Lucie in the Sky with Diamonds

* contains spoilers

One of my favourite actors of all time is Richard Carlson from It Came from Outer Space (1953). Have you heard of the term Six Degrees of Separation where everyone in the world knows each other through six people knowing each other? For example – and this is eerie: A journalist friend who worked in London had a colleague who was Osama Bin Laden’s sister. So I knew Osama Bin Laden by only three degrees of separation!

When it came to Richard Carlson it was almost just as close and it all came down to my late friend Hazel who died a few years ago aged in her nineties.

Desi Jnr, Lucy and Lucie

She was an amazing woman who was adopted from a wealthy Melbourne family whose daughter had her out of wedlock in the 1920s. Hazel, who became a devout Catholic in later life, worked in the United Nations Building in New York for over 20 years and it was in the early 1960s through her Catholic godfather she got acquainted with Lucille Ball and in particular her mother Dede (1892-1977). Ball (1911-89 abdominal aneurysm) and Dede, took a shine to Hazel and over the years she would stay with Ball at her house on several occasions. Following Ball’s death, Hazel kept in contact with Lucie Arnaz (1951-).

Dede, Lucie and Lucy

So the Carlson connection is that Lucille Ball made the 1940 movie Too Many Girls (she met Desi Arnaz there) with Richard Carlson. The film, incidentally, bombed and ended Carlson’s career as a Grade-A actor. But again its about three degrees of separation and I know Carlson and practically any other actor in Hollywood of the period and beyond. You do too but may not know it!

There is also the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (1958-) that links every actor in Hollywood past and present through who worked with who in movies using Bacon as a starting point.

Mame (1974) trailer

My friend Hazel was on the set of Mame (1974) when Ball does the scene when she comes down the stairs (she declined donning a costume and appearing) and said she sat down and spoke with the boy who played Mame’s nephew and found him to be lovely.

One hot New York day while she was working for the UN, she came across a film crew working in the heat. Dressed heavily in homeless garb, it was Ball filming the Stone Pillow television movie (around 1986) and Hazel said she looked distressed as their eyes locked in the crowd. It was the last time she would see her alive.

Hazel had red hair and a nice apartment. I never noticed as I helped care for her in her last years but her cleaner said she seemed to model herself after Ball. Perhaps but she never bragged about her connections.

Lucie Arnaz did an appearance on national television in Australia a couple of years before Hazel died and said at the end: “Hello to Hazel Hernsdorf …”

Boy did she get plenty of calls after that one!

Sultry Lucie

In the end, after suffering from cancer for over 20 years, Hazel was put into palliative care. It was then she practically curled and proceeded to die. I had never seen a person do that before. I had saved an email she had shown me from Lucie Arnaz and contacted her saying could she contact Hazel before it was too late. She did so and Lucie said they had a lucid conversation about how she was a good friend to Dede and a great pal of the family. Hazel died forty-eight hours later. In fact, if Lucie had called any later, Hazel would have been in a coma.

The point of my article is – I had a crush on Lucie Arnaz long before I met Hazel.

Growing up as a kid in Adelaide, I would ride my bike home from school quickly so I could catch the reruns of Lucille Ball’s highly successful and very funny television show Here’s Lucy (1968-74). Lucie played Ball’s daughter Kim in the series. I don’t know why but I loved Lucie. Let me revisit three key movies in which I love Lucie.

Lucie as the Dahlia

Recently I saw for the first time, probably one of Lucie’s best early performances. It was shortly after the end of the Here’s Lucy series. The television movie is Who is the Black Dahlia? (1975) It is of course the story about the infamous Black Dahlia murder case, which has been cause of speculation over the years since the discovery of a woman’s mutilated body in Los Angeles in 1947.

In the movie Lucie plays Elizabeth Short (1924-47), the Black Dahlia herself. The resemblance is striking.

Who is the Black Dahlia? is peppered with name actors of television and yesteryear such as Efrem Zimbalist Jr (1918-2014 natural causes), MacDonald Carey (1913-94), Mercedes McCambridge (1916-2004 natural causes) and Gloria DeHaven (1925-2016 complications of stroke).

The real Dahlia

It starts off with the Dahlia as a Maine school girl type leaving what is left of the family home to head for Hollywood where “they just might turn the bright lights on me someday”. Lucie’s innocence and naivety is apparent from the start and it reflects the fact this is her first project outside of her mother’s show Here’s Lucy which had come to an end the previous year in 1974.

The Dahlia turns up at her father’s place unannounced with dreams of Hollywood. Her heart broken by her uncaring father, she lies as she recounts her situation in a letter back home to her grandmother. It is here where Lucie’s performance begins to be affecting as the Dahlia is suddenly lost and prey to the real world. Walking down the street Lucie flees clutching, lusty sailors who say: “She’ll get hers”.

The Black Dahlia (2006) trailer

With each dramatic end of a scene, obviously for commercial break, Lucie’s face freezes into a black and white photographic plate. The basis of this is the existing photographs of the real Dahlia.

The real Dahlia mugshot

The Dahlia’s letters back home continue to disguise her true despair, while the film intersperses police detectives trying to solve her murder. The film is told in flashback and it’s all loosely based on the real Dahlia. Lucie is dressed in black, wearing a black wig and sporting what looks like an engagement ring. She says her husband was killed in the war. This tallies with the Dahlia as she was “engaged” to a flier killed at the end of the war. Thus she dresses in black throughout the film and earns her nickname. The film also shows her arrest for underage drinking, of which there is a famous mug shot. But the dates in the movie are loose at best.

When Lucie is released from juvenile detention she is supposed to head back east – but she heads straight for Hollywood. Here is where her once deceptive letters merge with the truth of the Dahlia as an aspiring actress. The police start to get an idea of the “real” Dahlia.

Lucie’s resemblance to the Dahlia is moving

Cult actor Sid Haig (1939-), who appeared as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s (1965-) The Devil’s Rejects (2005) plays a tattoo artist who gives Lucie a Dahlia tattoo on her shoulder… There is the purported legend of The Black Dahlia – dressed in black with a tattoo of a dahlia. The truth is the newspapers riffed the name off the Alan Ladd movie The Blue Dahlia (1946), which was released before the murder. So much fiction and non-fiction has been written over the years that no-one will really know the real Dahlia if anyone did at all as this movie suggests. She will always be remembered for the brutal way she died and how badly she was mutilated.

It was reported in the autopsy on the Dahlia that she had underdeveloped sexual organs, which made penetration by a man impossible. Perhaps something that enraged the killer?

The Blue Dahlia (1946) trailer

Who is the Black Dahlia? doesn’t dismiss Short as a bad girl although there were reports she was both a lesbian and a prostitute. The film gives her the benefit of the doubt – but she is ultimately human and another lost Hollywood soul.

For its day, it’s a good television movie about those who “live in secret and die in secret” and like the Black Dahlia legend, in the end, it is just as mysterious. Lucie’s Dahlia fades to black as she walks off into the night to her fate before turning into the image of a woman frozen in time forever as a black and white head-shot. As Jim Morrison (1942-70 heroin overdose) wrote in his song L.A. Woman: “…just another lost angel, city of night…”

Lucie’s The Jazz Singer (1980) came out around the time of other ill-fated musicals of the era Xanadu (1980) and Can’t Stop the Music (1980). The science fiction musical The Apple (1980) is in there somewhere too! I liked all four of them.

The Apple (1980) trailer

But I was still in love with Lucie when The Jazz Singer came out as I was hooked on the re-runs of Here’s Lucy. My parents owned Neil Diamond’s (1941-) classic vinyl double LP –  Hot August Night (1972) – which they regularly played at parties. Diamond of course is the star of The Jazz Singer.

This is my favourite Lucie movie overall.

The film stunningly opens with New York vistas and the Diamond song America. The song was revived around the time of 9/11 back in 2001.

Song America by Neil Diamond

While you wouldn’t expect a good performance from Diamond, since he never acted outside this project – he acquits himself well as a cantor’s son, who doesn’t want to follow the Jewish faith as closely as his father and would prefer to sing outside the synagogue. Luckily the film has Laurence Olivier (1907-89 renal failure) as Diamond’s father to balance any weaknesses in Diamond’s acting. Director Richard Fleisher (1916-2006 in sleep) has done a good job in guiding Diamond who was apparently lost under director Sidney J. Furie’s (1933-) lack of direction, which saw him replaced during production. Olivier’s acting has been accused of hamminess but it aint that bad.

THE JAZZ SINGER, Neil Diamond, Lucie Arnaz, 1980. (c) Associated Film Distribution.

The film is a remake of the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer back in 1927 starring Al Jolson (1886-1950 heart attack) and follows that story basically.

From the moment Diamond appears in blackface and an afro – a nod to Jolson singing Mammy in the original – we know by this second song that the soundtrack won’t be a letdown. Diamond even kicks ass in an ensuing fight scene.

The idea of remaking the Jazz Singer came in a flash of genius or trashiness, depending on your point of view, when producer Jerry Lieder was talking to Diamond’s agent about legends of their day – and Jolson was mentioned. Six months of working on the soundtrack and the movie was lensed.

Yes, the film’s all very Jewish, which may be a turn off for some, sadly, but essentially, it’s about breaking away from the tradition and bonds of your family and forging your own identity and career.

Again this is symbolic of Lucie’s career as well and I thought this would be another stepping stone to stardom for her in the movies. Well, at least that’s what I hoped.

Diamond’s character leaves New York for Los Angeles where an opportunity to make it as a musician presents itself, even if it means leaving his passionless marriage with his wife behind.

Enter Lucie as the “other woman” in Los Angeles and Diamond’s new aspiring agent. She maybe the other woman but Lucie is far from the bad girl and as she makes her first appearance at Los Angeles airport – she is beautiful and almost goofily enchanting. There is something about her that radiates.

By the time she made this movie, Lucie had long forsaken the small screen and movies for the stage, something that has been a life-long passion for her as a dancer, singer and actress. When I first saw the movie I didn’t know this side of her career existed as Broadway didn’t feature too heavily in any media growing up in Australia.

It is shortly after Diamond meets Lucie that he performs the beautiful ballad Love on the Rocks. I still remember the first time I heard that song as my parents partied hard at a friend’s place one afternoon and I was given permission to listen to the soundtrack in the deserted lounge-room. I couldn’t afford many albums but that album had so many great songs.

Neil Diamond sings Love on the Rocks

Love on the Rocks was pipped at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 chart by John Lennon’s (1940-80 shot) also very sentimental (Just Like) Starting Over, which probably wouldn’t have achieved that position had Lennon not been assassinated. The soundtrack for The Jazz Singer sold five million in the United States and was Diamond’s biggest selling album.

Lucie is a good girl in the movie. As other characters chug down bottles of spirits during a party, she dances soberly. Her character’s father was someone who died wondering “What could have been” and she encourages Diamond to pursue his dream. This movie is another look at the Hollywood Dream, this time as a part of the music industry. The two are married together in this movie just as the movie is about the two women in Diamond’s life.

When Lucie offers her body to him half-jokingly, he is still distracted, more so when the phone rings to interrupt her “seduction” and Diamond’s career is suddenly ready to soar with a concert date…

As he performs to his first large audience, Lucie watches in the wings and is genuinely surprised when Diamond’s wife turns up and introduces herself.

It’s a simple but well-acted moment of awkwardness by Lucie as Diamond sings: “I was a lonely boy and you were a lonely girl. When the evening was done, together like one.”

“I offered my body once… he settled for a pizza,” Lucie tells the wife.

All sexual tension is erased for a moment as Diamond receives a standing ovation and Lucie adds: “I’m not your problem… that’s your problem.”

Olivier as Papa

It turns out Lucie has a boyfriend already… or does she?… and the romance between Lucie and Diamond is on again when he explains his wife has gone back to New York. Later as he ceremoniously anoints Lucie with wine on her lips… they kiss and finally make love… Hollywood-style in front of the fireplace.

Then Olivier turns up later and weeps at the sight of Lucie and Diamond together and runs off into Venice Beach. It seems you can’t have it both ways and the psychic disturbance leads Diamond to forsake Lucie and wander the highways alone, growing a beard and smoking copious cigarettes, all the while lugging a guitar case. He is a man between two worlds.

Upon his return he discovers Lucie has given birth and he’s a father. All the showbiz clichés intact, father and son get together on Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – and all is right in the world.

While Lucie and Diamond’s acting is not called upon to weep tears of blood or wrench too deeply during dramatic moments – the tone is light and the film has a good feel or vibe, which is why it still stands up to this day.

The Jazz Singer quad poster

Of course, the critics hated it and Diamond won a Razzie, the first ever for Worst Actor. But the film made its money back and a little more to boot. Lucie was spared the Razzies but Diamond wouldn’t act again.

And as for any hanky panky between the bed sheets in real life, the only thing that went on was between Lucie and her husband Laurence Luckinbill  (1934-) as she got pregnant with her first child during production. Diamond was also happily married at the time.

When I witnessed the reviews I thought Lucie would continue to star in movies… that she was indefatigable. She would star in one more movie before devoting herself to family and the stage. I have seen a clip of her singing Cuban songs as part of her repertoire and she rocks.

Second Thoughts (1983) trailer

Her final starring film of her younger days is another EMI release, the dramedy Second Thoughts (1983). Lucie gets top billing in this movie, which also stars Craig Wasson beside her. He is probably best known for his role in Brian de Palma’s Body Double (1984).

It is reported that Lucie declined to do the movie Poltergeist (1982) and instead chose this film as it was more of an acting challenge. This film is poles apart from The Jazz Singer, as it tells the tale of an unlikely relationship between law drop-out and general hippie Wasson and his lawyer Lucie.

After sleeping with Wasson she gets pregnant and plans to have an abortion. For a drama to incorporate comedy into an abortion storyline is surprising and certainly offbeat for its time. There just aren’t too many films of its kind around and no wonder Lucie chose the challenge of making it.

Lucie has second thoughts

Lucie is ten weeks pregnant and the doctor says if she leaves an abortion any longer, it’ll be “complicated”.

The drama that sits alongside the moments of comedy is certainly deeper for Lucie to perform than in The Jazz Singer. Wasson also shows he can sing extremely well – he even wrote his songs. He can also throw back a jug of beer in a jiffy, something that wins him a pizza which he deposits along with fish in his local bank vault because they turned down his loan application.

Ken Howard as Lucie’s ex-husband is a role that probably could have been better served to a bigger name. Wasson’s charm as an actor far outweighs his but Howard’s role probably wasn’t meant to be anything else than villainous and charmingly oily.

Second Thoughts poster

And that Lucie sees Wasson’s hippie as a possible partner is a change despite the feeling he really needs to grow up and join the real world. Nobody’s perfect!

She keeps her possible decision to have an abortion from him despite wanting to discuss it herself. “I probably love you,” he says as she leaves him that night, something that leaves her teary as she drives home.

One of the more interesting comedic scenes includes one where a legal client of Lucie’s wants money for a bottom and tummy tuck from her ex-husband so he won’t have to pay support anymore – she’ll have a new husband.

It’s strange this film is listed as a drama in some media. No one has obviously taken the time to watch it as the critics panned it as “excrutiating” and “awful”. While the film’s comedic streak falls flat at times other parts work, including the slapstick. Certainly abortion is a serious issue and this was one of the first films of its “dramedy” types to tackle the issue first as a pro-choice movie before the film itself has “second thoughts”. Ultimately the film is pro-choice, even if that choice is not to have an abortion.

Teenage Lucie

Of course Wasson’s character won’t let Lucie have an abortion when he finds out at the last minute of her plans.

I know women who have had abortions, one in particular was scarred psychically by the experience of “murdering my baby”, while other women can have several without the slightest pangs of conscience.

In Second Thoughts there is a fifteen-year-old girl having her second abortion without any grief… something that disturbs Lucie.

It’s hard to comment on whether it is right or wrong, as ultimately it’s a woman’s body. Is it really murder? Certainly my friend Hazel, who prompted this article, was against abortion, first and foremost as an adopted child, and then as a Catholic.

Anyway, Wasson goes so far as kidnapping Lucie (a capital offence which can demand the death penalty!) and chains her to a bed in the desert until she changes her mind. There are of course “complications” for all its characters before the ending which all comes down to medical insurance.

Poltergeist (1982) trailer

It’s refreshing even today to see a single woman in her thirties, a hippie who doesn’t conform, and a movie willing to be different enough even if has been deemed to have failed miserably. So much so that it is unjustly forgotten.

Second Thoughts was the only movie writing credit for TV writer Steve Brown who cooked up the story with Terry Louise Fisher. It is also a rare directing credit for producer Lawrence Turman (1926-). His Turman-Foster company was responsible for such films as The Graduate (1967) and The Thing (1982).

If it’s true and Lucie passed on Poltergeist, she might have had a brighter cinematic career. But while that film was a shoo-in for success, we might have never seen this slightly unconventional dramedy with its moments of gravitas among the throw away lines.

Lucie may not be a great comedienne like her mother Lucille Ball but she left her mark on me, especially with the latter two movies. The last I saw on VHS upon its direct to tape release. It would be years before I understood why Lucie didn’t follow through with a career in film.

Lucie closer to today

So, is this article pure sycophancy? I hope not. Lucie genuinely was a favourite and so was my friend Hazel because she was a beautiful and radiant soul. Not because of their connection to Lucille Ball. Funny how the world connects sometimes in degrees of separation over time and space…

My niece, when she was six or seven, watched a lot of Here’s Lucy before she got brainwashed by Foxtel. I asked what she liked about it at the time and she said: “I like Kim… she’s pretty”. And like my now-grown Latin-looking niece – she is too!

Just a postscript to this article. Lucie Arnaz is aware of it and left a much-appreciated comment. I asked her one question and that was could she confirm whether she passed on Poltergeist…

She replied: “I am embarrassed to admit I did. After the reviews from The Jazz Singer I was offered POLTERGEIST and when I read the script I knew it was gonna be fun. It was a real page-turner. Tough decision. But, Spielberg was not the HUGE influence that he later became and my agent, the infamous Sue Mengers and I decided (together) that EMI’s offer to give me my own film with some real acting involved would be better than playing 2nd fiddle to a lot of special effects, so I did SECOND THOUGHTS instead.”

Lucie also said SECOND THOUGHTS “could have been a much better movie if it had had a more experienced director who got that type of film and audiences could have grasped the black humor that existed within this very controversial subject.”

“I think it was too soon to make a film like that.”

“I had fun making SECOND THOUGHTS. Ken Howard was a mensch and Craig Wasson was a very interesting actor and a terrific guy. I did a lot of physical comedy which I love and thought we made some good points. The focus groups didn’t agree and so EMI did not release the film nationwide.”

And a post postscript. I also just caught up with Lucie in the television movie The Mating Season (1980) made between The Jazz Singer and her marriage to Laurence Luckinbill in June of that year. He is in the movie also and it is a nice light surprise. I didn’t know about it until my auntie said it was one of her favourites on VHS back in the 1980s. Hard to track down but got a copy.

Lucie plays a lawyer who weeps in the bathroom after winning every case. She and a long-time friend go on a bird-watching camp with a couple of busloads of other people. There, she doesn’t fall in love with bird-watching but with Luckinbill, a dry cleaner whose alfalfa tea leaks over her pants and whose camera nearly puts her eye out. Despite trying her patience, they fall in love. It’s a charmer made all the more pleasurable by real life lovers Lucie and Larry soon to tie the knot. Say no more!

Happy together… Lucie and husband Luckinbill

1 Comment

  1. Lucie Arnaz
    Permalink

    I am beyond flattered you would give my early film career such a thorough examination. Thank you for your honest appraisal and your care to be so kind to everyone of whom you speak. Qualities not often found in journalism these days.
    And thank you for keeping Hazel alive with your loving memories of her.

    Reply

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