ReelThoughts: October 15, 2010

"Just a Little Crush"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Time to have a little fun...

One of the defining characteristics of young romance is the crush. I'd venture to say that 99.9% of those reading this have experienced at least one crush and, if you're like me, the number is much higher. My view of a crush is that it's an innocent thing, mostly devoid of a sexual connotation. My earliest crushes occurred before I understood anything about sex and the objects of my post-puberty crushes were usually not the girls/women about whom I had sexual fantasies. Your mileage may vary, of course. (In fact, one of my high school friends slept with a girl he had a long-term crush on, so there's no universality to my perspective.) Also, at least to my way of thinking, there's an unrequited element to a crush. For me, crushes were secret things, shared only with a few close friends and carefully guarded so no one outside the privileged circle would find out. Even to this day, I wonder if any of the girls ever knew (or cared to know). At the time, I didn't think so but, looking back on it, I may not have appeared as indifferent as I tried to seem. Attraction is difficult to hide, and a forced nonchalance is typically transparent.

But this column isn't really about the girls who passed through my life between first grade and high school. (The last time I experienced what I would consider to be a crush was when I was 16.) It's not about Sharon, the Blackwell Ave. girl who sat across the aisle from me on my elementary school bus. It's not about Linda, who sat in front of me in geometry class and exuded a maturity that intimidated me at the time. It's not about Judy, the literal "girl next door," who was nice enough but interacted with me the way one might expect from a poised young woman with an awkward, younger neighbor. And it's not about any of the other girls whose names I have forgotten but whose faces occasionally tease from the depths of my memories. Instead, it's about the women of TV and movies, whose names will be more familiar than "Sharon" or "Linda" or "Judy."

The first crush I can recall experiencing occurred when I was four years old. At that age, it's impossible to differentiate between an actress and the character she plays. At the time, I knew her merely as "Nanny." Later, I discovered the name of the actress was Juliet Mills. She was the star of the TV series Nanny and the Professor, which ran for a couple of seasons on ABC (1970-71). The show was on right around my bedtime (which, at that age, was 8:00), but my parents occasionally allowed me to stay up until 8:30 to watch it. All these years later, I can't recall much about the show except that the thing to captivate me about Mills/Nanny was her British accent.

Next on my celebrity crush list was Carol Wayne, the prototypical dumb blonde - an image she carefully cultivated. To this day, I don't know how much of it was real. She died under mysterious circumstances in 1985 but, by then, she was off my radar. The period of my infatuation with her was in 1975, when I watched her daily that summer on the game show Celebrity Sweepstakes. She had two notable attributes: her relentlessly cheerful disposition and her large chest. Being only seven years old at the time, the former was more interesting to me than the latter. I'm sure that had I encountered Ms. Wayne three or four years later, I would have had a different impression. This crush didn't last; once September arrived and I returned to school (and was therefore unable to watch daytime TV), I quickly forgot about Ms. Wayne until I heard the news report of her death ten years later.

Crushes come in two categories: fleeting and those that stick. Lindsey Wagner lingered. I first noticed her, as did most people, when she guest-starred on The Six Million Dollar Man in March 1975. Although her character was "killed" at the end of the initial two-parter, that didn't prevent the producers from bringing her back in the fall then giving her a spin-off series that arrived as a mid-season replacement in January 1976. Wagner was the only reason I watched The Bionic Woman - I never liked the show as much as its big brother, The Six Million Dollar Man. I rarely missed a week, even after the frequent crossovers stopped (an occurrence made necessary by The Bionic Woman's switch to another TV network). Once the bionic dog came along, even Wagner couldn't keep me interested, however. Still, after all these years, I remember the anticipation with which I greeted every Wednesday night, since the 8:00 hour represented 60 minutes to spend in the company of who was surely the prettiest actress on television. (An assessment that may have been correct, at least for a time.)

My other 1976 crush hit harder but didn't last as long, and it was definitely a case of falling for the character rather than the actress who "portrayed" her. The reason for the quotation marks is that Jessica Lange's acting debut as King Kong's leading lady was among the most widely panned of any performance in the '70s. Had the Razzies existed in 1977, she surely would have been awarded one. The irony is that Lange grew to become one of Hollywood's most versatile and respected actresses. She has never disowned King Kong but, whenever an interviewer raises the subject, he gets a dismissive laugh. Still, to a nine-year old boy experiencing his first indoor motion picture, Lange's Dwan was as magical as the effects that transformed Rick Baker into a big ape. Undoubtedly, there must have been something subliminally sexual in my attraction to Lange - after all, she spent a good portion of the movie half-naked. But I became as fixated upon her as upon Kong and the World Trade Center over the course of the last month of 1976 and the first few months of 1977. Then life intruded, my father got transferred, and we moved. After the re-location, I never quite reconnected with Lange the way I had in my old home. Then Star Wars arrived and King Kong was quickly forgotten.

The next name on my list will require readers to consult IMDb.com: Carol Baxter. Baxter was never a household name, even when she was working constantly but, during the late '70s and early '80s, she was a familiar face, having appeared in episodes of many popular TV shows. (She retired from acting in the mid-'80s.) For me, however, she will always be Mary Gibbons, the female lead of "The Curse of Dracula." All these years later, I can't claim to remember much more about her, except that she captured my attention for a few months in 1979. "The Curse of Dracula" was one of three serials to comprise the short-lived weekly TV show, Cliffhangers. The other two, for those who are trivia-minded, were "Stop Susan Williams" and "The Secret Empire." Of the three, "The Curse of Dracula" was by far the most popular so, when Cliffhangers was canceled, the final episode or two bundled the remaining segments of "The Curse of Dracula" so the story could be completed. The undesirable consequence was that "Stop Susan Williams" and "The Secret Empire" never reached a conclusion. I wasn't bothered by that because the only reason I watched Cliffhangers was "The Curse of Dracula," and the only reason I watched "The Curse of Dracula" was Carol Baxter. (Although I suppose Michael Nouri was a charismatic enough Count.)

Olivia Newton-John was next. My dalliance with the singer/actress occurred around the time of Xanadu and had dissipated before the release of "Physical." Strangely, as infatuated as I was with the 30-ish country-turned-pop queen during the summer of 1980, the only album of hers I purchased was "Xanadu" (and that was as much for ELO as it was for Newton-John). A friend of mine had almost every album she recorded and I spent the better part of a weekend at his house, making cassette dubs of the records. Although the quality was suspect, it was good enough for my purposes. Part of Olivia's appeal for me was the fresh-scrubbed, girl-next-door appeal. Once she started singing about getting animal and cut her hair short, I lost interest. My strange preference for blondes when I was a kid required that the blonde have long hair.

My final identifiable crush on an actress came shortly after I dumped Olivia. In 1981, I briefly latched onto Karen Allen, who made as big an impression upon me in Raiders of the Lost Ark as did Harrison Ford. This was one of the clear instances in which I was attracted to the actress, not merely the character she played. Even though the phase of my crush on Allen didn't survive my entrance into high school, I continued to follow her in movies from Starman to The Sandlot. And I was thrilled to learn that Spielberg and Lucas had decided to bring her back for the fourth Indiana Jones movie. (Too bad it was such a tepid reunion...)

All the crushes I experienced after the summer of 1981 featured real-life girls. My time of being star struck had ended. In retrospect, there were some notable actresses I never developed crushes on, unlike seemingly every one of my male friends. Three names come to mind: Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Lynda Carter, and Carrie Fisher. I didn't own the famous poster of Farrah (although my next door neighbor did, so I saw it several times a week), failed to develop a Wonder Woman fetish, and wasn't overwhelmed by the concept of a chain-link bikini. Also, perhaps strangely, there was never a Star Trek or Doctor Who woman who captured my fancy. Then again, neither show was a hotbed of attractive women.

Crushes on movie/television actresses (or actors) is nothing new. And, unlike an attraction for a classmate or the girl next door, it's perfectly safe. The chances that I, as a boy of about nine, would encounter Lindsey Wagner, Jessica Lange, or Olivia Newton-John was infinitesimal, so I could manage the attraction as I saw fit, which usually meant cutting out pictures of the woman in question then discarding them when I lost interest in her. Admittedly, there are isolated instances in which crushes can get creepy, especially in an age when the Internet enables stalkers and in which there are paparazzi behind seemingly every bush. In general, however, I view the practice as harmless, assuming that the "crush" doesn't become a consuming obsession. All things in moderation, including mooning over attractive women who may be more appealing as idealized cinematic icons than as their real-life counterparts. That's the great irony about most such crushes - getting to know the person would likely kill the infatuation. The image we're attracted to, after all, is a mixture of marketing and fantasy, and exists solely in our minds. So the Jessica Lange for whom I carried a torch may or may not have been like the Jessica Lange who captured the imagination of thousands of other King Kong-loving boys in 1976. And she bore little or no resemblance to the actress who played the role then went on to appear in different parts in other movies with minimal appeal to those who had stared wide-eyed at her in the giant ape's paw.

Nanny and the Professor (Juliet Mills):

Carol Wayne (as a Tonight Show guest - a frequent occurrence):

The Bionic Woman (Lindsey Wagner):

King Kong (Jessica Lange):

Carol Baxter (there's a brief Cliffhangers promo following the news update):

Xanadu (ONJ):

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Karen Allen):


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