Could Dorothy Malone be the only person in the world to have dated both Sinatra and Liberace?
By Gerald Peary
More than fifty years ago, the 1964-1965 season, Grace Metalious’s scandalous best-selling novel, Peyton Place, came to ABC television, showing off an unusually classy cast of newcomers led by Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and Barbara Parkins. But it was the glamorous Dorothy Malone, who died last week at age 92, who was the featured performer. The Academy Award winning actress for Written on the Wind (1956) received top billing for playing the tight-skirted, bouffant-coiffured mother of Farrow’s love-struck teenager.
“I was the first movie star to plunge into night-time soap opera,” Malone, then 60, told me when we met in 1985 at her choice of a place for an interview, the Dallas Country Club. “I never turned down a mother role. I like playing mothers. I started out very young in Hollywood doing westerns, portraying a mother with a couple of kids.”
She was Dorothy Maloney, an 18-year-old student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, when a scout from RKO saw her in a school play and signed her up for Hollywood. With her mother as chaperone and companion, she went happily to California. Beginning in 1944, Maloney was cast in non-speaking roles. “I was a bridesmaid at a wedding in one picture. In another, I was the leader of an all-girl orchestra. The only thing I did at RKO of any note was lose my Texas accent.”
She signed next with Warner Brothers, where she shed the last letter of her last name.
Malone’s first speaking role would prove an immortal one: in 1946, she played the young woman in a bookshop, her sexiness hidden behind glasses, in director Howard Hawks’s classic version of the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. She ends up lowering the window shade and shutting the bookstore for a rainy-afternoon tryst with Humphrey Bogart’s hardboiled Philip Marlowe.
“Howard Hawks saw me at a Western party where I was the only one dressed as an Indian. I had on a really short costume, black shoe polish in my hair, and dark makeup all over me. Hawks asked to be introduced, and then called me in for an interview. He liked to act outrageous. He liked to throw people off, so you had to be very sharp and a little contrary. He preferred you to be a little contrary.
“But on the picture, we stopped at 3 o’clock and had tea, with the crumpets and the pinafores. We were treated royally, and Hawks let me do what I wanted in the scene, like pulling down the shade. And Bogart was a lovely man. I hate to use that word, but that’s what he was: lovely.”
Malone’s stature rose at Warner’s. She played Cary Grant’s cousin in Night and Day (1946). As studio emissary, she was shipped off on the Queen Elizabeth to meet the royal family in England. Princess Elizabeth (not yet the Queen) told Malone, “We loved The Big Sleep.”
The actress’s personal favorite of her Warners’ films was One Sunday Afternoon (1948), a little-remembered remake of The Strawberry Blonde (1941). She also enjoyed her westerns there with actors Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, and Joel McCrea. When Malone’s Warners’ contract ended, she happily made cowboy “B” movies at other studios in the early 1950s. She recalled, “I loved to get all dusty and ride horses and plant potatoes and cotton. My stand-in and me would be the only women on the set.” Later, Malone made one prestige western, The Last Sunset (1961), opposite Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas. But she deeply regretted that she was too shy to audition for The Big Country (1958), made by her favorite director, William Wyler.
At the time of The Big Country, Malone had gone through an anxious period and lost twenty pounds. “I thought I looked like a witch,” she remembered, and every time her agency, MCA, arranged an appointment with Wyler, she wouldn’t show up. “That was my big boo-boo: stupidity on my part and an inferiority complex.” At the thought of Wyler, she sighed. “I got crushes on directors because they were so brilliant. There is so much down-to-earth living knowledge that a director must have that I fall in love with their minds.”
In 1955, it was Raoul Walsh, another esteemed director, who made Malone, at last, an A-movie star. He cast her in the World War Two drama, Battle Cry. Walsh chose her over many other candidates to play Marine Tab Hunter’s sexually frustrated wife—and suddenly Malone was a Hollywood siren. In Martin and Lewis’s Artists and Models (1955), Dean Martin told her, “I like the way your bone structure is structured.” She was Liberace’s woman in Sincerely Yours (1955) (“He asked me out. I liked him a lot.”) In 1956, German émigré director Douglas Sirk chose Malone for her most enduring work, as the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fast-driving, self-destructive oil baroness in Written on the Wind. Her Oscar.
“An agent kept calling me that there is a director from Europe who wants you and only you. He was every woman’s dream of a director. He was very Prussian, wore a scarf, and maybe he even had a walking stick. If he liked you, he was so much fun. I found him utterly charming. But it must have been terrible if he didn’t like you.”
Two years after, Malone was reunited with Sirk and fellow Written on the Wind stars Robert Stack and Rock Hudson for The Tarnished Angels (1958), a moody, melancholic adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel, Pylon. Many consider this the best version of Faulkner on film, but Malone remembered how miserable she was making it. A stunt pilot was killed during the shooting. And they would film all night after Malone toiled all day on another picture, Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957).
Malone said, “We were down at San Diego Beach. It was raining, cold, and damp. Sirk was mad at the cinematographer. The cinematographer was mad at Sirk.” Malone was cast as a barnstorming stunt parachute jumper, but she was scared to perform her stunts. She was terrified at being required to jump off airplane wings to a mattress far below. Worse, Sirk had her hang from the ceiling for hours, suspended on wires, while the technicians slowly lit and rehearsed the film’s famously sexiest scene: the bare-legged Malone descending via parachute through the air, her skirt blown high by the wind. In actuality, two freezing fans on her body.
In the 1970s and 1980s, post-Peyton Place on TV, Malone suffered the typical fate of still-active, mature Hollywood actresses. Nobody wrote good roles for which she would qualify. “I want to work,” Malone said emphatically. “I need to work.” Unfortunately, she made do with such instantly forgotten pictures as Abduction (1975) about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. “I played Patty’s mother. I can’t remember who played Patty’s father. He must have been the star. The picture showed us around the Hearst mansion worrying a lot.” Her all-time low point was The Man Who Could Not Die (1975). “I did that one in Puerto Rico. I was in one shot. I was stabbed in the stomach and that was it. They used my name in the credits.”
Malone appeared also in a series of made-for-TV movies, but emphatically her best-loved roles were in the studio era in Hollywood. “I acted three times with Fred MacMurray, three times with Martin and Lewis, four times with Rock Hudson, three times with Glenn Ford.” And her best times were in Hollywood also. “Sinatra asked me out,” she said, bragging a bit. “He saw me at Romanoff’s one night. I went to a telephone one day at the beach and called my exchange. They said, ‘Frank Sinatra called.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, Heaven help us.’ We finally met on the set of Young at Heart. I love him. I just love him.”
Could Dorothy Malone be the only person in the world to have dated both Sinatra and Liberace? The actress nodded and beamed. “And Adlai Stevenson,” she added proudly. “And Rock Hudson.”
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.