SEX IS IN the groin of the beholder!” observes Tuesday Weld in Alan Rudolph’s Investigating Sex (2001), her last film to date. Soon afterward, she proclaims, “Love is warfare!” in a merrily unclassifiable accent (Coney Island Teutonic?), so that “warfare” comes out as “varfare.” Swathed in white furs and carrying just enough weight to preserve the beauty of her face, Weld first shows up in Investigating Sex on Nick Nolte’s arm, laughing hysterically, submitting to his kisses and allowing him to grope her breasts. She plays a small role in that dialogue-heavy movie, which was also known as Intimate Affairs, and which was never properly released (an IMDb user calls it “Plato’s Symposium for morons.”)
As an actress, Weld is famous for having not starred in Lolita (1962) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), two films she turned down because she sensed that they would be successful. After an early career in movies with titles like Sex Kittens Go To College (1960), Weld gravitated toward more subterranean endeavors like Henry Jaglom’s uninhibitedly self-indulgent A Safe Place (1971). “No actress was ever so good in so many bad films,” said her friend and Lord Love a Duck (1966) co-star Roddy McDowell. It seems clear that Weld often deliberately chose weird, iffy film projects over more conventionally promising or respectable ones, and this urge led to a cult following.
Though she looked like a placid blond of that era, like Sandra Dee, Carol Lynley or Yvette Mimieux, it took only a few moments of watching her on screen to see that Weld was more perverted and more cerebral, a Mimieux who’d confronted the abyss. For sheer perversity and cult-actress smarts, Weld is even on par with silent-screen icon Louise Brooks, though she has never released a memoir on the order of Brooks’s seductive Lulu in Hollywood. At least, not yet.
Top Weld succumbs to Nick Nolte’s kisses in Investigating Sex (2001) Bottom Four decades earlier, teen-idol Tuesday wonders, “Why do they lie about me!” on the covers of Hep Cats and ‘Teen.
BORN SUSAN WELD, she was marketed by her mother as an unexciting day of the week from the time she was a toddler. At 3 years old Tuesday was supporting her mother and her two siblings with child modeling work. “When I was 9, I had a breakdown, which disappointed Mama a great deal,” Weld related to The New York Times in 1971:
But I made a comeback when I was 10….Even when I didn’t have jobs, I’d get up in the morning and say, ‘Goodbye, Mama, I’m going to school,’ and then I’d head for the Village and get drunk. I started drinking heavily when I was about 10 years old. I made my first suicide attempt when I was 12. I had fallen in love with a homosexual and when it didn’t work out, I felt hurt. A bottle of aspirin, a bottle of sleeping pills, and a bottle of gin. I was sure that would do the trick, but Mama came in and found me. I was in a coma for a long time and I lost my hearing, my vision and several other things. When I recovered, I decided that I should try to get some help, but Mama didn’t think I needed analysis.
“Several other things”? According to Weld, she had lived out a fallen-star narrative of that time like Lillian Roth’s tell-all I’ll Cry Tomorrow or Diana Barrymore’s Too Much, Too Soon before she had even reached puberty. Who was this gay guy she was in love with, and who was selling a 10 year-old booze in the Village of the early 1950s? Weld was always mature for her age, and in some eerie way she’s always been sort of ageless, but the story of her personal life as told in interviews is so alarming and so filled with gaps that it begs for some kind of memoir or biography (film scholar Louis Jordan, a devoted Weld admirer, is currently working on a book about her).
Tuesday and the boys (boys, boys!) of Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958)
Weld made her film debut in Rock Rock Rock! (1956) at 13. Already she seems ambivalent, pre-occupied, unconvinced that rock and roll and consumer goods might fill the emptiness she feels inside. Leo McCarey cast her as Comfort Goodpasture (!) in his late comedy Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), where she enters her father’s study and cries, “All of a sudden, I like boys!” With her darker hair in this movie, Weld’s quivering physicality explodes across the screen like a fizzy bottle of Coca-Cola that’s been shaken so hard it pops its top. The way Weld handles McCarey’s distinctive overlapping dialogue set a career-long pattern, so that she always seemed distracted as she talked; her motor is usually running super-sonic fast, and her mind is even more overactive than her body.
In the early 1960s, Weld was best known on TV as Thalia Menninger, a materialistic teen on the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The perfect blond Thalia (hyper Thalia?) has a huge ego and is obsessed with money; she wants nothing more than to land a rich husband. Weld is starting to get very mannered already as Thalia, especially when she becomes excited, which makes her pant and gasp and run her tongue over her lips. Thalia is an archetypal cultural figure from this era, but she also seems like a cultural spasm, and that’s because Weld denies us specific acting choices a lot of the time and goes instead for instinctive bursts of behavioral jitters and jags. She always has secrets as a performer, and sometimes it seems like she even keeps these secrets from herself.
Tuesday plays with (real-life beau) Elvis in Wild in the Country (1961)
Weld lent her sex appeal to sour comedies like Blake Edwards’s High Time (1960) and Frank Tashlin’s Bachelor Flat (1962), and she made a carnal match with Elvis as a hedonist who wants to blow town in the Clifford Odets-scripted Wild in the Country (1961). In 1965, Weld married for the first time and tried to settle down, but on screen she began a run of films that are still the foundation for the Tuesday Weld cult. That same year, she played Steve McQueen’s girlfriend in the poker movie The Cincinnati Kid, and suddenly she seemed to morph into a more stylized version of herself. If Weld had been sold in stores, they might have marketed her at this point as Very Neurotic Barbie, and she’s even called Barbie in Lord Love a Duck, a wacky comedy where she’s allowed to go as far as she wants into groovy gurgling, giggling, thrashing, gnashing and tactile physicality.
Tuesday thrills to cashmere convulsions in Lord Love a Duck (1966)
Weld’s character in Lord Love a Duck wants to be a star: “Everybody has got to love me,” Weld’s Barbie says, with an equal mixture of certainty and nervousness. “I deserve it, too,” she continues, all nervousness gone. In a long sequence here that can only be described as momentous, Barbie goes out with her father (Max Showalter) on a buying spree; they sit in his car and scarf down hot dogs and Cokes and onion rings with near-crazed lust. At a department store, Barbie tries on cashmere sweater after cashmere sweater for her father, whipping herself and him into an orgasmic froth of consumerism as she tells him the name of each: “Grape Yum Yum!” and “Lemon Meringue!” and “Pink Put-On!” When she exclaims “Papaya Surprise!” Weld has reached a point of almost self-annihilating abandon, but she tops it for the climax, pausing briefly before announcing the last one, “Oh…God!” she cries, as if she can’t stand any more pleasure. “Look, look! It’s Periwinkle Pussycat!” she moans. “Don’t you just love it?” she asks, before unashamedly running her hands over her becashmered breasts and rolling all over the floor in a buzzing frenzy of lascivious satiation as her Daddy grunts and leers at her.
I’m not sure exactly what Weld is doing in this beyond-wild sweater scene. Technically, she does build it and then sustain it and build it and then sustain it rhythmically, but on a deeper level she truly does seem out-of-control, in touch with gross, wonderful, upsetting American urges that have a lot to do with money and Daddies (the scene is outrageously incestuous), but also with a kind of frank sexual exposure uncommon in American movies. Lord Love a Duck suffers from depressive, grey cinematography and a drastic switch in tone toward the end that Weld carries the burden of, but the sweater scene is classic Americana and classic Tuesday.
Top: Tuesday’s all-American sweetheart daydreams of murder in Pretty Poison (1968)
Bottom: Weld warms up to Jack Nicholson in director Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place (1971)
WHAT DRAMATIC TENSION there is in Lord Love a Duck is generated mostly by Barbie and her cocktail-waitress mother (Lola Albright), and this Tuesday Vs. Mother dynamic was borne out in Weld’s best film and best performance, Pretty Poison (1968). She was in her mid-twenties at this point, but she’s still convincing as high school-aged Sue Ann Stepanek, a drum majorette who gets involved with Dennis (Anthony Perkins), a shy, eccentric fantasist. Weld is a spontaneous actress who’s totally open to chance on screen, and the chilly, almost dainty sleeper Pretty Poison is the one film that takes full advantage of that, holding the camera on her sculpted, tiny doll’s face until we can see the gears working away under the enameled perfection. As Perkins’s Dennis spins out childish stories to her about being part of the CIA, Sue Ann recognizes a chance to act on her darkest urges. Mentioning her mother (Beverly Garland), Sue Ann says, “She’s really kind of a problem, Dennis,” and Weld uses her familiar distracted mannerisms to let us see that Sue Ann is just performing being distracted. Underneath this pose is rock-hard calculation.
After having sex with Dennis out in the open air, she asks, “Hey Dennis, when do we do something exciting? I feel empty.” It’s clear that no amount of sex or cashmere sweaters can possibly appease Sue Ann’s vague urge for excitement. Mother Stepanek is a nasty piece of work, that’s certain, and she seems to be in competition with her daughter, but just when we’re starting to see conventional reasons for Sue Ann’s off-kilter behavior, she conks an old night watchman over the head with a wrench and then cheerily cries, “Oh! He sure is bleeding, isn’t he?” as if her life is just a spy movie she’s watching. Perkins’s role is in some ways more difficult; he has to play several different levels at once as this overgrown, sweet boy who gets in over his head, but it took guts to play Sue Ann as full-out sociopathic as Weld does, especially when she pushes the still-living night watchman into a lake and then hitches up her skirts and sits on him so that he’ll be sure to drown, a brazenly sexual and disturbing image.
Weld played another damaged-goods blond in I Walk the Line (1970) with Gregory Peck, and in this movie she seems to have three or four thoughts competing for attention in her head at any given moment, so that she can barely be bothered to play her role beat-by-beat and come up with legible choices for her dialogue; as a Wild Thing who bewitches the stodgy Peck, Weld mixes pure flightiness with sodden gravitas. She had more rapport with Jack Nicholson in A Safe Place (1971), then foundered in the alienating Joan Didion adaptation Play It As Lays (1972), where she is asked to go all Monica Vitti existential but seems unconvinced and annoyed by Didion’s gnomic dialogue, which sounds silly when detached from her sculpted prose formations on the page and spoken aloud. Weld does her best in that picture to make the heroine’s decadent anguish seem reasonable. “It’s not a part I relished playing,” she said afterward. “It went against my personal feelings of life.”
Tuesday’s Southern wild child overwhelms Gregory Peck in I Walk the Line (1970)
OFF-SCREEN, she married again, to comedian Dudley Moore (I have a feeling that he probably had a hard time trying to make her laugh). She began to retreat to TV, doing a remake of Diabolique (1955) called Reflections of Murder (1974) where she wore short, Jean Seberg-like hair and deployed a steady, watchful face, a very ready face. In 1976, she played Zelda Fitzgerald on TV in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (1976). I haven’t been able to track that down, or her TV performance as Abigail in The Crucible (1968), but David Thomson has written that as Zelda in the Fitzgerald movie “she has scenes…that are as good as any American actress has done on screen,” and I’m willing to believe him.
In 1977, Weld received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), a semi-alluring but rancid piece of disco-era sleaze that doesn’t play much now because of issues over music rights. Weld is cast as an airline stewardess who initiates straight-laced sister Diane Keaton into New York’s swinging singles scene. It’s a small role in what is decidedly Keaton’s movie, but Weld seizes her brief moments here so tensely and so consciously that the Oscar nomination comes as no surprise. “I’m a mess!” she cries at one point, and Weld seems to know that this line is laughably obvious and that her role is badly written, but she charges ahead anyway in director Richard Brooks’s preferred sledgehammer style, hitting every line as hard as she can, like they’re home runs she’s hoping to make.
In her one extended scene with Keaton, when she brays, “So you lie,” Weld emphasizes the word “lie” in such a hammy fashion that she almost seems to be in an SCTV sketch of some kind, but when she gets to her definitive line, she nails it in a “look at me!” award-baiting way and also in a human way. “You know…that I’m a little flaky,” she announces to her sister, “and you never blame me!” Weld’s work here is in the overripe tradition of, say, Shelley Winters or even Susan Tyrrell, but she makes that admission about her flakiness sound like a kind of apotheosis for this woman. Her performance is both overdone and helplessly truthful.
Tuesday’s masochistic moll dares Robert De Niro to “Hit me!” in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Weld met her match in Nick Nolte as druggies on the lam in Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978), for he’s a blond hunk who has almost as many neurotic issues as she does. Very few actors bother to convey exactly why people take drugs, preferring the histrionics of druggy highs and lows, but when Weld gets high on smack with Nolte here, her hard, worried face transforms into a loose, sensual, happy blur; she makes it clear that drugs actually help to mellow out the pill of a woman she’s playing. Weld did more and more television, including a version of the ancient soap opera Madame X (1981), where she played a self-sacrificing mother, ironically enough. On screen, Weld became increasingly subordinated to showboating actors, supporting the flashy pyrotechnics of James Caan in Thief (1981) and Al Pacino in Author! Author! (1982).
This subordination came to a vicious climax with her last major movie, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), where her character, Carol, exists in disparate fragments that never add up. We first see her in this movie at a party looking avid-eyed and high-20s chic, her Eton crop carefully sculpted into platinum blond finger waves, and then we wait quite a while for her to turn up again, with dank, mousy brown hair, during a bank hold-up. “C’mon, hit me, hit me!” she snarls at Robert De Niro, who looks genuinely non-plussed by her bossy sub bottom demands. “Whatsa matter, you crazy?” he asks, which makes her haul off and whack him hard in the face. “Hit me!” she shrieks, and he finally bends her over a table to screw her in the mean way she likes. Weld is uninhibited about sketching in this woman’s sadomasochistic sexual desires, and she’s great fun when De Niro and his men meet up with her again and she appraises their dicks with the kind of knowing smile Mae West was famous for. It’s said that Carol likes to take on ten guys while her husband watches through a keyhole, and Weld makes her insatiable sexuality totally believable in these two scenes, but when Carol reappears as a loyal girlfriend to James Woods, her character stops making sense, and Weld can do nothing to clarify her for us. Her daring as an actress deserves better here than Leone’s sniggering and confused contempt for women.
The real Tuesday, captured by Dennis Hopper in 1965
WELD AND HER STAGE-MOTHER were definitively on the outs, and she began telling people that her mother was dead even though she was still alive. “I hated Mama,” Weld told The New York Times. “She took my childhood away from me. I was expected to make up for everything that had gone wrong with Mama’s life. She became obsessed with me, pouring out all her pent-up love—alleged love—on me. It’s been heavy on my shoulders ever since. I didn’t feel really free until she died. Otherwise her death didn’t really affect me much.”
Tuesday’s mother retorted to the press, “I didn’t like being called dead. Why, if it hadn’t been for Patty Duke, I might have starved to death—that’s how much help Tuesday has been.” Well, Patty Duke is a heroically patient woman, obviously. In one of her last TV films from this time, Circle of Violence: A Family Drama (1986), Weld has an unforgettable moment when her pretty face fills with decisive anger at her life-destroying, selfish mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) right before she starts beating the shit out of this unredeemable old lady with her fists. This all-out violence made for a cathartic conclusion to the Tuesday Vs. Mother theme in both her work and in her life.
Weld was married to conductor Pinchas Zuckerman from 1985 to 1998. When he divorced her, Zuckerman complained that she had stopped caring about his career: “Why do I have to go to another concert when I’ve heard the piece before?” she would ask him. In Ethan Hawke’s dorm-roomy Chelsea Walls (2001), Weld’s unpredictability has gone to such an extreme that there’s almost a total disconnection between her oddball reactions and what Hawke has given her to say. Since 2001, Weld has lived quietly in Aspen, Colorado, and not much has been heard from her, but she knows full well that silence is much more intriguing than any further work might be. Since the ‘70s, she’s been rumored to have occult interests and connections, but her main project has always been her own ravenous mind, and at this point she just wants to be alone with it. “I like to be alone in general,” she once said. “I have a hunger for it. I eat up silence.”
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
“American Girl: Tuesday Weld” is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center, September 21st to 25th.