FIT 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

A Face in the Crowd: Beverly Michaels

By Chuck Stephens

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Late-noir firestarter Beverly Michaels’s moment in the Hollywood sun

The Girl on the Bridge

The blindingly blonde fifties no-good-girl Beverly Michaels may have started young (she was a child model at age 9), but to watch her in her greatest films—post-noir low-rent masterworks like Hugo Haas’s The Girl on the Bridge and Pickup (both 51) and Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman (53)—is to witness a woman in no hurry to get anywhere fast. Sublimely sullen, she often seemed as if she could barely be bothered to drag her carcass across the room . . . even though her legs went on forever, and her feet were plenty big enough to get her there. Reports of Michaels’s height vary: her official bio lists her as 5 foot 9; other sources suggest she was actually 5 foot 11. Hardcore fans of this towering mutant/goddess, whose moment was brief but bright as boiling neon, know she was nothing short of 100 feet tall.

Born in the Bronx in 1928, Michaels won a newspaper photo contest at age 11; at 16 she was already one of Billy Rose’s showgirls at the Diamond Horseshoe. She made her acting debut in Boston in a show that moved to Broadway and closed on opening night; spent a year dancing in Havana; and came back and tried Broadway again, as a chorus girl. By 1948 she’d made her way to Hollywood and a contract with MGM. There, in Mervyn LeRoy’s East Side, West Side (49), Michaels first appeared on screen as the Ava Gardner–murdering Felice Backett, a surly swell built, as a well-seasoned restaurant maître d’ tells Van Heflin, “like the Empire State.” She made an indelible impression: within minutes, Michaels and Heflin are engaged in one of mainstream cinema’s roughest, rawest mixed-gender fistfights ever. Pow! Right to the kisser. Pow, pow! Two more—and that’s Michaels throwing the punches! Heflin, rattled by this blonde barrage, only barely prevails . . . and one of subterranean Hollywood’s wildcat stars was born.

East Side, West Side

Michaels left MGM shortly thereafter, but at least she went out swinging. She soon struck up a professional alliance with Haas, one of the era’s great low-budget auteurs. Together they made Pickup and The Girl on the Bridge, both starring Haas as variations on a hardworking immigrant, scarred by the war and worn down by loneliness, and Michaels as the hardboiled and harder-to-resist honey who, inadvertently or with ample malice aforethought, threatens to bring him even lower. Formulaic, threadbare, and drenched in hammy despair, Haas’s world is a fascinatingly crummy one, but while Michaels told one fan magazine that working with Haas had “transfused” her, she soon departed. She was briefly signed to Columbia, then Universal, where she sat out her contract without making a film. By 1953 she’d been married, divorced, and married again: her second husband, Rouse, penned the noir classic D.O.A. in 1950, and won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Pillow Talk in 1959. Michaels and Rouse were together until his death in 1987; their son Christopher has an Oscar of his own, for editing The Bourne Ultimatum.

The couple also made one extraordinary movie together, the ultra-tawdry Wicked Woman, Michaels’s finest film—a portrait of a scheming bargirl caught between the groping claws of a lecherous flophouse neighbor, the bulked-up loving arms of a bartender, and her own desperate grasping for anything other than the nothing she’s already got. Airless and stifling, Wicked Woman is the small-screen, black-and-white inverse of a Fifties CinemaScope spectacular, though damned if every time Michaels hitches her skirt up over her knees or crosses her mile-long legs the thing doesn’t seem widescreen. It’s a movie where everyone snarls and nobody wins; The Naked Kiss seems rose-colored by comparison.

Michaels once told The Los Angeles Times that she’d liked to have played characters that were “earthy or neurotic, like Bette Davis or like Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire. The crazy sexy type of thing.” And indeed she did, though she only appeared in three more movies, a trio of prison flicks—World Without Women, Betrayed Women (both 55), and Blonde Bait (56)—and then briefly on TV, in single episodes each of The Adventures of Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Cheyenne. She never returned to acting again, raising her children and living quietly in retirement until her death in Arizona in 2007. Who would have known that a half-century earlier she’d been the unforgettable floozy who set the screen ablaze in a handful of nasty, jagged, wonderful films? 

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