NOTE: This article discusses a multitude of sensitive subjects, so please read at your own risk.
During the golden age of cinema, Hollywood boasted more stars than there were in the sky. Still, for every actor whose name made its way above the title, there were dozens whose names remained on the tip of audience’s tongues and those who never quite received the recognition that they deserved. Arthur Kennedy comes to mind as one of these actors, but what I’ve always found unique about him is that he was too good-looking to make it as a character actor, yet at the same time too imperfect in his onscreen persona to get by as a leading man. So Arthur Kennedy found himself somewhere in between stardom and obscurity for decades, receiving five Academy Award nominations yet not winning a single one. That’s why it makes me truly glad that my friend Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema realized Kennedy’s underutilized potential enough to honor him with Arthur Kennedy’s Conquest of the Screen Blogathon on what would have marked his 105th birthday! Choosing an Arthur Kennedy movie to review for the blogathon was seemingly as simple as it could be. I looked up his filmography and discovered that he was in Petyon Place (1957), a film which I own on DVD yet still hadn’t seen, and instantly made it my choice without reading too much more into it. I’ll admit that going into this blogathon, I knew the bare minimum about the plot of the movie and absolutely nothing about Arthur Kennedy’s role in it. Needless to say, I was in for quite a shock.
If you aren’t already aware, the setting of Peyton Place (1957) is an idyllic New England town during the early 1940s that shares a name with the picture. On the surface it might seem perfect, like nothing at all could happen to you there, but in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The film’s nearly three hour screen time is divided amongst its assortment of residents, but all of the separate plotlines share one theme: that idle gossip and opinions can have a hurtful and lasting impact on others, and ultimately threaten their livelihood. I would argue that our main progtagonist is Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi), an aspiring writer and high school student who hopes to learn about the facts of life and leave the town, particularly to get away from her denunciatory mother Constance (Lana Turner). While most of her peers are exploring themselves and others sexually, like rich boy Rodney Harrington (Richard Coe) who’s in the process of fighting his urges for the local “good time” girl Betty Anderson (Terry Moore), Allison is on the cusp of a healthy and intriguing relationship with Norman (Russ Tamblyn), who’s also been left in the dark about sex. They find themselves having to fight accusations, including those from their own mothers, at every turn. At the same time, Allison’s mother is having trouble practicing what she preaches about chastity as she’s pursued by Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips), the new man in town who’s become the local high school principal.
Each person who lives in Peyton Place is struggling with their own personal issues, but none of these conflicts come even close to the burdens that Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) bears. She lives in a shack on the outskirts of town with her mother Nellie (Betty Field), who works as the MacKenzie’s maid, and her younger brother Joey (Scotty Morrow). Also residing with them is her stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy), the town drunkard who does very little other than drink and abuse his stepdaughter. Selena attempts to make the best of the situation, finding comfort in Allison and her boyfriend Ted Carter (David Nelson), who hopes to become a lawyer, but from the beginning of the film, it’s obvious that Lucas is too close for comfort to Selena, and eventually he rapes her. Weeks later, Selena discovers that she’s pregnant with his child, which she reveals to the trusted Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan). An attempted second attack from Lucas causes her to miscarry, and Selena forces Dr. Swain to keep her pregnancy a secret out of fear of her own reputation in town along with her boyfriend’s, but the doctor still threatens to kill Lucas unless he leaves Peyton Place. Lucas obliges and joins the navy, but his lack of explanation to his family causes Nellie to commit suicide. He doesn’t stay away for long either, and as Selena manages to pick up the pieces of her life and turn the shack into a real home, Lucas returns with a desire to make the place, and her, his own. Finally Selena has had enough and beats Lucas to death, but will she be able to explain her crime without revealing the full extent her stepfather’s abuse, or will she serve a life sentence for a case of self defense?
I must admit that if I had known the details about Arthur Kennedy’s role in Peyton Place (1957), I probably would not have chosen to analyze it. It’s incredibly difficult for me to lavish praise onto Arthur Kennedy’s performance because I don’t want any positive review to be misconstrued as me condoning the character, who I truly find to be the most despicable human being that I’ve ever seen portrayed onscreen, which is saying a lot because I’ve previously written about Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942). However, at the same time I think it’s for the best that I have this sort of emotional response to his portrayal, because it seems that it was exactly what he and director Mark Robson intended. It’s fitting that his mannerisms and the way that he puts emotion into the role make the audience believe that he’s the scum of the Earth, because his actions show that that’s exactly what he is. In fact, each film that Arthur Kennedy and Mark Robson completed together went on to become a highlight of his career, as he directed Kennedy in the first four of his five Academy Award nominated features: Champion (1949), Trial (1955), and this film, as well as one of his rare critically acclaimed leading roles in Bright Victory (1951).
I almost feel bad for enjoying Peyton Place (1957) as much as I do because of the harrowing experiences that Selena goes through, but ultimately it’s so well-acted and gripping that it’s impossible for me not to be entertained by it. While the characters are full of faults, you won’t find any in the actors, though I think it was a mistake to cast Lana Turner as Connie MacKenzie. I’m a huge fan of hers, but she doesn’t exude the maternal persona that she would later bring in full force to Imitation of Life (1959), and I think it was misleading for the studio’s promotional department to give her top billing and imply that she had a leading role in the film. I would have loved to see someone more matronly and more believable in the part without stealing too much of the spotlight, like Olivia de Havilland, who was also considered for Connie. Still, each and every star pulls their own weight and then some, lending themselves to an unforgettable ensemble that makes for an expert adaptation of the bestselling novel by Grace Metalious. For every scene that depresses me, there’s one with an actor that I really admire like Russ Tamblyn or the unbelivably captivating Terry Moore to distract me and lift my spirits, and overall I couldn’t recommend this film enough. Clocking in at nearly three hours of pure melodrama, Peyton Place (1957) miraculously held my attention all the way through. While it’s not for everyone, if you’re a fan of soap operas, shows like Twin Peaks (1990), or any of these talented performers, this is a must-see.