Martha Vickers was one of the most tantalizing actresses of the 1940s. Today, she’s remembered for her firecracker portrayal of Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep and for her turn as the third of Mickey Rooney’s eight wives.
The story of Martha Vickers’ early career is told in an article published in the October 1945 issue of Pic magazine – available for you to read as a separate, illustrated article on aenigma.
What’s so intriguing about Martha is what might have been. In The Big Sleep (1946) – Howard Hawks’ great film noir based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, she is fabulously slutty as Carmen Sternwood, Lauren Bacall’s out-of-control, drug-addicted, nymphomaniac little sister.
Indeed, according to Martha’s brief biography on Turner Classic Movies, Raymond Chandler claimed that she gave such an incredible performance that she upstaged Lauren Bacall. Since the movie was intended as a vehicle to promote the Bogart Bacall chemistry that had been such a success for Warner Bros with audiences of To Have and Have Not (1944), many of Martha’s scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So how did an apparently unremarkable, albeit very attractive, ingénue come to threaten to steal the show? The anecdotes that swirl around the making of The Big Sleep offer some revealing insights. In Hawks on Hawks, the director recalls:
We had a great start for that little girl, where Bogart said, “Somebody ought to housebreak her.” I made her sit around almost a day trying little things, taking a piece of hair and bringing it down and looking at it, you know. Because I didn’t want her to be Stella Stevens or somebody like that. I wanted her to be a well-dressed little girl who just happened to be a nymphomaniac.
It must have been quite an experience for the inexperienced Martha Vickers, as this anecdote related by Sheila O’Malley reveals:
Howard Hawks had an idea for one of the scenes – where Marlowe (Bogart) comes into the house, and finds Vickers sitting, all dressed up in the empty house – drugged out, sexed up, in the aftermath of some sexual event. Marlowe can immediately tell that obviously some kind of porno photo shoot had been going on. And Marlowe comes upon her, she is high on drugs, and completely out of it. Anyway, Hawks had an idea for this scene (which ended up not making it into the movie – no wonder, with the censorship of the day!): He wanted Vickers to simulate an orgasm, as she sat there, looking up at Bogart. He wanted her to be in that quivery zone where you basically don’t even need physical contact to “get there” – he wanted her to be the kind of woman who lives in that state.
So Hawks asked her to do so. He gave her this piece of direction in front of Bogart, Regis Toomey (who plays the DA – wonderful stolid character actor), and a couple of other people, members of the crew, etc. You know, moviemaking has a mystique about it but there is also a no-nonsense quality to it that I find refreshing.
Hawks said, “Sweetheart, what we want here is for you to simulate that you’re having an orgasm.”
Martha Vickers asked, “What’s an orgasm?”
Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what to do. They all just stood there, awkward as hell, stunned to silence. Hawks, Bogart, and Toomey – grown men – standing there with a teenage actress – who was asking them (in all innocence) what an orgasm was. Dead silence. Hawks called a 10-minute break. (hahahaha) I mean – what else could you do? Hawks then pulled Toomey aside and asked Toomey to please go and “explain to Miss Vickers what an orgasm is”. I love that Howard Hawks, supposedly the most macho guy in the universe, couldn’t bring himself to go explain it to her – he had to have someone else go do it.
Toomey, who apparently was a good-natured fellow, married with a bunch of kids, the product of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing, gamely went over to Martha and explained to her what an orgasm was. (Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.)
Toomey said later to Bogart, “The girl didn’t know anything. I asked, ‘Are you a virgin?’ ‘Uh yes.’ ‘Do you know what an orgasm is? Mr. Hawks wants you to be having an orgasm here.’ ‘No, I don’t know what it is.’ ‘You don’t know what an orgasm is?’ ‘No.’ And so, dammit, I explained to her what an orgasm was. And she got the idea all right. Howard liked the scene very much.”
How embarrassing was that? Still, judging by her performance, Martha was a quick learner. But perhaps only on quite a superficial level. She would go on to make another 11 movie appearances including in three more noirs, but in none of them would her performance come anywhere close to what she achieved in The Big Sleep. Luck and the vagaries of the Hollywood studios no doubt played their part but it seems that Martha Vickers needed a great director to conjure a great performance from her. That is certainly the impression given by Hawks in an interview with John Kobal:
Now … in The Big Sleep I used a little round-eyed girl to play a nymphomaniac … Martha Vickers … I think she married Mickey Rooney at one time … Lovely. And I made her cut her curls off and gave her … a kind of close … boyish haircut and I taught her two or three things. She played a nymphomaniac, and the studio signed her for a long-term contract with more money than she’d ever gotten. … Okay, she got her first salary check and went down and bought a lot of girly dresses with a lot of … little bows and ruffles and … She started playing a nice girl, and they fired her after six months. And she came to me and said, “What happened?” I said, “You’re just stupid. Why didn’t you keep on playing that part?” “Well, that was a nymphomaniac.” “Look, it’s only a nymphomaniac because I told you so. They liked you on the screen. And you did such a great job of it because you weren’t trying to get sympathy or anything. You were a little bitch. Why didn’t you keep doing that?”
Too bad Martha Vickers didn’t get to work again with Howard Hawks and we never get to see more of her undoubted talent.
Want to know more about Martha Vickers?
The two Howard Hawks quotes are from Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride and People Will Talk by John Kobal. You can find the orgasm anecdote at The Sheila Variations. The best source for the reported facts of Martha Vickers’ life is Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen and there’s a nice appreciation by Jake Hinkson of her performance in The Big Sleep at criminalelement.com.