Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Sad Life and Savage Death of Susan Cabot

By Steve Evans

In my enthusiasm for studying film – almost any film – I often like to remind myself that cinematic dreams are constructed from the hard work and sacrifices of people whose lives are almost always more incredible than the fictional characters they portray on film. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and life has no tidy dénouement, unlike 90 minutes of simple entertainment built around Aristotle’s classical three-act structure. Seldom is this simple verity more evident than in the lives of actors who devoted their careers (willingly or otherwise) to the Hollywood fringe, the B-picture, the low-budget film, the seminal bad movie. These are the marginalized actors who never quite made it, but who gave it their best shot and cashed their paychecks just the same. I celebrate them. At least they tried.

It has been said that 90 percent of life is all about showing up. It’s about participation. And the rest of life, that thin margin by which many people measure success, well, we live in a culture where the optimists like to believe that with talent and a bit of luck, success will take care of itself. Except that doesn’t always happen.

With that in mind, I need to re-watch Roger Corman’s wee-budget film, The Wasp Woman (1959), because it stars Susan Cabot. The Wasp Woman was Corman’s effort to cash in on the success of The Fly, released the previous year. The Fly was originally a short story that appeared in Playboy magazine. Written by James Clavell, who would go on to win acclaim for his saga of feudal Japan, Shōgun, The Fly told the story of a scientist who invented a teleportation device, except a common housefly got into the machine – literally, a fly in the ointment – and the bug’s atoms got mixed up with the doctor’s, such that he emerged from his invention with the head and claw of an insect, and was none too happy about it

Corman’s derivative cash-in effort, The Wasp Woman, tells the tale of a woman running a cosmetics company who tries an experimental ointment to erase her age wrinkles – and instead transforms into a crazed, murderous bug-babe.

Now, I could riff endlessly on how The Wasp Woman is a metaphor for the consequences of interfering with nature, or how our culture inexorably promotes the beauty of youth.

That much, cult film fans already know.

What you may not know is the star of The Wasp Woman, Susan Cabot, lived a grim, hardscrabble life. Incredibly so.

Raised in a series of foster homes – more than eight in Boston – she stumbled into movies on the basis of her looks and appeared in a string of cheap Westerns and Arabian Nights fantasies for Universal Studios, but Cabot never hit the big time. Disgusted with the movie bidness, she quit and headed back east.

Ah, but famed no-budget director Roger Corman seduced her (figuratively and literally, according to my research) back to Hollywood, where she made five films for the schlock director, culminating with The Wasp Woman in ’59. For her final film appearance, she got to wear a goofy mask, earn some coin, and add a dubious credit to her resume.

That was the same year she began a torrid affair with King Hussein of Jordan.

Five years after retiring from the film business, in 1964 Susan Cabot gave birth to a dwarf whom she named Timmy. Susan married the child’s father, who would be her second husband, in 1968. They divorced in 1983.

Three years later, on Dec. 10, 1986, Timmy-the-dwarf bludgeoned momma Susan to death with a weight-lifting bar while she slept in their Encino, CA, home. Susan was 59.

Tim was charged with involuntary manslaughter. In his defense, the little man alleged years of mental and physical abuse by his mother. Wee Timmy, who was 22 at the time, received a three-year suspended sentence and was placed on probation.

His whereabouts today are unknown.

And so, I really need to re-watch The Wasp Woman, because compared to the bizarre real-life story of actress Susan Cabot, Roger Corman’s rip-off of The Fly seems downright normal.

Truth be told, I would rather watch a bio-pic of Cabot, for that would be more interesting, and would probably offer more insights into the human condition, than any of the nonsense drive-in movies she appeared in more than half a century ago.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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