Thursday, March 4, 2010

Birthday Trio

Statuesque stunner Paula Prentiss (March 4, 1938) should have become a superstar: she had the requisite good looks, presence, distinctive voice, and sharp comic timing. Strangely, she never had that major "breakthrough" film which would have catapulted her into the major leagues: instead, she was the redeeming feature in a number of fluffy, inconsequential confections like The Honeymoon Machine (1961) and Man's Favorite Sport? (1964). Married since 1961 to actor Richard Benjamin, Prentiss's distaste for the Hollywood scene and her desire for a quiet family life no doubt contributed to her career's curious stall; she's semi-retired several times, but is always a refreshing and welcome presence when she chooses to dip her toes back into the entertainment pond.

Another starlet who chose marriage over a promising career was Lili Gentle (March 4, 1940). Her second cousin was none other than Tallulah Bankhead, and if Lili didn't have a fraction of the Alabama Foghorn's explosive fire, she was an appealing presence nonetheless. Actually, perhaps some of that Bankhead spiciness did rub off, after all; unlike such other "cutesy" starlets of the period as Maggie McNamara and Pat Crowley, Gentle came across as infinitely wiser, hipper, more knowing, and definitely less irritating. Her big break was playing Tony Randall's niece in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), but the following year, she married the boss' son and became Daryl Zanuck, Jr.'s bride - effectively ending her budding movie career.

Continuing with our "She shoulda been a contender" theme, we come to the exquisite Miss Barbara McNair (March 4, 1934 - February 4, 2007). One wonders if McNair gritted those perfect teeth every time she saw or heard Diahann Carroll and Nancy Wilson, her two closest contemporaries whose success far exceeded her own. McNair had actually followed Carroll into the hit Broadway show, No Strings; but while Carroll went on to a successful film and television career - the groundbreaking sitcom Julia (1968-71), an Oscar nod for Claudine (1974) - McNair lasted for only one season with her own variety program, The Barbara McNair Show (1969-70), and her film roles veered towards the exploitative: If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968), Stiletto (1969), Venus in Furs (1970). And while Wilson was carefully cultivating a long, lucrative relationship with Capitol Records (which lasted from 1959 to 1980), McNair seemed unable to forge a proper recording career, either, drifting from various small labels to a strange, brief union with Motown, where the nightclub chanteuse was presented as a discotheque diva. Still, McNair was a popular and well-liked entertainer, and it seemed that she would continue in that comfortable vein, until the bottom fell out in the 1970's: in short order, her highly-touted variety series was cancelled; she and her husband/manager, Richard Manzie, were busted for heroin possession; and then Manzie was murdered gangland-style as a result of his Mafia associations. To her credit, McNair persevered, continuing to perform, whether in nightclubs, cruise ships, or even retirement homes - and always flashing that bright, million dollar smile, whatever her private woes might have been. McNair passed away at age 72, her golden voice silenced by throat cancer.


  1. when i learned that paula was a republican, it made me a tad blue-er.

  2. McNair--often when you hear of these sad entertainer stories, it comes down to being poorly-managed. Certainly seems to be true here.

  3. Wow, I somehow never knew all of the McNair story. Now I must do further investigation. You know how we love those "tragic girls".

  4. Brava! McNair also bared her breasts in a film which did not go over well with her more conservative fan base (at the time...) She was a sassy broad.


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