Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the story is divided into three acts, introduced with their own titles--"Portrait of a Young Girl," "Portrait of a Young Woman," and "Portrait of a Goddess." The heroine is Emily Ann Faulkner, played in the first act by nine-year-old Patty Duke, still four years away from The Miracle Worker (1962) and her Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Emily's mother (Betty Lou Holland) is a single mom from the South, so determined to enjoy her singleness that she abandons her little girl. In one of the movie's many painful scenes, Emily hears her mother call her nothing but an unwelcome burden, and it's clear she'll be scarred by this forever.
In the second act, Emily is a teenage flibbertigibbet like her mother was, earning a reputation for "doing things" with boys because she fears being unpopular if she doesn't. She ends up marrying a young man (Steven Hill) who's at least as unstable as she is, and they break up after having a baby. In one of the movie's less convincing moments, Emily shrieks with frustration about motherhood in exactly the same words her mother used years ago. Leaving her daughter and divorcing her husband, she heads for the West Coast to pursue her dreams of stardom.
In the third act she achieves those dreams, changing her name to Rita Shawn and learning to play by Hollywood's rules even when they're sleazy and cynical. She soon discovers that fame and fortune aren't all they're cracked up to be. Neither is marriage to a celebrity (Lloyd Bridges) who loves her without being able to understand her. Alcoholic and miserable, she has a mental breakdown on a movie set, and as she recuperates-with help from her mother, now a prissy church-going puritan-we learn she has virtually no friends in the world, or comforts except booze and pills. Her story ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting that she'll forge ahead in the movie world but never regain the health, much less the innocence, she's lost.
The Goddess was Stanley's first movie, and she would make only a handful more (ending with The Right Stuff in 1983) before her death from cancer in 2001. But for many years she was remarkably active in other fields: She had acquired a whopping seventy-five television credits by 1955, and during the same period she studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio and conquered Broadway in the William Inge plays Picnic and Bus Stop.
Although stage acting was her favorite kind, Stanley quit theater work in 1965, when London critics tore apart an Actors Studio production of The Three Sisters, deciding the Method and Anton Chekhov were not a good match. At about this time she had a mental breakdown, after which she scaled down her activities, eventually becoming an acting teacher in New Mexico, the state she came from. She stayed active in TV until the early 1970s, though, and her occasional movie appearances were enthusiastically received. She earned Oscar® nominations for Best Actress in the 1964 drama Séance on a Wet Afternoon and Best Supporting Actress in the 1982 biopic Frances, where she played the mother of Frances Farmer, another gifted actress with psychological problems.
Some critics have conjectured that The Goddess was based on the career of Ava Gardner, but most think its primary model was Marilyn Monroe, who studied at the Actors Studio at the same time Stanley did. Stanley herself said she never thought of Monroe when she read the script, thinking someone like Jayne Mansfield was closer to what Chayefsky had in mind. It's interesting to note that Monroe's sister-in-law, Joan Copeland, plays Emily's aunt in The Goddess. Stanley said later that Copeland's brother--playwright Arthur Miller, married to Monroe at the time-thought Monroe should sue someone over the movie.
Chayefsky, like Stanley, built his reputation in TV during the golden age of live production. His first feature-film credit was for the 1951 comedy As Young as You Feel, with Monroe in the cast, and he earned renown in both media with successes like Marty and The Bachelor Party, made as TV dramas and then remade (in 1955 and 1957) as movies. His strong points were a creative concern for language, a recurring interest in commonplace situations and events, and a knack for exploring the tensions between average people and the conventions, institutions, and traditions that shape their lives. With its portrait of an ordinary woman swept away by Hollywood dreams and delusions, The Goddess fits this pattern well.
Just as The Goddess was Stanley's first Hollywood picture, it was director John Cromwell's last, although he made two additional features in other countries. He walked out on the production after a fierce dispute over the editing, which Chayefsky insisted on doing himself, despite a near-total lack of experience or expertise.
Anyone who finds The Goddess marred by a stilted pace, underwritten minor characters, and a mood that's much too solemn can blame Chayefsky, as both Cromwell and Stanley did. Calling it "my least favorite out of any work I've ever done," Stanley told an interviewer that "the reason it's so strange [is] the way it's edited." She added that Chayefsky's final cut "left out all the comedic stuff, and it broke my heart because nobody doesn't try to laugh once in a while. I mean, no fooling! Little Orphan Annie in Hollywood is really not interesting."
The Goddess fared poorly at the box office, and Stanley's performance has drawn mixed reviews over the years--some saying that she acts well but isn't sexy enough, others that she's extremely sexy but miscast anyway. Whatever your verdict, it's hard to argue with the emotional truth she pulls from Chayefsky's sometimes ponderous dialogue, etching a sharp portrayal of a woman whose frustration with dream-factory illusion drives her to everything from sex to liquor to religion in search of a psychological escape route. Its other qualities aside, The Goddess is well worth viewing for its unsentimental depiction of Hollywood as a place where celebrity trumps all other values, and the people most victimized by the place are the ones least able to cope with it.
Producer: Milton Perlman
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Film editing: Carl Lerner
Art direction: Edward Haworth
Music: Virgil Thomson
Cast: Kim Stanley (Emily Ann Faulkner, Rita Shawn), Lloyd Bridges (Dutch Seymour), Steve Hill (John Tower), Betty Lou Holland (Mrs. Faulkner), Joan Copeland (the Aunt), Gerald Hiken (the Uncle), Patty Duke (Emily Ann Faulkner as a child), Bert Freed (Lester Brackman), Joyce Van Patten (Hillary), Louise Beavers (the Cook), Werner Klemperer (Mr. Woolsey), Burt Brinckerhoff (the Boy).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt