'Saving Grace B. Jones' Connie Stevens: 'I'm the First' Woman to Begin Directing in Her 70s
She’s been the hot young actress on a TV series, a movie star who played it straight for the biggest comedians of the era, had chart-topping hit records, worked as a nightclub singer, starred on Broadway in a Neil Simon play, ran a successful cosmetics company and other businesses and was involved in numerous charities with a special emphasis on veterans, native Americans and the handicapped -- but at age 74, Connie Stevens isn’t finished blazing new trails.
On Friday, the movie she conceived, co-wrote, produced and directed, Saving Grace B. Jones, -- based on a true story -- opened in platform release in about 10 cities. Despite mixed reviews, Stevens has shown she understands the craft and is to be taken seriously as a director.
“I started this film at 70,” says Stevens, “so I’m very proud of my accomplishment. I have asked, but I don’t think there is another female (movie director) that has ever done that. I’m the first one.”
Directing is supposed to be a young man’s game, but Stevens sees this as the next phase of her eclectic career. She already has her next directing assignment, and this time they came after her.
In 2013, Stevens expects to roll cameras on Prairie Bones, another modestly budgeted independent period production that, like Saving Grace B. Jones, is a family drama set in Missouri. The cast so far includes Danny Glover, Melissa Leo, Franco Nero and Paige Howard, one of the 27-year-old twin daughters of director Ron Howard.
Saving Grace B. Jones is based on a real-life incident seared into Stevens' mind from the time she was 10 years old. A project of passion, the indie film took four years to get made and another four to reach the big screen.
For her upcoming second narrative directing job, she already has spent six months working with other writers on the script but is not financing or producing the movie. She made her directing debut in 1998 on a documentary shot in Vietnam following returning female American soldiers.
Stevens is proud of the performances she got in Grace from such castmembers as Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Michael Biehn, 10-year-old Rylee Fansler and especially Tatum O’Neal, who plays a woman returning home after 17 years in a mental institution who becomes a catalyst for tragedy.
Stevens was surprised when told The Hollywood Reporter critic Frank Scheck in his review chided her direction for allowing O’Neal “to go over the top in a way that makes the decision to liberate her character seem ill-advised, robbing the proceedings of necessary dramatic tension.”
“Over the top!” exclaims Stevens. “Oh, my God. She (O’Neal) won best actress (at the New York City International Film Festival in August, where Saving Grace B. Jones was declared best American feature).
“What’s over the top?” asked Stevens. “That’s who she was, and that’s obviously someone who has been stuck in a room typing and had no life because there are a lot of people like that; and they walk on the street, these people with mental problems.”
Stevens has seen mental illness not just as a child but in Hollywood as well. She recalls working with the late actress Frances Farmer on the 1958 film Party Crashers on what was supposed to be her comeback. Instead, it was her last film. “As a youngster (age 20), I had befriended her,” recalls Stevens. “She won’t talk to anybody. They asked me to bring her to the set and tell her we were going to do this or that.”
Farmer had been a screen star during the 1930s, but then her life and career went off track. During the 1940s, she was involuntary confined in a mental hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which is what Stevens believes O’Neal’s character in her movie suffered from, though it never is stated.
Stevens was 16 when she learned about the notorious Hollywood casting couch. “It only happened once,” says Stevens, “and he wasn’t much anyway. He wasn’t head of a studio or that kind of stuff. I just said, 'You’ve got to be kidding!’ I didn’t tell my dad or brother. They would have probably killed him.”
She grew up in a boisterous Italian household as Concetta Rosalie Ann Ingoglia, daughter of musician Teddy Stevens. She says she also is part American Indian, from the Iroquois tribe, she believes. She took her father’s stage name as her own last name. Her family always sang, and she became a singer then an extra in the movies.
That was how she got her big break when Jerry Lewis plucked her out of obscurity to star with him in 1958’s Rock-a-Bye Baby. She became an overnight sensation a few years later on the TV series’ 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye. After that, Stevens worked steadily singing, dancing and performing, but she wasn’t comfortable in Hollywood. “This is a tough industry,” says Stevens. “I’ve never run with the pack so to speak. I’ve always been my own person. Everybody knows that.”
“The business process here is very tricky,” continues Stevens. “It’s convoluted. You have to go to the right parties, play the game. Which I refused to do.”
In 1967, Stevens became the third of singer Eddie Fisher’s five wives. The marriage lasted two years and produced two daughters, both of whom also became actresses -- Joely Fisher and Tricia Leigh Fisher. She still owns the home in Holmby Hills where they were raised and a home in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Her daughters have given her eight grandchildren -- and that childhood memory of her late ex-husband even made it into Saving Grace B. Jones.
In a scene from Stevens' own life, she is a young girl dancing to a song by Fisher, then a hugely popular pop star. Nearly 20 years later, she married Fisher, only three years after Elizabeth Taylor divorced him. She never forgot that song and wanted it for the film. Before his death in 2010, Fisher gave his ex-wife permission to use his song.
Saving Grace B. Jones was in a way her personal aftershock from 9/11. It was what led her indirectly to recall repressed memories from the summer of her 10th year. She had grown up in Brooklyn but after seeing a violent mugging became traumatized. Her recently widowed father sent her to stay on a farm in Missouri for the summer to give her time to heal. Instead, she was caught up in drama both in that home and caused by nature, as one of history’s worst floods hit the area. It are the incidents of that summer that make up Saving Grace B. Jones.
Right after 9/11, Stevens had left New York for her home in Southern California by car with Diane Ladd and her husband because planes were grounded. When they exited the superhighway for a visit to Boonville, Mo., all those memories flooded back for Stevens.
She spent months gathering her notes and working on a script. She discovered a writer in Idaho whose family had lived through those floods, Jeffry Elison, who became her co-writer. They spent another six months on the script. She showed it to friends, who encouraged her to make the movie. One wrote a check to underwrite the production, but it still took years more.
She shot in Missouri in 2007 on a $3.5 million budget (later stretched to $4 million) with a 33-day schedule. She worked 14-hour days. Then in postproduction, tragedy struck. The entire soundtrack was lost In a Burbank post facility. “We had to piece it back together from different computers,” recalls Stevens.
It took another six months to edit and cut to about 147 minutes, and Stevens still hadn’t begun to look for distribution. Then one day, a man saw what they were working on and asked about the movie. He was from foreign sales company New Films, which has been expanding into domestic distribution. Most of its movies had been genre pictures -- action, horror or science fiction.
Stevens met with New Films founder, Turkish-American entrepreneur Nesim Hason, who was looking for ways to expand his company’s offerings. “He loved it,” recalls Stevens, “and he thought it was just so genuine and different. He said, 'I don’t know if we will make a lot of money on it, but people should see this film.' ”
It has taken three more years to actually get it to the screen. Besides the limited theatrical release, Saving Grace B. Jones became available Friday on thousands of VOD services on cable and satellite TV as well as on online rental and sales sites.
The compliment that stays with Stevens came from her friend, fellow actress and active SAG member Valerie Harper, who commented on the acting in Saving Grace B. Jones. “ 'When you have one good performance, it’s the actor,' ” Stevens says Harper told her. “ 'When you have everybody good, it’s the director.' ”
Stevens craves recognition as a director for herself and her movie. “I hope it saves somebody’s life along the way,” says Stevens. “We all have someone down the street or in our family who doesn’t act right, especially some of our veterans. We’ve got to pay attention to this.”