When James Dean, 24, died in that 1955 auto crash, only those who had seen East of Eden glimpsed his mythic talents, since neither Rebel Without a Cause nor Giant had been released. "James who?" was the reaction of most Americans. That puzzlement reoccurred with the February 3 slaying of film actress Lana Clarkson, 40, at the mansion of rock producer Phil Spector.
I'd never heard of Clarkson before her tragic murder.
According to the AP, she was discovered by Roger Corman, who remembered: "Lana was a beautiful woman... and an adventurous spirit." She played in "B" movies, including The Barbarian Queen (1985), which Corman claimed was the basis for TV's Xena: Warrior Princess.
What can be found on the Internet? She made guest shots on TV series, including The Jeffersons and Three's Company. She appeared in twelve movies, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to March (2001). What kinds? Low-budget genre films. Sword-and-sorcery epics with ersatz Tolkien-talk, and formulaic serial-killer flicks, the kind championed by Adaptation's Donald Kaufman.
And sexploitations. You don't need long on the Net to realize that Lana Clarkson is best known, when known at all, for her more-than-ample bosom. On one website, movie titles are italicized in which she bares her breasts. Several sites move from free to pay if you wish Clarkson show-all photos. (I didn't go there.)
Clarkson's still-standing personal website is chaste: "g"-rated photographs of a 6 foot tall, blonde, California beach gal. A childhood picture of Lana on horseback. Publicity shots from movie roles. Nothing much, nothing intimate. Digging deeper on the web, you can construct a show-biz biography with a downward turn. Clarkson peeked in popularity in the 1980s when she was in her 20s, a fresh sexpot thing. By her late 30s, she had become already an item of nostalgia, with live appearances about LA to reminisce about her old movies. She met her loyal at K-Mart-sponsored events and comic-book gatherings.
Clarkson was a nice person, a good sport. I read web testimonials of regular folks who had encountered her at conventions. She was rated the most cooperative of celebrities, affably signing autographs by the hour, and gamely posing for snapshots with her fans.
OK,OK, what about her dozen movies? I tracked down the bulk of her mini-budget ouevre, a journey through denigrated genres. And what did I discover? That try as I might to appreciate Lana Clarkson, murdered movie actress, there wasn't much there on screen.
For instance, her movie debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You don't remember? That's because she's in two shots at the prom, the bodacious wife of the goofy bio teacher, Mr. Vargas. Nerds gasp at her anatomy as Clarkson breathes her one-and-only line: "Hi!"
She's an awkward, hesitant, sword-flying superhero in a bunch of shot-in-Argentina, ahistoric, pagan costumers (when or where in time?): Deathstalker (1984), Barbarian Queen (1985), and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1988). The serial killer is after her in Blind Date (1984), and she, a raw detective, is after the serial killer in Vice Girls (1996). Neither is distinguished. She's a parody of her unrobing self as a large-of-chest space chick in the amusing title sequence from Amazon Women on the Moon (1987).
Do I have a Lana Clarkson movie to recommend? In memorium, The Haunting of Morella (1990), a decent Corman-in-the-60s Poe throwback, in which she's fairly effective as the homicidal lesbian lover of a reincarnated evil witch.
(February - The Boston Phoenix, 2003)