Actress Diane McBain came to Hollywood at the end of an era, as the studio system was on its last legs. Her autobiography, written with Michael Gregg Michaud (who also wrote the definitive biography of Sal Mineo in 2010), tells the tale of a survivor, one who gained wisdom at a heavy price.
Diane McBain was signed to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers in 1959, shortly after turning 18. Starting out with a series of roles in the company’s television productions (“Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip”), she soon graduated to featured roles in such films as “The Ice Palace,” starring Richard Burton, who would steal her heart and take her virginity, and “Parrish,” opposite Troy Donahue and Claudette Colbert. Warner’s provided opportunity, but not acting lessons. McBain had difficulty learning lines, and as a result, one of her biggest scenes in “Parrish” had to be cut. Still, she was a budding star, with the Los Angeles Times predicting that she “could be the next Carole Lombard.”
After playing the title role in 1961’s “Claudelle Inglish,” a flawed adaptation of the Erskine Caldwell potboiler, McBain found herself working more and more in television. She was cast as Daphne “Daffy” Dutton in “Surfside 6,” a breezy private eye series set in Miami Beach. A sun-drenched variation on “77 Sunset Strip,” the ABC-TV series was a hit, and made Diane a star.
While she was having her biggest success, she was still under contract to Warner Brothers, making $350 a week. While that was pretty good money in those days, it wasn’t much by industry standards, and McBain struggled to live within her means. She also struggled to find love, engaging in a series of relationships with married men – Burton, tennis great Pancho Gonzales, and business tycoon Ralph Stolkin among them. By 1964, when she was dropped by Warner’s, McBain’s career was going downhill fast.
Being a free agent led to some roles that may have elevated her cult status, such as “Pinky Pinkston” on the “Batman” TV series, and starring roles in the AIP exploitation flicks “Maryjane” and “The Mini-Skirt Mob,” but work became more and more difficult to find for the gorgeous actress as the decade wore on.
The ’60s were a tough time in Hollywood. The major studios seemed clueless about what the audience wanted, as the original movie moguls gave way to corporate ownership. By the the dawn of the 1970s, old school glamor-pusses like Diane were being supplanted by a new breed of all-natural, hippie types like Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen.
McBain’s story is informed by the duality of her personality: “Danny,” the adventurous tomboy, and “Diane,” the more feminine, career-driven persona. She speaks frankly about the two sexual assaults that took a terrible toll on her. The first, a horrific date-rape (and subsequent blackmail) at the hands of a slicked-back Hollywood heel to whom she refers as “William Shitsky” or “B.S.” (astute film fans can read between the lines and make an educated guess as to the real identity of this self-aggrandizing creep). The second, even more brutal, assault at the hands of two thugs in 1982, led to Diane speaking out about rape, to the detriment of her career (Hollywood, what a town…).
While writing a piece for Cosmopolitan magazine about her ordeals, in which she was going to call out “B.S.” for his unconscionable actions 20 years earlier, McBain had an epiphany, which filled her with the Holy Spirit, and forgiveness for a man who hardly deserved it. He got a pass, but karma was catching up to him around the same time (if he is who he seems to be, that is).
The book should be required reading for any young actor or actress. The indignities and brutalities suffered by McBain were often a by-product of the neanderthal sexual politics of the male-dominated movie business of the 1960s, but it’s not like there aren’t still sharks and other predators swimming the Hollywood seas. It’s still a sleazy game, even if the playing field has been leveled somewhat. These days, young actors are often just as likely to be sexually exploited as their female counterparts (the recent allegations against director Bryan Singer are redolent of the days of the casting couch – the only difference being the gender of the victim).
McBain and Michaud have created a compellingly readable, often moving account of one woman’s ups and downs in the entertainment business. While many publishers turned down the project because Diane wasn’t “Famous Enough,” this writer has been a lifelong fan of the actress, and after reading this memoir, an even greater admirer of her as a person. While other, more famous actresses have published autobiographies, few have written one this good. Here’s hoping that this book finds its audience, and that Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies have Diane on for an evening of her films and some of the telling anecdotes she shares here.
“Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir” is available from BearManor Media, Amazon.com, and better bookstores everywhere. Highly recommended.