This is certifiably the Season of the Woman Director with important films from Lina Wertmuller, Jeanne Moreau and…Dyan Cannon?
Huh? The ex-Mrs. Cary Grant whose last chance at an Oscar came in 1969 when she steamed up theaters as the husband-swapping housewife in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? After all, Cannon’s The Last of Sheila in 1973 could have been called The Last of Dyan. For the next four years she all but dropped out of Hollywood, passing up choice roles to piece together a life roiled by emotional upheaval and drugs.
But, gratifyingly, Cannon, 39, has come back in triumph. At the March 28 Academy Awards, she’s up for an Oscar for a 42-minute short she not only produced, but wrote, directed, edited and even scored. It’s Number One, a warmly affecting look at the beginning of childhood sexuality. “Mama’s come a long, long way,” Cannon exults. “At last I’ve got something to show people that says me.”
It’s a “me” no one in Hollywood previously knew. But after portraying a succession of boiling sexpots, Cannon winces, “I couldn’t play one more broad who was good for a laugh and a lay. My career never made me happy. I suffered from this awful emotional pain and tried everything from drugs and encounter groups to Freudian and Primal therapies to make it go away. After years of literally and figuratively pounding my head against walls, I said, Enough!”
Out of movies and flat broke, Cannon took a $1,000 grant from the women’s division of the American Film Institute, borrowed $9,000 more, and persuaded friends and local schoolchildren to act for free in her short. “So I’m up to my toches in debt,” she shrugs. “I had to prove to an industry where only a woman who is flat-chested is taken seriously that I could write and direct. And I have!”
Dyan traces the source of the coyly titled Number One back to her childhood as Samille Diane Friesen, the overprotected daughter of a Baptist father and Jewish mother in Tacoma, Wash. “As a little girl, I sneaked into the little boys’ room because I was curious why boys went to one place and girls another. The principal walked in. I was spanked and made to feel terrible, when all I had was a child’s natural curiosity.”
Dyan studied anthropology at the University of Washington for two and a half years, then went to L.A. and found starletdom and a new last name (“It’s explosive,” gushed the producer who changed it). A forgettable bag of TV, movies and Broadway followed. In 1965 Dyan married Cary Grant, and their daughter Jennifer was born (weighing 4½ pounds) less than a year later.
Even now Dyan refuses to discuss their luridly publicized 1968 divorce and subsequent custody battle. “My private scars are no longer open for inspection,” she says. “Cary and I went through our own hell. Now we’ve become good friends.”
Dyan lives a spartan life with Jennifer at their Spanish-style beach house in Malibu. She is a vegetarian who has occasionally committed herself to spas and now runs two to four miles daily along the beach to sweat excess suet off her 5’5″, 112-pound frame. “I found my own peace and I don’t have to reach for a cigarette, or a joint, or LSD,” she said recently. Grant has unlimited visiting rights with Jennifer, 11, and custody when Dyan is on the road. Romantically, Dyan is unentangled, having recently ended a two-year relationship with an L.A. scriptwriter.
Otherwise, Dyan claims, “Mama’s cooking.” She has been on the film festival circuit and recently acted in Two for the Seesaw in Chicago. “There’s something about a live audience,” she says, “and I made some money I sorely needed.” Though new scripts are flowing in, Dyan is concentrating on doubling the length of Number One to make it commercially viable. “If I should die tomorrow, I’ve already lived more than most people do in a lifetime,” Dyan reflects. “Yet I have the most wonderful feeling I’ve just been born.”