Curse Of The B Movie Actress

Llloyd Kaufman’s Troma movies are difficult to categorise. You wouldn’t call them edifying – they have titles like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Throw Stephanie in the Incinerator and Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town. Then again, you wouldn’t call them total trash – they’re a bit too clever, a bit too funny for that. Oliver Stone got a break in a Troma film ( Sugar Cookie ), as did Kevin Costner (Sizzle Beach), so, at a push, you could say Kaufman’s movies have been a stepping stone to the Oscars.

But not for Debi Staron. In the late Eighties, she landed featured roles in two of the Toxic Avenger films, considered by many to be Kaufman’s finest B-movies. The premise is this: 90lb weakling Melvin Junko falls into a vat of chemical waste and emerges as Toxie, New Jersey’s first superhero. Whenever corporate corrupters or criminal syndicates threaten to destroy life in the small town of Tromaville, Toxie is there to wreak revenge: ‘The Toxic Avenger: his only weapon was a mop!’ as the posters say.

Besides bowel-loosening violence, the appeal of the films is mild titillation, much of it generated by Toxie’s blind girlfriend, Claire, a pneumatic blonde who serves dinner in a buttock-skimming skirt and minute bustier. She inspires much so-bad-it’s-almost-good innuendo. When Toxie announces he has taken a job as a concierge ‘to make ends meet’, he adds: ‘And Claire had the kind of end that you really wanted to meet.’ Cue a shot of Claire bending over.

But back to Debi Staron, who plays ‘a happy employee of Tromaville’ in The Toxic Avenger II , and a video store customer in The Toxic Avenger III. In the latter film, she performed a stunt: ‘I threw myself over a woman who was even more scantily clad than I was,’ says Staron, smiling, as we meet for lunch at a shopping mall. Mostly, though, she cowers and screams as Toxie drags the intestines from one villain and uses them as a skipping rope, then rams his mop through the head of another. When all is done, Staron, dressed in an aerobics bra and short skirt, clings to him and says: ‘Thank you, Toxie! You saved us!’ ‘Yeah,’ he replies. ‘But it was a rough day, even for a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength.’

Staron remembers the experience fondly but says: ‘I’m a Virgo, and I kept noticing the lack of continuity. In one shot, there’d be a huge sign outside the video store. In the next, there wouldn’t be. It was a joke.’

Her acting career never really took off. She appeared in Divorce Court and had an uncredited role as a policewoman in Internal Affairs and a bit part in Boiling Point. Being a realist, and tiring of a monotonous diet of cheap pasta, Staron examined the Hollywood food chain and realised there were better ways to avoid starvation. She set up a business supplying seasonal decorations to the Hollywood elite. One day, she was dismantling the arrangements at the home of Teri Garr (Oscar nominated for Tootsie ) when Garr complained of being overwhelmed by junk.

Staron instantly diversified to become a ‘clutter Nazi’, rootling through the possessions of actresses too busy to do it for themselves. She mentions that she has arranged memorabilia for Peri Gilpin who plays Roz Doyle on Frasier. From time to time she also acts in industrial videos. Thanks to these activities Staron, now 44, is able to think about buying a place of her own. In many respects, she’s a survivor. ‘I never relied on men. I was careful about what I did. I always had a temp job,’ she reflects. ‘I’m a cautious person.’

Lana Clarkson was not cautious. Or, at least, not on the night earlier this year when she climbed into Phil Spector’s chauffeur-driven car. At 41, Clarkson had been reduced to working as a hostess in the VIP section of the House of Blues nightclub on Sunset Strip. Always ready to serve as ‘arm candy’ to industry players, she was willing to drive off at 2.30am to Spector’s castle-like home in the LA suburbs. Less than three hours later, the actress was dead, shot through the head.

For every lissome twentysomething actress who has ever wondered what could become of her if she doesn’t hit the A-list, Clarkson’s death provides an ugly answer. Her obituaries played up the schlockiest common denominator – her starring role as Barbarian Queen in the Roger Corman B-movies. But it’s not as if her career never had more mainstream promise: she was 18 when she snagged her first speaking role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and by 22 she had a lead role in the 1984 thriller, Blind Date, starring Kirstie Alley. That was as good as it got. In the Eighties and early Nineties, she appeared in Happy Days, Hill Street Blues, The Love Boat, The A-Team, Knight Rider and Fantasy Island, but then the work started to dry up. A week or so before her death, she was selling posters and signing autographs at a comic-book convention, ducking out of shot if a film crew passed.

‘It’s hard to make the transition from B-movies,’ sighs Sondra Currie, whose list of credits is not unlike Lana Clarkson’s. Now in her late forties (she was born ‘circa 1955’), Currie was a pneumatic young redhead when she starred in Policewomen, The Concrete Jungle – the tale of a wrongly convicted woman who ‘toughens up during several brutal prison encounters’ – and Jesse’s Girls . ‘The director wanted us to be the female Clint Eastwoods and take off A Fistful of Dollars in that one.’

There was some nudity, ‘but nothing more than you’d find in mainstream TV now’. There was also a cavalier attitude to safety. ‘I remember I threw a match to light a tiparillo. A stuntman was pretty badly hurt.’

A worse fate eventually befell the director, Al Adamson, who was murdered by his building contractor seven years ago. ‘They found him in a block of concrete,’ says Currie, sighing again.

After three B-movies, Currie decided to break out of the world of bra-less horse riding but found it a little like Escape From Alcatraz. ‘I got labelled. It took me a while to gain a hold in TV. When I finally did, I went into comedy. I was in the last season of Cheers as Richard Doyle’s mistress, and I played Big Daddy’s new young wife on Golden Girls. I also did a Magnum and a couple of Columbo s that were a lot of fun. But the roles seemed to peter out after that.’

Her great second act, as it turned out, would be marriage to a successful TV director named Alan J Levi. They first met in the late Seventies at an audition for an independent film that never got made. ‘Alan had narrowed it down to me, Lonnie Anderson [ex-wife of Burt Reynolds] and another actress, then he lost the financing.’ They met again at another audition, and married in 1989. But her husband’s success, while providing her with a good lifestyle, has not boosted her career. ‘One of our best friends has created several TV shows. Last year, there was a part I really wanted but he said, “You’re just not right for it”. I was devastated.’

Even when her own husband was directing an episode of ER, she had to dye her hair darker before the producers would even consider her for the role of a Chicago housewife: ‘They said I was too glamorous.’ She is largely a stage actress now, and has played Hedda in Hedda Gabler and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire at leading LA theatres. ‘I’m thrilled at not having to be out there, networking, and going to parties – it’s a lot of wear and tear,’ she reflects. ‘But there’s a fine line making any relationship work for you – it’s so close but so far away.’

Casting agent Melissa Skoff says: ‘Even actresses who have had Emmy nominations and awards can fall off the planet when they hit 40.’ So there is little hope for anyone else, particularly those like Lana Clarkson who were mostly decorative. Skoff says: ‘I started out casting The Dukes of Hazzard, and we always had to have a beautiful, large-breasted woman in every episode.’

Still, when a young actress is getting those roles, and socialising with industry players, it can create an illusion of forward momentum. One acting coach told me of a network of cocktail parties at which attractive actresses are told they will be able to connect with producers. ‘But you can get any talent you might want through the agents,’ she pointed out. ‘These parties are about the producers scoring dates. In reality, it never helps an actress’s career.’

It can take an actress a while to realise that proximity to power means very little. I first met Jessy Blume, a blonde 40-year-old actress and singer-songwriter, while eating brunch at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. She was waiting tables. Blume, who comes from small-town Illinois, has a vulnerable, old-fashioned look. In the silent era, she would have looked good tied to the railway tracks.

She came to LA as a teenager to study fine art and drama at USC, where her contemporaries included Anthony Edwards and Ally Sheedy, but after graduation she was held back by an eating disorder. Eventually, she did land an agent, but most of her work was in music videos for people like Phil Collins and Joe Cocker, or ‘background work’ in films. ‘The last thing I did on screen was How Stella Got Her Groove Back. I’m walking down the street eating a bagel. I ate that bagel all day long.’

That was five years ago. She’s currently working on an album and a book about her eating disorder and is hoping to become a stand-up comedienne, something a lot of fortysomething actresses attempt, though few succeed. She also spends a lot of time at Buddhist meditation meetings, weeding out negative thoughts as though they were nits.

Over the years, Blume has also put a lot of work into her social life, inveigling invites to premieres and hanging out with the right people. ‘The night Titanic won all the Oscars, I went from party to party in James Cameron’s brother’s limousine,’ she says. At one point, she went out with the son of a big-name producer. ‘When you’re dating someone in the industry, there’s always that feeling – “this could be my big break”.

‘I enjoyed his company but at one point he started gaining weight and I began thinking, “Am I with him just because of his father?”‘

Dreamer though she is, even Jessy Blume can see the dangers of ambition. ‘That girl who died at Phil Spector’s house,’ she muses at one point, ‘it just shows what can happen. I’ve had invitations to places that I didn’t feel comfortable about. I’ve had auditions that turned into what they’re supposed not to be. One was at a beautiful house in Bel Air.’ She left without slipping into the provided lingerie. ‘In the end,’ she adds bleakly, ‘I don’t think the parties and so on get you anywhere.’

So why go on? I wondered this as I accompanied Marla Martenson to a commercials audition. You are most likely to have seen Martenson in the Mel Gibson film, What Women Want – Gibson tries to read her mind as he wanders through a department store – though she also starred in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries , playing a woman whose husband is stabbed 19 times.

A couple of years ago, she had a good role in a TV pilot – but it wasn’t picked up. On the phone, Martenson told me that although she was 40 she could pass for late twenties. ‘Yeah, right,’ I thought. Actually, she was right. Unfortunately though, she couldn’t pass for a six-year-old Hispanic boy, which was the role her agent had mistakenly put her up for on the day we met.

We sat in a reception area, surrounded by small boys and their mothers, and a raft of twentysomething actresses up for a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad. Marla put her name down on a list. It wasn’t called. Finally, she spoke to a casting assistant. ‘We’re casting a father and son,’ said the woman, baffled. Marla slipped out to harangue her agent. ‘She was on voicemail,’ she said dejectedly when she returned.

Martenson currently has no health insurance – she didn’t make enough from acting last year to qualify for the union plan – and to make ends meet she has a job recruiting beautiful women for a Beverly Hills matchmaking service for which men pay but women don’t. She has also returned to waitressing at a Beverly Hills restaurant.

The bright spot in her life is that in October she married an up-and-coming musician. ‘My husband’s doing well, so maybe after another year,’ she says wistfully. But she has no intention of ever giving up on acting. ‘Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to do this and I enjoy all of it, even the auditions. There’s no age cut-off – you can do commercials when you’re 80 or 90. I don’t ever intend to stop.’

Over time, she has scaled back her ambitions. ‘When I was 19, I remember saying to a friend, “If I’m 25 and haven’t made it, I’m going to kill myself”. But I have such an incredible husband that I really don’t feel I have to be a big star. It would be great to get a starring role on a TV show but if it doesn’t happen, then I just want to work.

‘Have you heard of Marianne Williamson?’ she adds, mentioning an LA-based self-esteem guru who teaches something called the Course of Miracles. ‘She says, “There is life beyond Hollywood”.’ Only Martenson, who grew up in Seattle, has no particular desire to seek it out.

In passing, Martenson mentions a friend who was Miss Hollywood in the early 1980s. ‘Every agent tried to sleep with her. She’s in Arizona now, working in a little studio and sleeping on the floor. But she wants to get back into the business,’ adds Martenson, brightly.