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The Real Tuesday Weld

It’s hard to look at Tuesday Weld’s career without feeling a tiny pang of regret for what could have been.

The Real Tuesday Weld
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Tuesday Weld will not be attending the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective “American Girl: Tuesday Weld,” running from September 21—25, which will showcase 10 performances by the unconventional actress. Weld hasn’t made a public appearance in more than a decade. Perhaps she’s gone into self-imposed exile a la Marlene Dietrich, wanting to preserve the public’s memory of the brazen, luminous beauty that made her an icon of the ‘60s and turned the heads of everyone from Elvis Presley to Pinchas Zukerman. But then again, Weld has made a career of not giving the public what they want, or expect.

From the time she first entered America’s consciousness in the ‘50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, it was obvious that Weld was different from the Sandra Dees of the world, and not just because of her improbable first name. Weld’s apple-pie looks hid a dark, dangerous undercurrent. In her characters, sex and violence were inevitably linked. Her persona was innocent yet amoral—a fille fatale. Weld was Kubrick’s first choice for Lolita, but she turned him down, later claiming “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Weld is as famous for what she could have been as for what she was. In addition to Lolita, Weld was first choice for the lead female parts in Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Cactus Flower, and True Grit, turning them all down. Critics at the time accused her of exercising poor judgment, but according to Weld herself, the real reason for her choices was more complicated.

“Do you think I want a success?” she said in a ’71 New York Times interview. “I refused Bonnie and Clyde because I was nursing at the time, but also because deep down I knew it was going to be a huge success. The same was true of Bob and Carol and Fred and Sue or whatever it was called. It reeked of success.”

Despite her pinup origins, Weld has shown herself to be one of the most singular film acting talents of the last 50 years. According to critic David Ehrenstein, “Tuesday Weld’s genius is that she never seems to be acting. She always looks like she is simply that way, whether the film be…Sex Kittens Go to College, or (Sergio Leone’s epic) Once Upon a Time in America.”

“There was a special intensity about her, a kind of rawness,” says film critic and historian Foster Hirsch, “…something very vulnerable and even fragile about her acting. I suspect that it reflected something of [herself].”

Susan Weld was born in New York City on August 27, 1943 to the disinherited black sheep of a wealthy New England family and an artist’s model. As a toddler she was unable to properly pronounce Susan, calling herself “Tu-Tu.” The nickname stuck, eventually becoming Tuesday.

Weld’s father died when she was three years old, leaving the family penniless. Several months later, little Tuesday was scouted for a modeling job. Driven by her ambitious stage mother, Weld worked constantly and became one of the top child models in New York City, financially supporting her mother and two siblings. Eventually, the young girl began to crack under the strain of her career. “When I was nine, I had a breakdown,” Weld recalled, “which disappointed Mama a great deal. But I made a comeback when I was 10.”

Weld moved from modeling to acting, and from New York to Los Angeles. Within a few years, 20th Century Fox was marketing a 14-year-old Weld as the “next Marilyn Monroe,” with their publicity department cooking up quotes like, “I never wear underwear. It’s much warmer with nothing on,” and Weld’s mother describing her daughter in a newspaper interview as “tawny blond all over.”

Her first film for Fox was Rally Round the Flag Boys! (1958), a clever spoof on suburban marriage in the atomic age that devolves into woolly slapstick in the home stretch. A brunette Weld had a small but memorable role as Comfort Goodpasture, a beatnik babysitter who discovers the joys of puberty seemingly overnight, squealing “All of a sudden, I like boys!”

Rally round the Flag lead to a role in the 1959 sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The show was a hit, and Weld became the fantasy of millions of teenage boys overnight. Her fame soon eclipsed the show, and she left to pursue a film career. Weld’s mother chose high-paying, pinup roles for her daughter in B movies like Sex Kittens Go to College, and her celebrity continued to grow, mostly due to the publicity her wild behavior received; columnist Louella Parsons labeled her “a disgrace to Hollywood.” Weld dated men three times her age, drank heavily, smoked pot, and was surly and difficult with reporters, once appearing on a daytime talk show in a bathrobe and bare feet. Sam Shepard later wrote of the incident, “I fell in love with Tuesday Weld on that show. I thought she was the Marlon Brando of women.”

The best of her “sex kitten” films was Frank Tashlin’s daffy bedroom farce Bachelor Flat (1962), in which Weld plays a juvenile delinquent with the voice of an air-raid siren. It’s a feather-light romp, but contains some inspired comic moments that rank with the best of Tashlin’s work.

Gradually, Weld began to take control of her own career. Now 18, she was bequeathed a sizable inheritance from her paternal grandmother. With the pressure to provide taken off, Weld began to choose more idiosyncratic roles, sticking a knife into her sexpot image in Lord Love a Duck (1966). At first resembling a Frankie and Annette beach romp, the film reveals itself to be a surreal, vicious black comedy, reveling in the hypocrisy of American consumer culture. Weld plays Barbra Ann Greene, a teenage Faust with a childlike thirst for fame. The devilish Mollymauk (Roddy McDowell) decides to help get Barbra everything she desires, no matter whose head has to roll: her teacher’s, her husband’s, or even her mother’s. Weld is ironically at her most alluring in the disturbing scene where Barbra Ann seduces her father into buying her 13 cashmere sweaters, teasing him into a grotesque sexual frenzy.

If Lord Love a Duck is as subtle as a shotgun blast, then Weld’s next picture, Pretty Poison (1968), is an ice pick aimed with deadly accuracy. Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), newly released from a mental institution, meets dishy majorette Sue Ann Stepanek and draws her into a fantasy world of C.I.A. missions and recycled spy-movie dialogue. But Sue Ann has her own plans for Dennis. In a chilling performance, Weld is careful to never tip her hand, even after it becomes apparent who’s really manipulating whom. Championed by critics at the time of its release, this wickedly smart thriller is, according to film historian Foster Hirsch, “[Weld’s] masterpiece…her most iconic role.”

By 1970, Weld was 27 years old, married, with a little girl of her own, and yet she was still playing a teenager in John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line. Alma McCain (Weld), a backwoods Blue Angel, innocently leads a small town sheriff (Gregory Peck) to his destruction. Peck is out of his depth with the pathos his character requires, unable to do more than look solemn. However, Weld makes the best of her thinly written character, adding subtle shadings to Alma’s guileless passivity.

The following year, everything fell apart. Weld’s five-year marriage to screenwriter Claude Harz had ended in divorce, and she sunk into a deep depression. “It seems the brighter you are, the deeper a hole you fall into,” she said in a New York Times interview that year. “I got a divorce, my car disintegrated and my house burned down….there was absolutely nothing left.” So when Frank Perry announced Weld as his first and only choice to star in a film adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, for once she said yes.

Weld plays Maria Wyeth, an ex-model and B actress who’s been committed to a mental institution. Recalling the events leading to her breakdown, she paints a bleak picture of Hollywood as a scorched, amoral desert. Maria’s best friend, gay film producer BZ (Anthony Perkins), has already lost faith in humanity. Maria tries to cling to a reason to keep living, but everywhere she looks she sees rattlesnakes. “I don’t ever want to be where you are,” she tells BZ. “You don’t want to…but you will,” he replies with weary finality.

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein designed the film’s dazzling, sun-bleached visuals, which serve as a backdrop to Weld’s portrait of a woman falling apart. Her exquisitely subtle performance is almost entirely communicated by slight modulations of her voice, or a flicker of her eyes. Joseph Gelmis of Newsday commented that Weld “reminds me of…early Brando- implying experiences and knowledge that can’t be conveyed by speech.”

Weld was finally officially recognized for her work, and awarded Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, though some critics still couldn’t shake the image of Tuesday as Dobie Gillis’s gal pal. “Next year, I suppose the Nobel Prize for Literature will go to Jacqueline Susann,” sniffed Thomas Meehand in the Saturday Review. Still, Weld had arrived as an adult actress. No longer limited by her Lolita image, she was ready to begin a new stage of her career. So, of course, she decided to take five years off from making theatrical movies.

During her absence, Weld married and had a son, Patrick, with the British comedian Dudley Moore. She returned to the big screen in 1977 with the controversial Looking For Mr. Goodbar, a portrait of downtown New York’s gritty singles scene through the eyes of the sheltered Theresa (Diane Keaton), begging to be corrupted. As Theresa’s sister Katherine, Weld is a bundle of nerves, packing into her short screen time a bisexual orgy, a divorce, a lot of alcohol, and two abortions. She’s a mess, but she’s the only one who loves the doomed Theresa unconditionally. For her performance, Weld was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Vanessa Redgrave.

Re-established as a bankable star, Weld’s next project was the excellent, underrated 1978 thriller Who’ll Stop the Rain, about the moral consequences of the Vietnam War in America. Marge is a pill-popping suburban mother, swept into a heroin-smuggling scheme by her husband stationed in Vietnam. She suddenly finds herself on the run from thugs with her husband’s friend, macho survivalist Hicks (Nick Nolte). Weld underplays Marge’s terror with constant, subtle tension in her face and movements that only eases when the character dips into their heroin stash, at which point the actress becomes unnervingly languid and sensual. Weld walks a fine line and makes Marge’s actions understandable, even when they’re not sympathetic.

Weld went on to give some good supporting performances in the next few years as wives and girlfriends, most notably in Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, a career criminal, and Weld as his fiancée, his one hope for a normal future. The 15-minute scene between Weld and Caan in a late-night diner is a marvel of acting, sound design, and editing; Caan has described it as his favorite scene of his career.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) was Weld’s last hurrah, and she gives a daring performance in Sergio Leone’s career-capping, four-hour-long gangster epic. Fittingly, Weld’s role takes the sex and violence associated with her former roles to its furthest logical conclusion. She plays Carol, a bank teller who encourages a gangster, Noodles (Robert De Niro), to rape her during a robbery, and later becomes the mistress of his brother, Max (James Woods), luxuriating in violent, degrading sex. This part could easily have been repellent, but Weld turns the small role into a Story of O, letting us see the emotion behind Carol’s masochism. The film was cut to ribbons upon its U.S. release and was only recognized as a masterpiece years later, when the director’s cut was released. Critic Vincent Canby noted that “Only Miss Weld’s performance seems to survive the chaos of the editing,” and she was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s hard to look at Tuesday Weld’s career without feeling a tiny pang of regret for what could have been. According to Foster Hirsch, Arthur Penn, until the day he died, regretted not getting her for Bonnie and Clyde, despite the film’s legendary status. But Weld rejected mainstream stardom, instead choosing a thornier, more individual path. In the process, she created one of the most adventurous and rewarding bodies of work of any Hollywood actor of her era. “I may be self-destructive, but I like taking chances with movies,” she said in a ’71 New York Times interview. “I like challenges…I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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