By Doug Gibson
Recently, at Plan9Crunch, I reviewed John O'Dowd's biography of the ill-fated 1950s movie star Barbara Payton (seen above), "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story." (Buy) You can read the Plan9Crunch review here. (I also wrote a review for my newspaper, The Standard-Examiner, here.)
The reviews were popular reads, and O'Dowd was kind enough to agree to my request for an interview. I asked him 10 questions. The first five questions and answers are below. In several days Plan9Crunch will publish the second half of the interview. So read on, and enjoy! Photo above is courtesy of O'Dowd.
PLAN9CRUNCH: What do you think Payton's finest film performance was?
O'DOWD: I think Barbara’s finest acting performance was in her first WB film, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”. Although she had only been acting professionally for two years, Barbara’s performance in the film was strong and nuanced and totally believable. Barbara worked extremely well with the film’s director, Gordon Douglas, and if she had been able to rein in her personal life during that time and had concentrated more on her acting career, she might have stayed at WB for several years (instead of for just a little over a year), and worked with Douglas a lot more times. Gordon Douglas really pulled a great performance out of her in KTG…more so, I think, than he was able to do in Barbara’s film with Gregory Peck, “Only The Valiant”. (Barbara seemed really distracted in that picture, but then again, her role in the film was quite small and I’m not sure how much more she could have done with what little she had been given to do in it.) But, getting back to “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, Barbara very believably took her character through several personality changes, according to the requirements of the script. Her character of Holiday Carleton started out as a very naïve and impressionable young woman, but as she fell deeper under the spell of the character that James Cagney played in the film (that of a sadistic and unregenerate criminal named Ralph Cotter), she gradually transitioned into a greedy and reckless person who came to completely overlook Cotter’s evil ways. Several people who knew Barbara have told me that her real-life personality was closest to the character she played in KTG. Barbara, it seems, was naïve, trusting, thrill-seeking and reckless throughout her entire life. She was inherently goodhearted (like Holiday), but also tragically drawn to the very unhealthy influences which usually surrounded her. Knowing this, it has made watching her work in KTG even more fascinating.
PLAN9CRUNCH: What contemporary star is most like Payton as an actress?
O'DOWD: I’m not sure I can answer that question as I am nearly completely unfamiliar with the work (and even the names) of most contemporary film actresses (especially those in their 20s and 30s). There is a film project on Barbara’s life (titled “Bad Blonde”) that is currently in development in Los Angeles, and I am trusting that the two producers who are shepherding the project (Ira Besserman and Barrett Stuart) know a lot more about today’s actresses than I do, because unfortunately, I know very little. I am not a big fan of the majority of today’s films, as they seem to concentrate more on special effects than on character-driven storylines (which is what I prefer). I am far more interested in, and have more knowledge of, the films and stars of Classic Hollywood.
PLAN9CRUNCH:What was Payton's top feature as an actress or as someone that would appeal to fans and be a star?
O'DOWD: I believe Barbara was a very effective performer who was usually responsive and totally present if she felt connected to the material she had been given. In “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and “Murder is My Beat”, for instance, which are two of her better films, there is an innate honesty and intelligence in both Barbara’s line readings and in her facial expressions, that is very apparent. I really wish she had been given the opportunity to work a lot more and to build up her film credits with good projects, because I think she would have surprised a lot of people with the strength and scope of her acting talent.
PLAN9CRUNCH: Who was the greatest positive influence in Payton's life?
O'DOWD: Unequivocally, that person would have to be her son, John Lee Payton. Every person I interviewed for the book who knew Barbara personally, stressed to me how much she loved and cherished him. That she would end up losing custody of him (and, in fact, would never see him again for the rest of her life) makes that, of course, a huge irony. While she truly loved John Lee, and never treated him with anything other than the utmost warmth and kindness, Barbara was severely devoid of proper parenting skills. Amazingly, when John Lee was just a child, Barbara not only regularly exposed him to her horrendous lifestyle of indiscriminate sex, drug use and excessive drinking, she also often left him alone for long periods of time. No matter how you look at it, that is unforgivably irresponsible of her. However, over time, I have come to understand just how skewed Barbara’s thinking was, and while she doesn’t get a pass from me for this really terrible behavior, I do “get” it (and her), and John Lee does, too. In fact, he has long ago forgiven her for all the mistakes she made in raising him, and has remained totally loyal and loving to his mother’s memory. I believe that says a lot for the man himself, as well as the positive and lasting influences of the people who greatly picked up the slack for Barbara, and helped raise John Lee (mainly, Jan Redfield and her family, and John Payton, Sr.)
PLAN9CRUNCH: Who was the great love in her life and why?
O'DOWD: Again, I would have to say, her son, John Lee. But then again, that was a pure, maternal love. In terms of whom she loved romantically, I have to believe the greatest love of her life was Tom Neal. Then again, that may have also been the sickest and unhealthiest relationship she was ever involved in, as well. The dynamic there was very strong, very passionate, and more than a bit sado-masochistic. Barbara was drawn to Neal’s intrinsic “bad boy” qualities, and I think she wanted him to stay that way every bit as much as she wanted to tame him. They were drawn to each other in an almost feral way, and the fever-pitch of their relationship, I think, doomed it from the start. They shared a big and messy life together and they had to burn out in a big and messy way, which they did. I don’t believe, though, that Barbara ever got over Tom Neal. I am not certain if he ever got over her, but I tend to think their breaking up added a few layers to the damage in Barbara that was already there. Her behavior certainly grew more unhealthy after Neal exited her life…that’s for sure.
Surf back to Plan9Crunch soon, readers, to read part 2 of our interview with Barbara Payton biographer, John O'Dowd. One question focuses on why no one was able to successfully help Payton as she spiraled into a living hell.