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“In those days, if you were a member of the Actors Studio, you were really in, you were something very, very special,” says Carroll Baker, the actress who leapt from the Actors Studio to Hollywood in the 1950s and is now, at age 90, one of the last survivors of its Golden Age. Speaking from her home in New York with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast, Baker adds with a chuckle, “Also, I was young and pretty. That didn’t hurt. The movie people started coming to me right away.”
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Baker was born during the Depression in Johnstown, Penn., and went to work in a factory while in her teens before walking off the job out of a conviction that she was destined for bigger things. Her parents split and she moved in with her mother in Florida, where she found work as a dancer and a magician’s assistant before winding up in the Big Apple appearing in commercials and then acting. She studied with Lee Strasberg both at the Actors Studio, where her classmates included James Dean (“Jimmy” was hard to get to know) and Marilyn Monroe (“She was very sweet, I was very bitchy”), and privately.
She was heavily pursued for the movies, but was very particular about what she wanted: a first film helmed by a major director. She turned down the female lead in Nicholas Ray‘s Rebel Without a Cause — a decision she came to regret — but made her big screen debut in another film which also starred Dean, George Stevens‘ Giant. Of that shoot in Texas, she remembers that she and Dean were in awe of their costars, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, and recalls the heartbreaking day when she, Stevens, Taylor and Hudson were watching rushes when Stevens received a phone call notifying him that Dean had been killed in a car accident.
After completing Giant, but before the film’s release, Baker was chosen by Elia Kazan — who was coming off of A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden — to star as a virginal young woman caught between two men — played by her Actors Studio classmates Karl Malden and Eli Wallach — in the film that was ultimately titled Baby Doll. “That was a dream come true,” she says. “Kazan was, as far as I was concerned, the very best actors’ director, and of course Tennessee Williams [who wrote the script] was a genius of our time.”
Among the most risque scenes in a film with many is the one in which Wallach’s character seduces Baker’s on a squeaking swing set. “It was a very cold day to do a hot scene,” Baker notes with a laugh. Even so, she says, she was shocked and “heartbroken” when Baby Doll — which opened just weeks after Giant — became a target of the Catholic Church: “I get a phone call… ‘Your film has just been condemned by the Legion of Decency — Cardinal Francis Spellman has just stood up in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and condemned it. What do you have to say?’ And I said, ‘Which film?'”
With back-to-back major films, Baker was suddenly famous. “I was in New York, but I was able to hide,” she says. She was pleased to receive accolades for her acting, including a best actress Oscar nomination, and for her popularity, the Golden Globe for best newcomer of the year. But she was disheartened to realize that Warner Bros., with whom she had gone under contract to make Baby Doll, had typecast her. “I was always in trouble at Warners,” she acknowledges. “I turned down a lot of things… I didn’t want to do a poor imitation of Baby Doll, and I certainly didn’t always want to be doing these sexy little southern girls, so I refused to do them, and they took me off salary. It was a very difficult time.”
Nevertheless, during the tumultuous final years of the Hollywood studio system, Baker starred in numerous notable films. Among them: The Big Country (1958), directed by William Wyler; Walter Lang‘s But Not for Me (1959), opposite Clark Gable; Étienne Périer‘s Bridge to the Sun (1961), controversially featuring love scenes between her and the Japanese actor James Shigeta; and her then-husband Jack Garfein‘s Something Wild (1961), an edgy indie. She also appeared in two films in three years for John Ford: How the West Was Won (1962), which featured a massive ensemble of stars (“I’m the only one left standing,” she laments), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). And she made three films in two years that were produced by schlockmeister Joseph E. Levine: Edward Dmytryk‘s The Carpetbaggers (1964), and Gordon Douglas‘ Harlow (1965) and Sylvia (1965).
But after that, feeling blackballed by Hollywood, Baker relocated to Europe, hoping to reinvent her career like Clint Eastwood, and she once again agreed to play sexy parts. “I had my two children with me, and I was separated from my husband,” she explains. “I had to earn a living.” Years later, she would return to the U.S. to appear in a wide variety of films as a character actress — Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977), Star 80 (1983), Ironweed (1987), Kindergarten Cop (1990) and even David Fincher‘s The Game (1997) — before retiring from acting in 2003. Since the 1980s, she has focused more on writing, and has now authored four books, most recently 2019’s Agatha Christie-like mystery Who Killed Big Al?.
Have the revelations of the #MeToo movement of recent years sparked any memories for her of similar problematic behavior during Hollywood’s Golden Age? “I was only asked once to lie down on the casting couch, and I just walked out the door,” Baker says.
But then, without prompting, she launches into a defense of one of first men in show business to brought to justice for sexual assault, just before the #MeToo era began.
“Bill Cosby did not deserve, at his age and in the condition he’s in—” she trails off before continuing, “He’s a wonderful human being, absolutely wonderful, and I can’t bear the fact that he’s in prison. I don’t think it was his fault.”
She then launched into a lengthy defense of the disgraced comedian, placing the blame on Cosby’s victims, questioning why some took years to come forward, or why they spent time alone with him. Cosby has admitted in a deposition to giving women drugs to have sex with them, despite protesting his innocence.
She added, “I hate the fact that these women do this — they come back from years before and they ruin a man’s career.”
Not many are likely to agree with that position of Baker’s, but perhaps they can sympathize with the nonagenarian’s sadness about something else: the number of her friends who have predeceased her. “That’s one of the worst things about getting old,” she vents. “You miss these people so much. I mean, Debbie Reynolds was my dearest, dearest girlfriend, and I still can’t get over the fact that she’s gone. She meant so much to me. You know, I’m afraid to lift up the paper, because every day someone’s gone. And I’m still here.”
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