Biopic of the tragic 1950s film noir star Barbara Payton. The dazzlingly beautiful Payton ascended to the heights of Hollywood glamor and opportunity in the 1950s, but her defiance of public morality and breathtakingly bad romantic choices brought her career crashing down.
Barbara Payton at 16 was a stunning, precocious rebel with her eye on bigger things than her parents' motel in Odessa Texas. She ran away and married three times --- two annulments --- before her third marriage to handsome pilot John Payton brought her to Los Angeles.
Here, Barbara soon became a fashion model. During a chorus line gig at Slapsy Maxie's nightclub, she caught the eye of Bill Goetz, production chief at Universal-International Studios, who signed her to a contract almost on the spot.
Payton began the customary studio training with energy and enthusiasm, playing in a couple of short films and turning heads everywhere. Under the glare of all this attention, her marriage melted like hot wax, and her husband returned to his parents. On her own in Hollywood, Barbara entered a whirl of parties, night life, and high-octane affairs. She soon began to travel in wild company: dope dealer and trouble-magnet Don Cougar; sleazy star-chaser Jerry Bialac, and other operators from the shady side of the boulevard. She got entangled with mobster Mickey Cohen and met up with Lila Leeds, the sexy starlet who was busted for marijuana with Robert Mitchum.
Payton became a regular at the booze-drenched parties of Errol Flynn, and had a torrid affair with Bob Hope. (The comedian eventually ransomed himself out of the relationship for a rumored $50,000). Her indifference to gossip and her reputation seem like naivete, but something much darker was taking shape: a compulsion to dance ever closer to the scorching flames.
Meanwhile, Payton starred with Lloyd Bridges in "Trapped" a successful film noir --- and her salary rose. Fan letters poured in, and William Cagney signed her to a $5,000-a-week contract and starred her with his brother James in "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," where she earned rave reviews playing to type as sultry Holiday Carleton. Warner Brothers shared her contract and upped her salary even higher.
When she met popular older actor Franchot Tone, he was instantly smitten. Nothing could shake his obsession --- even catching her in bed with Guy Madison, her co-star.
But when Payton met gigolo and film noir ("Detour") actor Tom Neal at a pool party, the wheels really fell off, and Payton herself became obsessed. She threw all caution aside and conducted affairs with both men. This recklessness culminated in a drunken 1951 fistfight in which the muscular Neal almost killed his opponent. Barbara, drinking heavily, made scenes at the hospital trying to see Tone, further trashing her damaged reputation.
After she ran afoul of combustible studio head Jack Warner, he set out to punish and humble her with a starring role in "Bride of the Gorilla" with young Raymond Burr --- who became a lifelong friend. To everyone's surprise the film was an instant classic, and Barbara's performance highly praised.
But her career continued downward as people increasingly abandoned her. She became the favorite cover girl on the notorious Confidential Magazine, and her boozy shenanigans with Tom Neal fed the insatiable tabloids a rich feast.
Her home turned into a landing strip for every freeloader and satyr in L.A. Though Payton was actually generous and warmhearted, her scandals proliferated. With Hollywood striving for a wholesome family image, the odds of professional survival for “Glitterville’s Top Tramp” now became nil. Payton's contracts were canceled and money problems followed. After a booze-filled interlude in Mexico and another failed marriage, she tried to start over in Hollywood, still beautiful, but her effort sank without a ripple. As she descended ever lower, she was arrested for passing bad checks.
Drinking steadily, she took up prostitution --- first, as a high-class call girl with Lila Leeds. But as she continued to deteriorate, she was eventually busted turning $5 tricks in a sleazy bar on Sunset.
In only a few years Barbara Payton turned into a caricature of herself, her once delicate beauty coarsened by alcohol. She cannibalized her life in the incoherent autobiography, "I Am Not Ashamed," which she dictated to a hack reporter for a few cases of cheap wine.
She began to wander the back streets and dives of Hollywood in a toxic daze, sleeping on benches, battered and knifed by passing thugs. Shame and wounded pride made her spurn the few helping hands that reached out to her. By the time she died of liver and heart failure in 1967 at age 39, she had nothing left but hazy memories of her past, a brief, fiery glow like a comet --- dazzling, mysterious, and brief.
Today, like background radiation, the spirit of Barbara Payton still inhabits the flops and jails where she spent down her years. On the internet, she remains fair game to the judgmental and lascivious. But those who loved her will never forget the young beauty who started out with such high hopes.
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction in 2021 and 2016
I wrote the feature film, Murder in Fashion, about the shooting of designer Gianni Versace by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. The film played at theatres and festivals and was reviewed in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/movies/22murder.html?_r=0
"Low budget but accurate and well constructed insight into a modern mystery" review by Richard von Lust L.