Carroll Baker does not mince words. In the first two chapters of her new autobiography, Baby Doll, the actress graphically describes her bed-wetting, her first period, her attempt to kill her sister, her hatred of the stepmother she calls “Old Titless,” her two nervous breakdowns and her father’s bizarre sexual habits. Wait till you get to the rape scene in chapter four.
But then Baker was never exactly a wallflower. Three decades ago, when she rolled into Hollywood like a blond express train, she made headlines; her first major movies, Giant and Baby Doll, were released within months of each other to popular and critical acclaim. At 25, she was acknowledged as that rarest of Hollywood birds: a bombshell who could act. There seemed to be no limit to her potential.
Then, 10 years later, she was emotionally “paralyzed” by despair, in debt, essentially blackballed by the studios and self-exiled to Europe.
“I was a vegetable for three years,” says the still gorgeous Baker, now 52. “Recovery took me 10.”
The 37 years of her life leading up to her virtual disappearance could make a sizzling soap opera. The product of a broken home, she was happy to flee to the vaudeville circuit as a magician’s assistant and chorus girl. She married the man who raped her when she was a virgin. She ran away from that sordid marriage and landed in Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York. There she learned method acting with the likes of James Dean, Rod Steiger, Mike Nichols and her second husband, Jack Garfein. After she appeared on Broadway in All Summer Long and in a television mystery called The Web, director George Stevens plucked her for the role of Luz Benedict II in the epochal Giant, with Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. In 1955 she left New York for Hollywood and a soon-to-be-rued seven-year deal with Warner Bros.
Then came the pivotal event in her life. Three weeks after wrapping Giant, Baker began filming a Tennessee Williams script then called Mississippi Woman. Director Elia Kazan had picked Baker over Marilyn Monroe to star in the picture, which was soon re-titled Baby Doll. There was a considerable hue and cry when the film was released—the Legion of Decency urged Catholics to boycott it—and Baby Doll became Baker’s middle name. She tried—unsuccessfully—to fight all the nympho roles thrown at her. “I came in at the end of the big studio system,” recalls Baker. “I still had a slave contract and they were willing to put you in almost anything they had.”
After a nervous breakdown, she bought back her Warner contract but her life and career continued to unravel. The point of no return came in 1965 when she was fired by Paramount and her marriage came apart. “The lowest ebb was when I was most famous. I had lost myself. My marriage was shattered. I was a few hundred thousand dollars in debt. I was a work machine. I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t a human being anymore.”
After a second nervous breakdown in 1966, she began a long, slow climb out of the maelstrom. Skin flicks were her salvation. Italian director Marco Ferrari offered her work in Rome. “The films were built around me,” she says. The intrigue varied but there was one constant—nudity. She defends what she did: “My marriage was over, I was blackballed in Hollywood, I had debts. How was I to earn a living to support my children?”
She began doing American movies again in 1977 with a part in Andy Warhol’s Bad. Then came Disney’s Watcher in the Woods in 1980, in which she was cast as a mother, and a meaty cameo as playmate Dorothy Stratton’s mother in the just released Bob Fosse film Star 80.
Baker decided to write her life story in 1979. “I saw Rebel Without a Cause on television and I started to cry. I thought, ‘Oh, what a fool you were as a young girl, Carroll. You could have been in that movie with Jimmy [Dean].’ ”
There may be a sequel to the book, but for now Baker is happily settled in London with her third husband, actor Donald Burton, 50. She recently completed a play, Sharing Time, for the BBC. “In the play I’m not glamorous,” she says with a note of gratitude. “I couldn’t resist it. I’m a normal woman. The lovely thing about the British is that there are plays for middle-aged women. I wear my hair back and I don’t have to be sexy. I don’t have to be anything but a charming, normal woman. Nobody’s ever offered me a part like that.”