Today is Susan Oliver’s (posthumous) birthday. A few years ago I donated to a crowdfunding campaign for a documentary on the actress Susan Oliver called The Green Girl. It’s a name that doesn’t register to most, until you reference her most famous role, that being Vina from Star Trek’s pilot, The Cage, later recut into The Menagerie Part I and II. Since my blog tends to want to shine a light on the lesser-known parts of entertainment’s past, I thought it would be appropriate to share my thoughts on it (and her). Here’s the trailer:
It would be best to read my review after having already watched it, and I do recommend it if you have any interest in sci-fi or classic television or the history of women in the industry.
Let me first get out of the way that I had a reason to donate to this campain insofar as, like the producer himself (most likely) I had a childhood crush on the actress, mostly due to her appearance on Star Trek. The character of Vina, like the android in Ex Machina or Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science was supposed to come across as an ideal woman fantasy. So it’s that mixed with her masquerading as an Orion slavegirl, something that became a nerd fetish, and it’s hard to resist.
Oliver always possessed a sort of enigmatic, cat-like, almost otherworldly presence in the roles she played. There was always a restlessness or tortured-soul aspect in her roles. In a way you could think of her as sort of a female James Dean as far as the manic energy that seemed to be seething beneath the surface. That’s probably why she was cast as a juvenile delinquent in The Green-Eyed Blonde (One obscure Dalton Trumbo film I may want to see for a future post). The camera loved her, but she had too few roles. It wasn’t so much that the studios didn’t want to cast her, but how she turned her back on being the “it-girl”. More on that later…
Rather than posting an excerpt from Star Trek, I’d rather feature her work in this episode of The Twilight Zone.
The Cage seems to borrow some concepts from this episode. I don’t know if was intentional or not, considering its casting, but despite the fact Oliver is only playing a supporting role, within the frame of her scenes, the eye naturally gravitates towards her because of how she plays her scenes even without dialogue. Her performance seems so much better upon a second viewing because, armed with the twist, you now identify with HER instead of Roddy McDowell. You know the trap that he’s stepping into, and so the sense of inner turmoil, of grief over having to play a part in it, is now the main drama. In this respect the story has similar emotional beats to my very first blog post, Cult of the Cobra.
Beyond this, the best online document of her acting ability is a full episode of Route 66 split into parts. Ironically, she plays a woman with a “split” personality. I haven’t yet watched this episode in one sitting but it’s a real acting tour-de-force. Very theatrical. Oliver had the ability to deliver long melodramatic monologues in an almost one-woman-play style. If you click this link you can watch the first part and then continue to the others via related videos. For the purpose of this blog, I’m embedding the 5th part so you can watch her “one-act-play” monologue of verbalizing the childhood trauma that caused her illness. It’s five minutes of wackadoodle that is only bested by “I’m Captain Kirk”.
Anyway, other than Star Trek, the other role people remember her for most was in lighter fare, namely the Disorderly Orderly, one of the better-regarded Jerry Lewis vehicles.
But the reality of Oliver’s career is that she really wanted to move behind the camera, and for the most part she was stifled in this by the old-boy’s network. Even when she did get work, like directing routine episodic TV, she faced a hostile work environment on sets, which is a real tragedy.
She spent most of her productive life cohabitating with her mother, had a few relationships, but never married, and never had kids. The documentaty portrayed a woman who was probably suffering from a lingering depression.
Frustrated with not achieving what she wanted in showbiz, she channeled a lot of her energy into aviation at a time when female pilots were just as much a novelty as female directors. There she made more of a mark, although again, poorly documented.
I’ve made it a priority in my blog to be actor-focused because that’s a big part of what I get out of film and TV. There are actors that seem to embody a special something that they give to every role. She had “it”.
It’s one thing to cover a popular topic, but there’s an achievement in gathering up the details of the less-explored recesses of pop-culture. If you want to know more, I do recommend you watch the documentary as it was well done. The easiest way would be Video on Demand.
Until next time,