faculty member at the Steinhardt School of Music at New York University. Garfein and Baker divorced in 1969.
Baby Doll: An Autobiography received excellent reviews. She wrote three other books, To Africa With Love (1986), about her time spent in Africa, a novel, A Roman Tale (1987), and last year she published a mystery Who Killed Big Al? (2019) . Baker:
“I didn’t want to write an autobiography, but I wanted to write, and I knew that would be the easiest thing to get published. I think I always wanted to write, but I was a little self-conscious about it. I never had a formal education, and I’ve always had such a respect for writing. While I could go out and say, even before I started to act, ‘Yes, I’m an actress,’ I couldn’t really say ‘I’m a writer.'”
Baker now lives in New York City. I hope she gets to hang out with the Suraci-Perkins as she celebrates her 92nd birthday today.