Twenty years after her death, we take a look back at the life and career of Diane Varsi, a rebel once touted as “the female Brando” before she walked away from stardom.
Born in San Mateo, California, Varsi became known as a rebel at a young age, often skipping class to visit nearby San Francisco. By 15, she had dropped out of school and was married not long after. By 21, she was a twice-divorced mother of one.
After stints as a dress shop model and restaurant hostess, she left northern California intent on going to Mexico. She got only as far as Los Angeles. There she dabbled in painting, poetry and dancing – though at the time she was hoping to become a folk singer. She also took acting classes taught by Jeff Corey, a respected character actor who had turned to teaching after being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House of Un-American Activities. His students would include Robert Blake, Jane and Peter Fonda, Anthony Perkins and Barbra Streisand, but one of his first star pupils was Varsi, who soon made her acting debut in a community theatre version of Gigi.
On Corey’s recommendation she landed an audition for director Mark Robson, who was casting his adaptation of Grace Metalious’ scandalous bestselling novel Peyton Place. One of hundreds of actresses who’d read for the part, Varsi won the coveted Allison MacKenzie role over studio objections that she was too young, too inexperienced and unknown to movie going audiences.
She was immediately signed to a contract by 20th Century Fox, and producer Buddy Adler cast her in from From Hell To Texas even before Peyton Place was released. When Peyton Place finally hit screens in December of 1957, it was critically well-received but was a slow opener. It didn’t pick up momentum until star Lana Turner was caught up in a scandal when her daughter stabbed Turner’s lover – mobster Johnny Stompanato – to death in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide. The publicity surrounding the incident helped Peyton Place attendance jump over 30% four months after it had premiered, and the film would go on to be the second highest grossing of 1958. It would also garner 9 Academy Award nominations, including one for Diane Varsi.
The film’s success turned her life upside down. Less than a year before she had been a complete unknown, and suddenly gossip columnist Joe Hyams was calling her “the strangest and most exciting actress in Hollywood today…the Marlon Brando of actresses,” while across town Hedda Hopper wrote that she was “hotter than a gaitlin gun.”
But Varsi was unprepared for the sudden attention, didn’t like the endless rounds of interviews and parties Hollywood demanded of its starlets. She resented being told what to wear, how to comport herself. Her reticence to engage with the star-making machinery earned her a reputation for being uncooperative and introverted, and the press soon began comparing her to James Dean. A Pittsburgh Press reporter was shocked to find her interview subject clad in jeans and without make-up (“not even lipstick” the writer clarifies) and called her, “a perfect ragamuffin, the antithesis of such studio glamour girls as Jayne Mansfield and Joan Collins.”
Varsi was beginning to unravel under the weight of expectations. Cast in Ten North Frederick starring Gary Cooper, she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. And after her next big role in Compulsion, a film based on the trial of Leopold and Loeb and starring Dean Stockwell and Orson Welles, she told an interviewer, “It’s hard for me to separate illusion from reality…I don’t know if acting is the form of creativity best for me.”
“She was very rare, very fragile and very deep,” producer and friend Mark Damon later said of Varsi. “And Hollywood was very destructive for her.”
20th Century Fox meanwhile was growing impatient with her reluctance to commit to her career. After she turned down roles in Return to Peyton Place, Splendor in the Grass, Holiday for Lovers and The Best of Everything, the studio suspended her contract. Years later, Varsi was still able to remember precisely the moment she walked away: 10AM on March 19, 1959, when she announced that she was moving to Bennington, VT.
“It has nothing to do with the studio,” she said. “I just don’t want to act anymore or be a part of this business. I don’t like some of the ways of Hollywood. But my reasons go much deeper. It is the performing itself I object to. I find it too destructive. If I have any talent, I will try to find some other outlet for it that will make me less unhappy.”
The press was not kind, labeling her everything from a beatnik to a copout. On the one-year anniversary of her announcement, Bob Hope closed the Academy Awards ceremony with the words, “Goodnight, Diane Varsi…wherever you are.”
She lived in Vermont for two years, studying poetry and otherwise avoiding the limelight, before returning to California and marrying her third husband Michael Hausman (who would later be one of the producers of Brokeback Mountain) and having a daughter by him named Willo.
Six years after her self-imposed exile, she was ready for a comeback. But the big studios wanted nothing to do with her. She was able to find some work, but mostly in low budget exploitation films like Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama or the bizarre Wild in the Streets, where she plays ex-child actor turned rock keyboardist turned Congresswoman and acid casualty Sally LeRoy.
Varsi did land a couple serious roles – playing a sympathetic nurse in the anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun and an overweight mental patient in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden – but her comeback was as short-lived as her time in the spotlight. She contracted Lyme disease in 1977, a condition she suffered undiagnosed for several years, before eventually dying of complications related to the disease on November 19, 1992.
Originally published February 2011