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Passion’s For The Birds!

Paula Prentiss, on cold days, wears four sweaters and tops them with an overcoat. On warm days she must be reminded to wear clothes at all. If she is hungry (and she almost always is), she passionately devours everything on her plate. She uses fork and fingers interchangeably, not stopping until she has been surfeited with three desserts. If she is not hungry, she pushes the food away as though she considers its presence on the table a personal insult.

She is an ungainly, long-legged, 59 tangle of complexities with a passionate lack of moderation in everything. She is a live internal combustion engine. A color, a word, the design of sunlight on pavement can vault her into exhilaration or despair. So says Dick Benjamin, her sardonic, nimble-witted husband, who never had a formal date with her until long after he was in love with her . . . never kissed her until he was sure he wanted to marry her . . . and never asked her to marry him at all.

“Everything is important to Paula,” says Dick. “She lives every minute of her life greedily.” Adds Miss Alvina Krause, the vinegar-willed teacher who molded her into an actress, “This is Paula’s greatest asset—and her greatest liability—as a performer.”




If Paula has decided to clean her apartment, nothing can stop her until every table is polished, every inch of floor is scrubbed. Anyone in the way of her vacuum must jump or get vacuumed along with the rug.

A few weeks ago, she had trouble interpreting the first two sentences of a scene to her own satisfaction. She wrapped herself in a blanket, turned on an electric heater and sat on the living room floor repeating the words endlessly, over and over.

“When are you coming to bed?” Dick asked at about 3 A.M.

“Never,” she answered. “I don t deserve ever to go to bed.”

She even manages to be passionately passive. When her tremendous store of energy is temporarily used up, her long neck droops, her hands dangle piteously at her thighs and she resembles nothing so much as a tranquilized swan.

And for all her clowning, she takes a serious intellectual interest in many things, twisting her long rubbery legs around a chair in the passionate pronouncements of her convictions.

Some of her seriousness is an attempt to reconcile the Paula Ragusa she lived with for twenty-one years to her glossy new position of movie starlet. It is, as she says, “a desperate struggle not to lose myself.” She seems to be in no danger of that yet. She can squat unconcernedly on a curbstone and wait for a cab. She is still so little interested in the usual rewards of stardom that she can say, “The nicest thing about it is the free medical coverage.” And add, “I’m catching everything I can while I’m under contract—it’s all free.”

She had prepared herself for years of, at best, partial failure on Broadway. She’s still bewildered by her transformation— in forty-eight hours, a little over a year ago—from college student to Hollywood comedienne. It’s quite a jump.

During the last year she has completed four movies: “Where the Boys Are”; “The Honeymoon Machine,” in which she was enchanting as a nearsighted heiress; “Bachelor in Paradise,” in which she gift-wrapped garbage for Bob Hope, and the unreleased “Horizontal Lieutenant.” Her complete salary from the first three pictures went into food, rent and the bank. Each week she expected to be fired. It was only after “Bachelor in Paradise” that she allowed herself to buy one new dress.

She is still passionately addicted to the stage—as is her husband. She hoards her money “to be able to wait it out” if she wants to do a play and the studio refuses to allow her. (After writing over a dozen formal letters to executives at M-G-M, she was given permission to appear this winter in a small role in a UCLA production of “Measure for Measure.”)

But if she is disciplined about money, she is undisciplined about almost everything else. She loses a sweater a week . . . is constantly half an hour late . . . can never talk without shouting . . . once went through a whole winter at college wearing one beige glove and one black glove without ever noticing that they didn’t match . . . And she drives a car “like an absolutely wild thing.”

No matter how explicit the directions, she still gets lost. Once she was supposed to meet someone at the best-known intersection in Hollywood. She drove within two blocks of the spot, couldn’t find the Street, went home and took a cab.


Paula’s passionate predicament

This inability of Paula’s to wrap her life into a tidy bundle—this passionate predicament—goes back as far as she can remember. In the first grade she cried for half an hour over one mark lower than an A on her report card.

“I wanted to be a success,” she says now. “I didn’t know what it meant except that I wanted to do something; I wanted to do something well; I wanted to do something best. And I still want to.”

Her first obsession was to be a baseball pitcher. Since she was at least six inches taller than any of the boys in the neighborhood, she was successful until she reached the age when the boys learned to pitch overhand. Then she realized she would have to retire from baseball and turn her attention to the piano.

When she heard a piano concerto on the radio, she wrote “Ragusa” on top of the list of composers in the encyclopedia and demanded lessons. Her mother, doubtful, asked if she would practice. Paula was ten years old and she practised four hours a day. “It was an obsession. I was so passionate about it and so involved. It would make me angry not to play perfectly, and I’d do it over and over and over; and when I’d finally stop, my clothes would be as wet from perspiration as if I had been swimming.”

After five years she had made herself a good pianist by “sheer determination.” She entered a contest for the Houston Symphony Orchestra. And made a mistake in the first sixteen bars of her Bach suite. “Then the fear of failing just shot through me.” She began again, her long, competent fingers trembling, the elegant face that she considered ugly twisted into a passion of concentration. She found herself running away from the piano and out of the auditorium. “I just couldn’t stand the humiliating feeling that I had already failed. I ran away.”

She always ran away when she failed. Yet she would always rather fail completely than be mediocre. When she was unable to answer the first question on a chemistry exmaination, she tore up her test paper and ran home from school. When she was forced to miss her ballet class for three months because of a sinus infection, she expected “my sheer genius to make up for the missed work.” The first time it didn’t, she quit the class.

At age eighteen she was a chaotic, beautiful, totally undisciplined pre-medical student at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, obsessed by the need to be perfect. In a class in choreography, she plotted a dance in such a way that nobody in the audience could see any of the dancers. “My dear,” her teacher said, “you must get a relation to space. I suggest you take a little acting.”

She enrolled at Northwestern for the summer “to take a little acting.” After two weeks she phoned her teacher. “You were right about that space thing,” she drawled. “By the way, I won’t be back next year. I’m staying here to become an actress. This is what I really want.”

She flung herself at acting as she had flung herself at everything else. She would twist it, conquer it, bend it to her will. She would work, work, work. Work was painful. Work was necessary. The daughter of an Italian Catholic father and a Southern Methodist mother, her Catholic education made her certain that “man was put on earth to bear the burdens of Adam and Eve, and that work was the major burden.”

She attended every class given by the drama department. In one she met Dick Benjamin. His self-possession, his competence as an actor, his dedication, his arrogance, all attracted her. Above all, he was Jewish. From the moment Paula was old enough to realize that her socially prominent mother had shocked Dallas by marrying a Catholic schoolteacher who had not even been born in the United States, she had decided to be equally as shocking and marry a Jew (It didn’t matter that she had never met a Jew. She was sure she would meet one by the time she was old enough to be married.)


Don’t waste my time. . . .”

Benjamin saw in her “a tremendous emotional well.”

“She communicated such happiness at one moment,” he says, “and such grief at another—in her personal life and very, very occasionally in an acting class. I thought, if this could only be channeled on the stage. . . As a director, he ached to mold the passions into a directed force.

For a year they merely drifted—separately—through the private world of the drama department. When she started a tantrum in his presence, he told her not to waste his time. When she threatened to throw herself in Lake Michigan, he advised her not to forget a towel. She hoped that she would be cast opposite him in a play, but she never was. Then she was assigned the role of an elderly woman in “The Cave Dwellers.” She attacked it as passionately as she had attacked everything else.

“I prepared and prepared and prepared, and I brought the preparation onto the stage with me. Opening night, something went wrong in the first scene. I thought. what the hell? and just walked through my part.”

After the curtain calls, Miss Krause stood indignantly in the center of the stage and faced the audience. “That performance was an abomination, and the actress should apologize to you.” Her gray eyes were icicles as she told Paula. “You have absolutely no right to be up here unless you can concern yourself with the people sitting in the audience. And right now they’re either bored or disgusted. I wasn’t sure whether you could act. Now I am almost sure that you cannot.”

“I don’t care about any of you,” Paula screamed at the audience. Dramatically forgetting her coat, she ran towards the lake. It was December and so cold that her cheekbones ached in the below-freezing wind, but this time she really jumped into the waist-deep lake.

A few minutes later Benjamin sauntered onto the scene. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee when you’re ready to come out.”

She stayed in the lake until her legs were numb. Then she waded ashore, pushing a layer of splintered ice out of her way. She went to him.

That night, watching her unforgivable performance, Benjamin had already made his decision to cast her in “The Disenchanted,” the play he was about to direct. His choice of Paula Ragusa was rejected by the entire drama department. But he insisted—and won.

The weeks of rehearsal were a continual battle between them. When she misread a speech she would scream from frustration and run to the door. At first Benjamin came after her and locked the door. She would kick and push until she had shoved him aside or until he had thrown her against the wall. Then she would pound it with her fists, sobbing and fighting.

Gradually he realized that he was only giving her more to fight against. When she forgot her lines five times in a beach scene with another actor and began to cry hysterically, he merely walked over and told her she had no right to cry—no right to abuse the privilege of being able to act. By the time the rehearsals ended she was so docile that he had only to say, “Look out for your head when you go through the door” to make her come quietly back into the room.

During the long weeks of rehearsal they did no more than have coffee together with five or six other members of the cast. But there was already something between them that could be called love.

On opening night, when Miss Krause walked onto the stage to criticize the performances, she turned to Paula first. “I said you couldn’t act. I was wrong.” Benjamin had redeemed her in the eyes of the drama department. He had also done something more important. He had taught her his view of life—that work is joy and life is fun and that it is thrilling to execute something in the best possible way just for its own sake.

“That’s when acting became not only a passion or an obsession for me, but a thing that I could en joy, ” Paula now tells. “It became a design for living.”

Long time no kiss

It was only then—a year and a half after he had met her—that he kissed her.

“I was shy at that first moment when he kissed me, because I had been wanting it,” she admits. “Oh I tell you, oh I swear I had been wanting it. But when it happened, I knew that he knew me so well. I could feel shy or embarrassed and he would understand.”

A few months later a talent scout saw her in a Northwestern production and brought her to Hollywood.

Paula and Dick intended to get married, but she was in California and he was working in the east during the year that followed. Then, last December, on her way to London for a three-day appearance tour, she stopped in Toronto where he was dialogue director on a play. They drank champagne and talked sadly of star-crossed lovers while tears trickled down their cheeks.

They were halfway through the bottle when an executive called from London. “Miss Prentiss, we would like to have you stay for an extra three days.”

She was high enough to be daring. “I can’t,” she said. “I was intending to come hack and get married—unless, of course, it’s possible for you to arrange for my fiance to come with me.”

There was a trans-Atlantic pause.

“I will call you back in a few minutes, Miss Prentiss.”

They finished the champagne while they waited. This time the telephone call came from an executive in California. “We would like to know if you and Mr. Benjamin are married.”

“Not yet.”

“If I may make a suggestion . . .”

When she told Dick the suggestion, he shrugged. “If that’s the price I have to pay for a free trip to England,” he said, “I suppose I’ll pay it—what else?”

They were married in New York three days later and she was forty minutes late to the wedding.

They live in a Culver City apartment built by a ship’s carpenter. The building has a moat and a thatched roof copied from an illustration for Grimm’s fairy tales. The floors and walls are red cedar and are held together with hand-carved wooden pegs instead of nails. The windows and doors are portholes, and the cupboards have rope handles. Paula has allowed only five people to enter the apartment since she is too sensitive to expose herself to the ridicule of people who would find it “weird” or “crazy” or would pity her for not living in Beverly Hills.

The apartment is within a block of a supermarket, a necessity she once said she could not live without, since her enormous appetite causes the purchase of $50 worth of groceries each week. Although it seems somewhat like carrying coals to Newcastle, she breakfasts on an “energy cocktail” of osterized peppers, liver, fruit and cucumber.

Her passions are still partially uncontrolled. She still scatters her emotions like popcorn. She is still so entangled with the trees that she misses the forest.

Her tantrums most often take the form of throwing anything at hand—from a bowl of cranberry sauce to a cup of birdseed—at Benjamin. But their fights are really exercises in self-dramatization. They usually end in laughter as she struggles to pick up a bench or statue that is obviously too heavy for her to throw.

She has learned some emotional self-control. At least she knows that passion is for the birds. She no longer runs away when upset.

Dick seems only mildly concerned by the dangers of living with Paula. Even while washing the cranberry sauce out of his hair, he was calm enough to say, “Every day is different when you live with Paula. Of course, I may not live beyond the age of thirty, but,” he adds with a flourish of understatement, “I feel it’s going to be extremely interesting until then.”


Paula Prentiss stars with Jim Hutton in M-G-M’s “The Horizontal Lieutenant.”






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