Though nowhere ever actually inscribed, it was always understood in Hollywood that actresses were finished as leading ladies at approximately that moment when the number of their years exceeded their bust measurement. No comparable termination figure existed for leading men, of course, the greatest living testament to that fact being the extended romantic film career of the gentleman whom Dyan Cannon always refers to gently, distantly as “my husband.”
But attitudes change. As Joan Collins observed not long ago: “A woman in her 40s is in her prime; it’s what the 30s were 20 years ago.” And so at the formerly advanced age of 45 stands Cannon, able still to keep on seeking the successes that have always somehow eluded her. “A career has never been the most important thing in my life,” she says. “The most important thing was simply wanting to find out what it is that would stop me from feeling good. But now, most of the caca is out of the way, and when that happens there is less fear involved with what you’re doing. I’m ready now.”
Certainly there is nothing evident that could halt her. Cannon has always possessed the talent, and the temperament—on those occasions when she really focused on acting. She is lucky, too: A maturity of mind has come with the years that have barely disturbed the body. This particular day, at home in Malibu, she is an ensemble of white on white—her light skin the darkest part, tanned to a honey glaze, set off by a little cream rah-rah dress. Her blond tresses cascade down as if some fraternity house lover had loosened a ribbon in her hair.
She laughs. However fetching Cannon may be, anyone who has ever known her speaks first of her laugh. Sound men on many of her films have recorded The Laugh as a seismic autograph. But never, she says, has any director dared use it in a film, for it is so extraordinary—tittering gone berserk. An actress unleashing such a sound would be panned universally. The Laugh is, in fact, so bizarre that anyone hearing it politely turns away, as if someone were exhibiting a strange tic, or scratching.
Yet for one who laughs so easily and whose best roles have been essentially comedic, Cannon’s persona has rather grim and somber California resonances. While the marriage to “my husband” did produce Jennifer Grant, Cannon’s only child (and, as well, the father’s only offspring through a quintogamy that began in 1934), it ended in a Tinsel Town carnival of a divorce—she accusing him of numerous LSD adventures, his shrink admitting blithely that Grant spanked her “for reasonable and adequate causes.”
Cannon herself experimented with drugs during the three-year marriage, and there followed encounter groups, watermelon and grape diets, a primal scream room (which is, unfortunately, just what it sounds like), even a three-year bout of celibacy. Sometimes she was so Hip, so Groovy, so California that she seemed a parody of the film that was her breakthrough, 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. During one period everybody was “Baby,” during another “Love.” At her most laid-back she once advised the New York Times, “Baby, you have to get down to what you feel.”
Everybody out of the primal scream room.
And yet, though Cannon may have been regularly lured down trendy avenues, those Rodeo Drives of the psyche, there is evidence that her pursuits are genuine. Even now, when she utters such pretentious tapioca as “To me, unfoldment is really important. I liken us to flowers. We keep opening, opening, opening until we’re at our most beautiful”—even then it sounds as if she really means it. Cannon’s problem is that she throws herself into endeavors too intently, determined to prove that she is not just another blond bombshell. “When Dyan was on that goddam grape diet,” says a friend, “she had somebody scouring the whole country for grapes.” And professionally, Warren Beatty, who directed her in Heaven Can Wait, has observed, “I like the feeling Dyan can give you that she is out of control.”
“Yes, I know exactly what Warren means,” Cannon explains. “I was controlling what seemed to be completely out of control. An even better example is Deathtrap. That character [Michael Caine’s neurotic wife] was so foreign to me that when I saw the movie at last, after some time had elapsed, I had trouble recalling a lot of what I had done. I couldn’t believe that was me up there—not the way that woman talked, or even how she moved.”
AVOID SERIOUSNESS reads the T-shirt a friend gave Cannon recently, but she is not very good at that. Albert Einstein’s photograph adorns a wall—”Isn’t he cute? Now there’s a sexy man,” she says—and almost every morning her first waking activity is to read Einstein or Plato, or a couple of obscure 18th-century metaphysicians. Fads she may sometimes follow, but she follows everything absolutely. Here is a woman who gave up the screen for several years in the mid-’70s simply because she couldn’t get the sort of “whole-bodied” women’s roles that she thought she—and the public—deserved. Toward the end she was having trouble paying the grocery bills. It was, she recalls, “scary.”
Nor was the long period of celibacy some sort of stylish statement of sexual anorexia. No, she says now, it was just that for three years no man came along whom she cared to sleep with. Huge parts of Cannon are rather old-fashioned: “I feel that the ladies should be the ladies, and the guys should be the guys.” Never, for example, could she call up a man and invite him out. Of course, being Dyan Cannon, looking like Dyan Cannon, it is possible to be picky and still get plenty lucky. Since divorcing “my husband,” there have been a number of romances, none current today and none of which has included Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty or Gov. Jerry Brown.
“I went to a wedding the other day, a girlfriend of mine,” Cannon says. “She’s had lots of fellas. I mean, lots. I didn’t know the guy she was marrying, but I swear, I saw her walk down the aisle, and I knew it was right. The look on her face, the look on his face; I just knew. And presumably I’ll be able to know just as well for myself. I believe in the idea and the ideal—the oneness, the fidelity of marriage. We all look to somebody else for love, don’t we? Maybe that’s why so relatively few marriages work. How can you make someone else happy if all the time you’re looking for someone else to make you happy? But then, I’ve always been a loner. I’ve never been an I’ll-meet-you-for-lunch girl. I’m a homebody. I really am. And I was thinking the other day about being alone. If you look at it like this, as two words—’All One’—it’s easier to accept.”
Paradoxically, her upbringing in Washington State was altogether different: a dear, faithful family of four, she the elder sister. She remains close to her brother, David, a jazz musician, and coos that her parents are “adorable.” Dyan was Samille Diane “Frosty” Friesen then. The surname is Dutch, and her father a Protestant; her mother is Jewish; the two children were raised in the churches of their parents—the boy a Christian, the girl a Jew.
Though once Miss Seattle, she never considered acting until she was “discovered” by a producer in a Los Angeles restaurant and given an “explosive” new name. She would have been given a new face as well—”Dad,” she said over the phone, “I don’t want that mink stole you promised me, but I do want a nose job.” Instead, a perceptive cosmetic physician recognized what the Hollywood experts didn’t, that the flat Cannon proboscis—and, for goodness sakes, it’s not all that different—is what gave the young actress some measure of distinction.
Soon she made her acting debut on TV’s live and low-budget Matinee Theatre, following with the title role in a show called Ding-a-Ling Girl and various B-flicks. Finally she graduated to the Type A movie part she has been stuck with ever since. “The unhappy wife,” she explains. “You know: the ‘neurotic ditz.’ I played it well once, and they never forgot it.”
Predictably, while she plays the role of a Hollywood star in her new movie, Author! Author!, Cannon was originally recruited to play the role of Al Pacino’s neurotic wife. She refused, and the part fell to Tuesday Weld. The billing for Author! Author! has Pacino alone above the title, Cannon and Weld splitting the line just under. That, so far, has been another of Cannon’s Hollywood destinies: to share the man and settle for the under card. The best leading role she has had was in a 1974 film entitled Child Under a Leaf which, she guesses, laughing (and probably overestimating), “eight people saw.” Similarly, a short subject she directed, Number One, was nominated for an Academy Award but appeared in the U.S. only briefly in a single theater.
Perhaps one major reason Cannon has failed so far to achieve the top rung is because, in an especially collaborative business, she is too independent. It may be that as an actress, working under someone else, she can never gain that one outstanding role, “the one where I say, that’s it, that’s what I can do.” Perhaps she must be in command. She has turned down, she says, several directing offers, but she plans to make a feature film about high school kids—something of an extension of Number One—and interest has developed in her idea for a Broadway musical she would co-produce and star in. “All I know,” she says, “is that I’ve never had as much to share or as much to express as right now, at this point in my life. I’m happy most of the time now. I’m a happy lady.”
She tucks her legs under her—long, almost tawny in the light. She is upstairs in her bedroom, looking out over the Pacific. A producer once said: “Everybody in America wants to live in California, everybody in California wants to live in Southern California and everybody in Southern California wants to live in Malibu.” Yet Malibu itself isn’t at all what America envisions of a seashore Ninevah; much of it is sere or tacky, and in the Colony, the exclusive stockade where Cannon lives, where real estate can go for $18,000 an oceanfront foot, the houses are piled one upon another, no better than a horizontal downtown. Many were built by studio carpenters for the movie folk as little more than enclosed sets. This ephemeral quality has not altogether passed, even at $2 million or so an address. But Cannon is no transient. The Malibu house has been her home for a decade now, and she has no plans to take Albert Einstein and leave. There is even something symbolic in the fact that the headboard to her bed is part of an old gray barn door, the hinges still in place.
Most times Cannon is all by herself there, All One. But when Jennifer comes home from prep school, the two are especially close for a mother and child, doing all manner of absolutely sinful things together like actually eschewing proteins and fruits and seeds one afternoon and going out for “crumb cakes and all sorts of ice cream.” Goodness gracious!
Jennifer is 16 now, and it will come as no shock to students of genetics that she is growing into a beautiful woman. It must be difficult being Cary Grant’s only child, but being the mother of Cary Grant’s only child may be even more of a burden. Jennifer could grow up with her distinction, adjusting naturally, but Frosty Friesen suddenly had it thrust upon her, in the way, say, of Don Larsen, a merely useful pitcher who chanced one day to throw a perfect game in the World Series. How heavy it must be to always have to truck an apposition around: Dyan Cannon comma the former wife of Cary Grant comma…
Perhaps Jennifer and Dyan talk about this historical happenstance they share. On the wall in the kitchen, framed, is a note that Jennifer left on her mother’s bed one night years ago when things were particularly scary:
YOU ALWAYS CAN
Dyan looks at it again, laughs just a regular little chuckle, and swallows some more seeds.