Tuesday Weld was supposed to be just another beautiful and charming young blonde, like Sandra Dee or Hayley Mills. An ideal, whose tranquil presence would lure an unwary public into the movies. She was to be a symbol of an innocent era, a romantic dream of conformity and prosperity. But the problem with an ideal is that the inevitable cracks in their veneer show us how illusory they always were. From this Weld was no exception.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tuesday Weld was everywhere. In 1956, at 13, she starred in Rock, Rock, Rock! The film, with not even a paltry script, served mainly as a showcase for recording artists. However terrible it is, the film is interesting for the attention it focuses on an emerging teenage culture and the attempts made to create media to market to said culture. The film was a success and, as a result, Tuesday Weld became a part of this culture. During this era, she starred opposite Frankie Avalon in I’ll Take Sweden and secured a recurring role as Thalia Menninger on the television show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. In these roles, she is a vision of perfection, of an idealized mid-century American teenage girlhood, a saccharine symbol of suburban normality. But, as hindsight has taught us, that image of normality concealed a malignant anxiety that infused all of mid-century American society. The story was no different for Tuesday Weld.
Weld had been forced to work from a young age. After her father died and her mother required another source of income, Weld became a model. She was three years old. As a teenager, her mother moved them to California so she could pursue an acting career for her daughter. What followed is a harrowing story of fleeting success coupled with drinking, affairs with much older men, and a sexualization by the larger society that is still appalling. She is quoted in one New York Times article circa 1971 as having turned down the role of Lolita in the film adaptation because “I didn’t have to play it; I was Lolita.” The article goes on in a rather tone-deaf fashion, calling Weld “the frisky teen-age sex kitten of the fifties,” and an “erotically angelic blonde,” further perpetuating her image as “a feather-brained man-chaser, a predatory pubescent, a dizzy blonde,” and describing her roles as “haunting portraits of deadly delicious nymphets…” The author completely ignores the gravity of her statement. It has not even registered. This article, published when Weld was 28, refused to see Weld as she was at present or to acknowledge the truth of her experiences. Rather, it chose to delight in the memory of her sexualization, to relish the vision of her as created by a studio, the vision of her as object.
Weld, understandably, became known for being difficult on-set. This, paired with her refusal to star in films that would later become cultural touchstones, such as Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, led her career to flounder and her celebrity to become largely forgotten. However, I believe that some of her later work, in particular Pretty Poison and Play it as it Lays, confuse these assumptions and illustrate how talented and unique an actress she really was. Additionally, they highlight her willingness to take the risks necessary to make interesting, complex film.
Pretty Poison tells the story of a man, played by Anthony Perkins, recently released from a mental institution. He becomes infatuated with a teenage girl, played by Weld, and tells her he is a member of the CIA. They go on counter-espionage missions together and, predictably, disaster ensues. It is a bastardization of the image that was cultivated for Weld in the earlier part of her career, that of the idealized, innocent, blonde. The film utilizes a beautiful pastel color palette to accentuate the contrast between suburban, domestic banality and the danger that lurks beneath it. It is a stunning movie; visually delightful and intricate in its characterizations. Similarly, Play It as It Lays addresses the complex interiority of a woman. Based on the Joan Didion novel of the same name, this film stars Weld as Maria Wyeth, an actress struggling with depression and overwhelming feelings of futility. It is a stark exploration of the superficiality and exploitation of the movie industry and its effects on a woman. In this tragic story, Maria finds herself grasping at any shred of life that might sustain her. The fragmented visuals follow her similarly fragmented interior monologue, creating an overall feeling of compelling disquiet. These films were not successful when they were released, but I believe they are truly great. They showcase Weld’s ability as an actress and also complicate the narrative that was created for her.
When I watch her early films, I am left with the feeling that Tuesday Weld was being set up to become a star. But she was never as commercially successful as she should have been. She was being sacrificed to the status quo, forced to become a symbol of the decency and innocence of mid-century America, a decency and innocence that never really existed and that she never really knew. It almost consumed her, but in her very marrow she refused it. She was being groomed to be one thing but she became something completely different based on stubbornness alone. She became something tough, resilient, unruly, and difficult. She survived. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Cavett confronted her with a story of her former behavior. As Cavett tells it, she was 14 years old and smoking on set. An adult walked past and berated her. She shot back, “if I’m old enough to have a baby, I’m old enough to smoke.” Weld, 1971 Weld, throws her head back and laughs. “Right on,” she says. I like to think Weld still lives with this unruly former self and I hope she cherishes her.
Flatley, Guy. “Most of All, Tuesday Remembers Mama.” New York Times (New York, N.Y.), Nov. 07, 1971.