Paula Prentiss Pursues Her Own Orbit

The actress, who turned eighty on March 4, has never fit into any prescribed Hollywood narrative — and that's part of what her fans adore about her


Paula Prentiss turned up in a movie a couple of years ago, playing a ravaged-looking horror novelist in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. But almost nobody noticed, even though it was her first substantial film role in decades and her expertise in giving director Osgood Perkins exactly what he needed was as impressive as her MIA star vanity. When she turned eighty last Sunday — an occasion for which I spoke to her for a Texas Monthly profile — Turner Classic Movies didn’t mark the occasion with so much as a kazoo: no Where The Boys Are, no The World of Henry Orient. No The Parallax View or The Stepford Wives.

So it’s just as well that Prentiss’s devotees got used long ago to how under-appreciated our goddess is. We may even prefer it that way, because we’ve learned from experience that new acquaintances who claim to adore idiosyncratic Sixties screen feminicons like Jeanne Moreau or even Tuesday Weld could very well be faking it. By contrast, anyone who sighs happily when Prentiss’s name comes up stands a good chance of becoming our compadre.

The key is that she doesn’t inspire awe — just affection. That’s especially true of those who first encountered her in He and She, the short-lived but fetching sitcom she and her longtime husband, Richard Benjamin, co-starred in on CBS in 1967–68. Tailored to make ideal use of their unfeigned intimacy and puckish acting chemistry alike, the show defined marital bliss as a pact compounded of equal parts understanding and amusement — not the underhanded contest for supremacy that most of its TV forerunners had relied on for their laughs.

What nobody knew at the time was that doing He and She was, in part, therapeutic — an unthreatening way to ease back into acting after a nervous breakdown on the set of 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat? virtually derailed her career. She didn’t turn up in another movie until Mike Nichols’s Catch-22 (1970), by which time Hollywood had changed to the point of near-unrecognizability from her days co-starring opposite Jim Hutton in MGM farces like The Honeymoon Machine (1961). More unobtrusively, so had Prentiss. Unexpectedly, the waywardly charming, almost accidentally sexy comedienne of yore looked right at home in the disillusioned, acrid, incipiently paranoid milieu that’s the hallmark of Seventies American filmmaking.

So her fans are left with two fairly small clusters of movies with almost nothing in common except Paula Prentiss’s presence, making her a weirdly talismanic oddity in Hollywood history. Most of us admire the Seventies edition, but dote on the Sixties one — and yet it’s also possible to see them as looking-glass halves of the same story. Funnily enough, Prentiss’s Army-nurse role in 1962’s silly The Horizontal Lieutenant is basically the same part she plays in Catch-22. It’s just that, instead of fending off Hutton’s advances, she’s kneeing Alan Arkin in the groin — and also, game as ever, doing her first nude scene. Otherwise, the most telling difference between the two movies is that 1962’s idea of commercially minded fun has become 1970’s idea of absurdist profundity.

Then there’s the surface bubbliness of Where the Boys Are (1960), Prentiss’s wry and gangly big-screen debut. It’s cherished just the same by graying second-wave feminists for its casual anticipations of female sexual autonomy. But they also love 1975’s The Stepford Wives, in which Prentiss plays the last free spirit to end up robotized by a male conspiracy to put the kibosh on female autonomy for good. Watch ’em back-to-back, and the second movie practically looks like the secret sequel to the first.

Her pairings with Hutton aside, not all of her Sixties movies were fluff. She was Howard Hawks’s pick to play the last of his crazy-like-a-fox screwball heroines in 1964’s Man’s Favorite Sport?, and you can detect him trying to mold Prentiss’s performance into a reprise of Katharine Hepburn’s in Bringing Up Baby. But you’re also enchanted at how she’s dodging being a retread by doing fresh, unpredictable things on the sly. (One of her best slapstick moments comes when she gets tired of hurting her hand by banging it on a table and wearily flaps her gloves at it instead.) Hawks ended up a confirmed Prentiss admirer: “She ought to be a big comedy star,” he later complained. “I don’t know what’s the matter.”

The same year, Prentiss proved she was as good at playing clueless ditzes as aggressively clued-in Hawksian ones in The World of Henry Orient. She’s a married naif being wooed by Peter Sellers’s concert pianist, and her equivocations between surrender and hysteria are a wonder. (When Henry improvises a piano composition praising her charms, every cutaway to Prentiss catches her in a different phase of hilariously erotic languor combined with panic.) Significantly, her wonderful exit line — stammering “Jayne Muh-Muh-Mansfield?” when she’s mistaken for the actress — is also when Henry Orient stops being a laugh riot and starts concentrating on its adolescent heroines’ discovery of grown-ups’ perfidy. In other words, her work here is done.

Prentiss’s first non-humorous role was as a WW2 Navy wife in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way — and she was, once again, terrific. She’s phenomenal in the long single-take scene when John Wayne breaks the news that her husband is missing at sea. The camera observes the play of emotion on her face as she goes on haltingly carrying out her duties as a volunteer aircraft spotter relaying news of incoming planes — a very Premingeresque encapsulation of post–Pearl Harbor grief and resolve. While the great Otto isn’t on record as huffing that “She ought to be a big drama star. I don’t know what’s the matter,” he certainly could have.

Instead, the What’s New, Pussycat? debacle permanently altered Prentiss’s trajectory. He and She may be acclaimed today as the forerunner to a whole genre of sitcoms, but it was a ratings bust at a time when doing TV at all was still considered a comedown from big-screen acting — which, however, didn’t stop Benjamin from making the leap to movie roles just as his wife virtually dropped off Hollywood’s radar. In Catch-22’s unwieldy cast, he was probably a bigger draw than she was.

In the Seventies, Prentiss still did comedy occasionally, but minus her old zest. (She’s atypically mechanical at bringing her tried-and-true effects to Neil Simon’s lamentable The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, among other duds.) Other than The Stepford Wives, her signature role of the decade was as the TV reporter who tips Warren Beatty off to a murderous political conspiracy in The Parallax View (1974), and she’s only got one real scene in that one. But her fear and tentativeness are fabulously credible, including one of the greatest Paula Prentiss moments ever: the one when she blurts “I’m terrified” to Beatty, and then — unsure how he’ll take it — lets her face blossom in an incongruous smile. In fact, the movie goes downhill as soon as she’s killed, because you’d much rather watch them coping in tandem.

Not counting Buddy Buddy, Billy Wilder’s misbegotten valedictory film, Prentiss’s last noteworthy movie role was in 1980’s The Black Marble. As so often, the highlight of her Black Marble performance is a single scene. When her ultra-professional police detective gets drunk with boozy cop Robert Foxworth and they end up hitting the sack together, you can’t help noticing the way Prentiss passes up opportunities to play her inebriated vulnerability against his sad-sack charms for simple laughs. There’s no better proof of her old-fashioned, unfussy alertness to what a given project requires from her.

That was 38 years ago, in a movie that’s hardly enshrined as a classic, but so what? Paradoxically or not, true Prentiss fans don’t spend much time lamenting what might have been: the star parts she could have played, the prizes she should have won. It somehow suits what we love most about her that she ended up as a sort of cockeyed, erratic satellite in Hollywood’s overcrowded solar system, pursuing an orbit all her own. So far as anyone knows, she’s never expressed a smidgen of discontent at her fate.