Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roll Out the Merrill!

Poseidon has never been one to go in for the earthy, make-up free or sloppy types when it comes to his screen goddesses. Give me some well-coiffed hair and decent lipstick any day over the natural look. Two amusing anecdotes come to mind. Joan Crawford, whose face was often a mask of product, once said, “I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” Another is a remark made by Kirstie Alley on a talk show once. She said that, as a girl, she judged her affection for movie actresses based on how much eye make-up they wore. Her favorite was Virna Lisi. (See photo of Miss Lisi at right.) When asked about Katharine Hepburn, Alley replied that she was not a favorite because she didn’t wear enough make-up! While I don’t wish to align myself with Kirstie on many topics, this one is one I can relate to.

Which brings us to today’s subject, the elegant and inherently refined Miss Dina Merrill. Born into wealth (Dad was the legendary financier E.F. Hutton and Mom was heiress to the Post cereal fortune), she quite possibly would never have had to work a day in her life if she didn’t want to. In fact, she spent quite a while attempting to make her first marriage (to the heir of the Colgate fortune, I mean really……!) work, raising their three children in the process. Finally getting a late start (at 32), she began working on television and swiftly progressed to supporting roles in films, working with many of the top stars of the day.

Her first film had her appearing with no less than Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set. She moved on to popular hits such as Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant and BUtterfield 8 with Laurence Harvey and Elizabeth Taylor, followed swiftly by The Sundowners, an Australian sheep farming saga that starred Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, and The Young Savages, in which she played lawyer Burt Lancaster’s wife. Effortlessly genteel and sophisticated, she may not have set the world on fire in these parts, but she always added a dose of glamorous allure. Her early work shows a bit of angular severity in her look, not aided by often severe, compressed hairstyles. However, her distinctive voice and appealing disposition made her a great bet to class up a production. She went brunette, briefly, for the film The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, but is best known for her thick, frosted, flawless ‘do.

Already an accomplished stage actress (she has done stage work in every decade since the 1940s with the exception of the 50s when she was having and rearing her children), she turned to television, appearing in dozens and dozens of series as a guest actress, including the most popular shows around such as Dr. Kildare, Batman, Mission: Impossible, Marcus Welby M.D., to name a few. She also added style and beauty to the occasional game show such as What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth and Password. Eventually, she began resurfacing in feature films again, enjoying a good relationship with Robert Altman who directed her in A Wedding and later in The Player.

By this time, she had discovered her “inner bitch” and was far more adept than before at relaying complicated roles, thus freeing her from the righteous, sterile, patient and passive roles she had been typecast in. She now adeptly played sarcastic comedy and villainy, but while always maintaining her otherworldly perfect appearance. It is rare indeed to find examples of a disheveled Dina and when one does, it’s shocking!

I first became aware of her through a little-known TV series that was very heavily promoted, but which disappeared after only three episodes. It was called Hot Pursuit (all about a couple on the run from the law after the wife was unfairly charged with murder) and the promotional commercials for it used an effective photographic trick that had the female star reacting in shock as the camera zoomed in while pulling away. Miss Merrill played the antagonist, a rich schemer named Estelle, who was trying to recapture them. Though the show is practically forgotten now, the impact of Merrill’s persona led me to watch her in other things.

At that time (but only for a little while longer, unfortunately) she was married to Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson and they seemed like the perfect couple to me. They had one child together, a daughter who is no longer living. In fact, sadly, Miss Merrill has buried two of her four children. Her first marriage lasted 20 years and her second marriage (to Robertson) lasted 20 years. On November 18th, 2009, her third marriage will reach the 20-year mark. Is this the one that will last the longest? It seems as if it will. Her current husband is former Naval airman, businessman and actor Ted Hartley. Together, they purchased the practically defunct RKO Studios and have worked hard to make it a viable movie-making venture again. They continue to work diligently on the company despite being in their 70s and 80s. Nine years her junior, they make a very well matched and attractive senior couple. (And he was quite the hunk as a younger man. See here a shot of him from the days in which he portrayed a Reverend on the prime-time soap Peyton Place.)

Always a tireless philanthropist, working hard on various charities for the ill and disadvantaged, she remains active and can be glimpsed at various theatre and benefit events and premieres. These more recent photos are only from a couple of years ago and, while she’s understandably older-looking at 80+, she still has that sparkle and that trademark hair, wearing make-up, but avoiding the garish “Baby Jane” look that too many of her contemporaries fall into. She also continues to possess that rare thing, taste, which has all but fallen by the wayside by now.


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