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The film debut of a soon-to-be-major movie star is not always an event of any significance when it first occurs. Nor is it often a movie with any artistic merit that can stand the test of time and become an important topic for analysis among film scholars. Certainly, Jane Fonda's movie debut, Tall Story, will never make the AFI's top 100 films list and it wasn't a commercial or critical success upon its release in 1960. But the film is important in the career arc of Ms. Fonda. A slight but enjoyable romantic comedy, Tall Story plays much better today than when it first premiered. At the time, critics were expecting something much more impressive from Joshua Logan, the director of the Tony award-winning stage play Mister Roberts , the film version of South Pacific (1958), and a two-time Oscar® nominee for Best Director for Picnic (1955) and Sayonara (1957).
Logan had never intended for Tall Story to be positioned as a major film production. Instead it was originally conceived as a modestly budgeted showcase for Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, neither of whom had yet appeared in films. Logan had first wanted to feature them in Parrish, a project he eventually abandoned due to script difficulties and was later made in 1961 by director Delmer Daves with Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens in the leads. Logan then optioned the popular Broadway play Tall Story by the distinguished writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; it was a collegiate comedy about a university basketball star who falls in love with a cheerleader but faces a moral dilemma when he is bribed to let a visiting team from Russia win the decisive game.
Warner Bros., who was financing Tall Story (the working title was The Way the Ball Bounces), would not approve Beatty as the film's male lead despite his stage experience because he was an unknown actor. So Logan was forced to go with his second choice, Anthony Perkins, who had already established himself as a talented leading man in such high profile films as Desire Under the Elms (1958) opposite Sophia Loren, On the Beach (1959), and Friendly Persuasion (1956) which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination.
Jane Fonda, who saw Tall Story on Broadway and hated it, was pleasantly surprised when she received the script and saw that her character June Ryder had been expanded into a larger role and was now, in fact, the major focus of the film. Logan, who was a longtime friend of Henry Fonda (he roomed with him during his bachelor years and directed him on stage in Mr. Roberts), always sensed that Jane had the talent to be a major star and wanted to prove his hunch by guiding her through her first feature.
The experience turned out to be, in Jane's words, "a Kafkaesque nightmare" which brought out all of her insecurities as an actress and also made her question her own identity, physical appearance and career on a more personal level. Although Jane had asked Logan and studio publicists to play down the fact that her father was Henry Fonda, that became the focus of the advance publicity along with an unwanted emphasis on her body. James Bacon of the Associated Press wrote, "Jane is one of those girls who exude sex appeal on screen - and off- without trying. That asset is helped immeasurably by a curvaceous, high-breasted figure. She's 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall, weighs 112 pounds...She packs all that with a 123 IQ." Fonda was also unprepared for playing the part of the young Hollywood ingénue when it came to studio publicists. During a pre-production photo shoot for Tall Story, Fonda and Anthony Perkins were asked to nuzzle and caress each other by a studio photographer. "Jane turned pale," recalled Perkins. "It was her first encounter with one of the absurdities of the business, and it was as if she said to herself, 'My God, is this what being an actress means'. You could see her take a deep breath and say to herself, 'Well, I guess it is, so okay, let's get it over with.' (from Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda by Christopher Andersen).
Fonda's trial by fire continued with her first day on the Warner Bros. lot. She recalled, "It was a bunch of makeup artists looking me over and it wasn't what they wanted. When they got finished with me, I didn't really know who I was. My eyebrows were like eagle's wings, and my mouth was all over my face. My hair was not the right color, and it had to be changed. Then Jack Warner, the head of the studio, sent a message to the set that I had to wear falsies because you couldn't become a movie star unless you were full-breasted." Fonda later wrote in her autobiography, My Life So Far, that "Logan suggested that after the filming I might consider having my jaw broken and reset and my back teeth pulled to create a more chiseled look, the sunken cheekbones that were the hallmarks of Suzy Parker, the supermodel of the time. "Of course," said Josh, touching my chin and turning me to profile, "you'll never be a dramatic actress with that nose, too cute for drama." From that moment on...my bulimia soared out of control and I began sleepwalking again as I had as a child....I would dream I was in bed, waiting for a love scene to be shot, and gradually I would realize that I'd made a terrible mistake. I was in the wrong bed, in the wrong room, and everyone was waiting for me to start the scene somewhere else, though I didn't know where...On one occasion I woke up on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building: cold, naked, searching in vain for where (and who) I was supposed to be."
The filming of Tall Story wasn't much easier for Tony Perkins despite his experience of almost seven years in motion pictures. Popular among teenage girls for his boyish, all-American good looks and shy manner, Perkins lived in constant fear that his private gay life would be exposed by some tabloid reporter yet he played the Hollywood game well, even suggesting to Joshua Logan that he work privately with Jane Fonda on their love scenes in the film. "They worked very hard, devotedly in fact, on their intimate scenes," Logan wrote in his 1978 memoir. "When they showed them to me they were strangely slow and full of pregnant pauses, but apart from that quite attractive, so I filmed them as rehearsed. Unfortunately, when cut into the picture they were endless and, I think, hurt the picture..." Perkins said he felt that "too many love scenes lack warmth and reality" but that he "didn't have to do any acting when I kissed Jane for the first time...I couldn't convincingly kiss a girl, if I didn't like her."(from Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins by Charles Winecoff).
Perkins's other challenge was to be convincing as a star athlete. During filming he told a reporter, "I've been busy working out at the Warner Bros. gym, discovering what basketball is all about. I spend about an hour and a half a day dribbling, passing, shooting baskets, and going after rebounds. An hour and a half is about all I can take. It's exhausting." His hard work paid off and even his co-stars recognized his dedication. Ray Walston, cast as Professor Leo Sullivan in Tall Story, stated that Perkins "was on that court like he was born there. He always seemed to have an urgency in his movement. He had great ideas and he would express them to Josh in a very eager way, like a young boy wanting to please."
Tall Story, however, did little to advance Perkins' career and seemed like a step backwards for him since he had already graduated from playing collegiate types and was close to thirty years old. His wholesome screen image would change completely with his next film made the same year - Psycho.
When Tall Story went into general release, the critics were unusually hard on the picture. Time magazine wrote "Nothing could possibly save the picture, not even the painfully personable Perkins doing his famous awkward act, not even a second-generation Fonda with a smile like her father's and legs like a chorus girl." The Films in Review writer said, "The film wouldn't be reviewed in these pages but for the fact that Henry Fonda's daughter Jane makes her screen debut in it. She is a good-looking lass and she can act." Anyone viewing the film today however will probably enjoy it as a pleasant diversion in the same vein as the formulaic but highly popular Doris Day romantic comedies from the same period.
Fun Facts: Look for Tom Laughlin (writer/director/producer of Billy Jack (1971)) and Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey ) in small roles. The theme song, composed by Andre & Dory Previn and Shelly Manne is sung by Bobby Darin.
Producer: Joshua Logan
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Russel Crouse (play), Howard Lindsay (play), Howard Nemerov (novel)
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editing: Philip W. Anderson
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Anthony Perkins (Ray Blent), Jane Fonda (June Ryder), Ray Walston (Professor Leo Sullivan), Marc Connelly (Professor Charles Osman), Anne Jackson (Myra Sullivan), Murray Hamilton (Coach Sandy Hardy).
by Jeff Stafford
Citizen Jane: The Turbulent Life of Jane Fonda by Christopher Andersen
My Life So Far by Jane Fonda
Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins by Charles Winecoff