In her long and celebrated career, the North Dakota-born actress stood toe-to-toe on screen with the biggest leading men of the day — names like Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson.
But her first splash was perhaps her biggest. Dickinson became a marquee name when she co-starred with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western classic, Rio Bravo. Dickinson will be on hand Thursday at the Austin Film Society’s annual Texas Film Hall of Fame Award induction ceremony at the ACL Live’s Moody Theater to accept the Star of Texas award on behalf of the film.
As “Feathers,” the traveling gambling lady who excites John Wayne’s attention (in more ways than one), Dickinson excelled in a role that called for her to face down the Duke — the biggest star in the world at that point — with a subtle combination of flirtation, comedy, romance and resolve. A tall order for a woman who’d only been in the business for four years at that point. Dickinson continued to act on film and television (where her mid-70s hit series Police Woman was the first hour-long drama to star a female lead) for the next half-century.
CultureMap spoke with the actress about her early roles, her future projects and the women she’s watching now.
CM: You were in town last April to screen Rio Bravo at the Paramount Theater as part of TCM’s “Road To Hollywood” series. Are you looking forward to coming back?
AD: It’s a terrific night. And I did not realize that it was such a beautiful town. I don’t know what I expected, maybe Dallas. Not that there’s anything wrong with Dallas. But when I flew in, I said, oh my God, this is a gorgeous town. I’ve got a couple of great friends there and they just love it. It’s a great university town, too.
CM: Why does Rio Bravo hold up so well these many years later?:
AD: Number One, John Wayne. It’s one of the roles where he is so different, in that he’s, how can we say, adorable? He’s not defending the fort, so to speak. I think it’s a side of him we didn’t see in a lot of his movies. He’s enjoying this young woman. And while he’s enchanted with her, he’s also adorable with Walter Brennan. And he’s charming and loving with Dean Martin, and with Ricky Nelson. So we see a warmth and a cuteness about him that we don’t see in many of his other movies.
CM: One also doesn’t always see a John Wayne movie where he confronts a strong female character. How did you two create that rapport?
AD: Oh, it was in the writing. The writing is not only underrated but ignored in this movie, because it looks so natural. You forget those words were all written (by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett). It was romantic. Billy Wilder called Rio Bravo a suspense movie, but the suspense was also there in the romance.
CM: In life and in your characters, there was a big age difference between you and Wayne. Was it hard to convey that onscreen romance credibly?
AD: No, it never entered my mind. It just didn’t occur to any of us. I think it was a maturity that we all had, that what was most important. The age didn’t matter because we were all mature people. I was never an ingénue.
CM: How did Hawks come to cast you?
AD: He screen tested me, but what got me the screen test was Chris Nyby, who was the director on The Thing and on other movies. He also edited Red River (which Hawks directed). Chris had run into Howard and he said, I just worked with this girl on the Perry Mason television show, and you ought to take a look at her if you’re going to cast an unknown again. Because that was Howard’s nature to do. So he said, “Send her over.” I went for the meeting and was told I would do the screen test and I won the part.
CM: Did you know it was going to be a career-defining role for you?
AD: If I had the goods, it was going to be. It was now or never. If I couldn’t cut it there, I could never cut it. And also, I was 27 — they usually start out at 19 or so. I knew it was a very lucky. I mean lucky is an understatement, it was the luck of a lifetime for a new actress. I’d only been in the business for four years.
CM: How was Hawks to work for? Was he an authoritarian like John Ford?
AD: He was authoritarian in a gentler way. He knew what he wanted, but he didn’t want to tell you what it was. He wanted to get the feel for what it was. So therefore, it would come out of you, no him. He did it very slyly: “Now, what about if this time you cry?” And I said, oh, where? And he said, “You figure that out!”
That’s what happened with the last scene (a sly, sexy, funny scene with Wayne in Feathers’ bedroom). I wasn’t getting it until he suggested I cry. And that nailed it.
CM: Over your career, in films like Ocean’s 11, The Killers, Point Blank, you carved out an image of women that could hold their own in male-dominated environments. Was that a conscious decision?:
AD: No, it wasn’t. But I knew that I was the head of the class, and things like that. I was
a person to be reckoned with. I wasn’t a softie.
CM: Was that part of the success of Police Woman?
AD: I think I had a vulnerability that many (other actresses) didn’t have. That seems to be the big clue for why Police Woman took off so well. It was not only her maturity or kind of good common sense — a woman who knew where her feet were planted. Add to that the vulnerability and I think it’s that combination that stood out.
CM: What are you working on now?
AD: Going to Austin! I don’t have a project right now. Betty White gets them all. At my age, there aren’t that many roles. And there are many of us now — there’s Shirley MacLaine and Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White and Jane Fonda, and many others that are up there.
I don’t really fight for parts anymore. I don’t care to work if it’s not a good part. An actress always wants to act. But I always said, I don’t want to work, I want to act. There’s a difference. Just to get up at five in the morning and go and do crap is not interesting to me.
CM: Are there young actresses today you pay attention to?
AD: There’s quite a few. Emma Stone sticks out in my mind. Jessica Biel has that sexy look too, and she’s gentle, so Jessica reminds me of me. There’s quite a few good ones. I saw one the other night, a blonde, she’s absolutely adorable (Eloise Mumford, from the ABC series The River)… She was on Craig Ferguson a couple of weeks ago and I thought, there’s a comer!
CM: Did you help pave the way for some of these younger women?
AD: I hope so. I don’t necessarily think so, but I hope so. We’re all the sum of our parts. And sometimes we’re influenced and we don’t even know it. We didn’t realize we were standard-bearers until somebody told us we were. They tell you, “You led the pack.” Oh, that’s right, that’s good. It’s not something you plan. It’s something you are.
By John T Davis