Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Wonderful Candice Rialson Is Gone

Wow. While I hate to talk about another death so soon, I’m afraid this is news I cannot ignore. Candice Rialson, one of the most beautiful and most talented B-movie queens of the 1970’s, has passed away. The Code Red DVD company discovered the news when they tracked down her phone number to ask if she would be interested in participating in the supplements for their upcoming PETS DVD. Her husband informed them that she had passed away March 31—four months ago—at the age of 54. As far as anyone can tell, her passing was not reported anywhere in the media. Code Red followed up with a death certificate search, and found one filed under her married name.

It’s sad, of course, that she is no longer with us, but even sadder if she died not knowing about her fans and how important she was to many film buffs. Although she occasionally popped up in a major feature (her turn as a college student who flirts with Clint Eastwood in THE EIGER SANCTION being one of them), Candice spent her film career primarily on the drive-in circuit, starring in thrillers and comedies that entertained millions of people. In something I once wrote, I compared her favorably to Cameron Diaz, but she was a better actress than the CHARLIE’S ANGELS star. Rialson was an extremely likable and pleasantly sexy actress who had the game, but perhaps not the breaks, to go on to “bigger and better” things.

I have seen most, but not all, of the films in which Rialson played a major role. Many of them are quite good for what they are. I have no idea how she felt about her film career, but she certainly had nothing to be ashamed of.

PETS (1974) is not among her best. The stage origins of Raphael Nussbaum’s talky production in misogyny and sleaze are apparent from its blatant three-act structure. As a showcase for Candice Rialson, however, PETS sort of works. She has a lot of screen time and finds plenty of excuses to whip off her top and engage in steamy softcore sex. She's a very sexy screen presence, and even if director Nussbaum has difficulty keeping his stories on track, at least he's wise enough to show off Rialson to great advantage. As exploitation cinema, PETS is a mess, despite the copious nudity. The lurid ad campaign, including a trailer built around images of a nearly nude Rialson being whipped and crawling on all fours, doesn't accurately reflect the real tone of the film, which is a pretentious affair featuring too much steak--more like ground beef--and not enough sizzle. Rialson received a special "Introducing" credit, even though she appeared in four other films released the same year.

CANDY STRIPE NURSES (1974) is a formulaic entry in New World Pictures' unofficial "3 Girls" series, in which a trio of beautiful young professional women falls in love and gets involved in trendy social issues of the day. In this one, our heroines are high school girls who volunteer as "candy stripers" at a local hospital. 21-year-old Rialson is top-billed as Sandy, who sleeps with doctors who do her homework for her and masquerades as a sex therapist so she can hook up with an impotent English rock star. Unquestionably one of the most politically incorrect pictures you're likely to see, CANDY STRIPE NURSES may raise some eyebrows in its treatment of underage sex and school violence, but it's all played amiably (if not especially smoothly) by its stars (including Maria Rojo and current soap star Robin Mattson), all three of whom pop their tops on-camera. Roger Corman was the executive producer, while his wife Julie served as producer.

Roger also executive-produced SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS (1975), which is very similar to CANDY STRIPE NURSES (as the title indicates). This interesting feminist tract disguised as a T&A film is about three Midwestern farm girls who move to Los Angeles to teach high school and maybe find love in the process. Blond Conklin T. (Rialson) teaches girls' P.E. and tries to organize an all-female football team, much to the consternation of male chauvinist athletic director Sam (Dick Miller). Typically for these New World formula films, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS fulfills the requirements of an exploitation movie with copious nudity and slapstick humor, but also contains serious subtext. As written and directed by Barbara Peeters (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP) and produced by Julie Corman, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS is deep down a feminist treatise on women's liberation and empowerment in which, yep, the girls get naked, but only on their own terms for their own pleasure. Conklin and Company are the smartest characters in the movie, and use both their brains and bodies to break down "the Man's" rule. I'm not advocating SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS as any kind of classic, but it's much more ambitious than those who turn down their noses at drive-in flicks would be willing to admit.

Any film that opens with a shot of Rialson standing topless in front of a mirror is A-OK in my book. Squeezing into a teeny bikini, Rialson's character in 1974’s MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS heads out to the pool to taunt a fat, middle-aged man who pours drinks from his swanky plywood-decorated bar. Teasing him to the limit, the man finally tries to rape her, only to be caught by her mother (Gloria Grahame). The man is Mama's husband of one year, and in exchange for not reporting his attack to the police, he writes a full confession of his misdeed and expresses regret. This is later used as evidence of his suicide after Grahame, Rialson and oldest daughter Sondra Currie slash his wrists in the shower. It seems Mama, with her gorgeous teenage daughters in tow, subsists on wealthy men, marrying them and then committing murder for their inheritances. Oscar winner Grahame (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) has never been a particular favorite of mine, but she brings the right touch of grifter charm and maternal instinct to her role and has good chemistry with the women playing her daughters. Rialson's fans will enjoy her work here, since she appears in a variety of skimpy outfits while flipping her lustrous blonde hair. Gulp.

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) is the best picture Rialson ever starred in. It was co-directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, editors of New World trailers who convinced boss Roger Corman they could direct a feature in ten days for $50,000. It’s a very funny and fast-paced comedy that uses stock footage from Corman pictures like DEATH RACE 2000 and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE while simultaneously spoofing them. Rialson stars as Candy Hope, a beautiful wannabe actress just in from Indiana trying to make it big in Hollywood by appearing in low-budget features for Miracle Pictures ("If it's a good movie, it's a Miracle."). A psycho who's systematically killing off Miracle's stars makes her task even more difficult. The plot is less important than the agreeable performances and the anarchic style of the film. Rialson is funny, sweet and sexy, although some scenes appear to hit a little too close to home. Her best moment is probably the scene in which she attends the premiere of her first movie at a sleazy drive-in and gets drunk while bemoaning her fate to appear in such crappy pictures. No doubt Candice drew from her own personal experience for that scene. If you’ve never seen Candice Rialson perform, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD is the one movie to watch.

CHATTERBOX (1977) is one of the strangest sex comedies you’re likely to see. Rialson stars as a sweet hairdresser who is astonished, as anyone would be, to discover one night while making love with her boyfriend that her vagina talks. That's right. It talks. It sings too. Quite well, in fact. She becomes the world's #1 singing sensation, cutting a hit record, performing on television, even appearing on the cover of TIME. CHATTERBOX's most surprising asset is its lack of sleaze. Although one would be tempted to believe a sex comedy about a singing vulva would be a little reckless with the smut, the humor is about on the level of an early '70s TV sitcom. Much of the film's likeability is due to its leading lady. As silly as CHATTERBOX is, it’s a good indication of what a fine comedienne she was. Rialson appears in every scene, and is completely up to the task of carrying such a nutty concept on her Santa Monica-born shoulders. She appears topless a lot, but what’s interesting is the matter-of-fact manner in which she shed for them--her casual attitude towards the nudity helps to deflect any feelings of exploitation. She brings a great vulnerability and "good sport" factor to her role, which lends it much needed weight among the farfetched story in which it resides.

Those are some films in which Candice made major contributions. She also appeared in such titles as STUNTS and MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS (both good movies) in supporting parts playing alluring eye candy. In bigger Hollywood movies, she was generally cast as “Girl” or “Student”, which is a damned shame considering how much she had to offer. Hollywood is, of course, filled with beautiful blondes who want to become movie stars. Candice Rialson was a movie star. Perhaps not the kind of star she wanted to be, but she made some good films and she was beloved by her fans. I hope she knew that.


Hal said...

Wow. This is really sad news, and very surprising that it was not reported in the media earlier this year.

I loved CHATTERBOX and MAMA'S DIRTY GIRLS as a kid actively seeking out those movies I wasn't supposed to be allowed to watch. :) I'd especially like to see the latter again; as an adult I'm sure I'd appreciate the Rialson/Gloria Grahame casting combo more.

Anonymous said...

I am beside myself with grief this morning after learning of the passing of Candice Rialson. Marty, thank you for this moving eulogy of one of the Great Lights of Drive-In Cinema.

I've been an obsessive fan of Ms. Rialson's for over 25 years, ever since seeing her in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. I've only ever been able to track down her New World films, PETS, and STUNTS (plus her brief mainstream roles in LOGAN'S RUN and THE EIGER SANCTION), though I've been trying to find MAMA'S DIRTY GIRLS and CHATTERBOX for years. Hopefully, the pending release of PETS portends the re-release of more titles from her filmography.

The loss of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith is still sharply felt for me, so this is all the worse to see such a lovely and talented actress follow so quickly. I hope we will learn the cause of her untimely death and the circumstances of her last years. I truly hope she was in a happy place and content with her place in movie history.

Please - Roberta Collins, Monica Gayle, Margaret Markov - wherever you are, give us the opportunity to acknowledge and praise you for your wonderful contributions before time draws the final curtain.

ted cogswell said...

Nice job Marty.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Marty: Thanks for the heartfelt tribute to Candice Rialson.

One of the things that disturbed me about her death going unreported for four months was that it was an indicator of just how far she seemed to have fallen off the industry/fan radar, and I hated to think that she might not have known, in the last years of her life, how much of an impression she made on connoisseurs of the drive-in B-movies of the 1970s. As your tribute indicates, her name was on some of the signature movies of the time, and even Quentin Tarantino (as documented on her IMDB page, which still has not been updated to indicate her passing) has said that Bridget Fonda's performance in Jackie Brown was modeled on and intended as a tribute to Candice Rialson.

The passion evident in your piece suggests to me that there was indeed a lot of appreciation for her work still flowing through the hearts and minds of film fans of a certain generation, and if that's the case, then maybe we can allow ourselves to believe, because we'll never know for sure, that she knew it too.

mrzoom said...

my name is Scott and, no, I don't think she ever knew of such following as she never became acclimated to computers and as such never had any access to find out. I know this because I am her brother.

Thank you for what I found here as a truley honorable memory of my sister Candice.

Peace, Scott Rialson

phamus said...

I met Candice in Chicago right after Chatterbox came out. I'll never forget "Life in the Fast Lane" was playing and she was from LA. She was a very sexy young woman we danced all night and we went to dinner the next nite and she went back to LA.We spoke on the phone a few times and then lost touch,I often wondered what ever became of her and now I know.I am very sad she was a beautiful,fun and nice person too sad to die so young.

Unknown said...

Thats one of my best friends mother. Candice was such a sweet heart I wont ever forget her. She went to young. Her son Bobby she loved so much. She was a charicter. I miss her. I always thought of her as second mom. Her son and I raced dirt bikes together and grew up together. We got cought by my step mom looking at penthouses and playboys. LOL Candice was cool with us looking at them. She was cool as hell. I miss her.

Marty McKee said...

Hi, Nick. Thanks for checking in. Glad to hear she was a happy person.

Unknown said...

candice was a very lovely lady & a damn good actress !

Anonymous said...

She was an amazing person and actress. Loved her films and personality.