'If her body of work offers service as a miscellany of possibility, then her body works as a miscellany of possible services' Norman Mailer
'The theory of Six Degrees of Separation slims down to three or four degrees with Polly Ventuno. If you don't know her, you know no-one. If you know her, you know everybody.' Gore Vidal
'How do I describe her? Two parts Sophia Loren. One part Gilles Deleuze. One part Russ Meyer Supervixen. One part Steve Reeves. One part Lucille Ball. One part Arthur Scargill. And perhaps another part Sophia Loren, just so her gorgeousness doesn't get diluted.' Germaine Greer
Polly Ventuno, better known as Polly Twenty-One, has amassed a startling array of film credits over the course of a long and langorous career. She has been an exotic starlet, a camp fetish object, an intellectual, an avant-guardian, an activist, and famously, 'too beautiful to be a plausible'. That is the name of the documentary which attempts to cram into ninety-four minutes many lifetimes. It lingers on the scuffles (when she slapped Lee Majors on live television; when she called Ali McGraw a 'fembot of self-loathing'), but fails to do justice to the mind-boggling list of credits on her film CV. Impossible as it is to cover it all, I feel this should be rectified somewhat, and have chosen to pick out some of the highlights from a career that spans nearly seventy years. The total number of pictures are innumerable: 'one stops counting at five-hundred, my dear. And you should too. It's only polite,' says Polly herself in the documentary.
In many ways, Polly has had the perfect career; for her happiness, anyway. 'I have been in so many terrible movies that I am unsinkable' she claims, and while this is a touch severe, there are enough blemishes, such as Josh Kosloff's risible Tip-Toe (1983, in which Rutger Hauer enters the Stealth World Championships), and Don Invigilator's dreary Space Hub (1954, space opera, plot long forgotten) to offer question marks. That she has endured unscathed may suggest something quite simple: that she has been castable, versatile and well just plain good enough times to stay lovable. Considering her genesis as 'ze most bootiful womans in ze hull whirld' (as Orson Welles famously jibed, gently mocking Polly's swirling vowels), and the precariousness of such a position, this is worth celebrating.
It was Welles who gave her a start, in his myth-assaulting Bellerophon (1943), and if her role in this, Sam Fuller's bone-hard war flick The Bejesus! (1951) and Welles' own Non Quixote (1952) revolved around little more than her ample charms, she was wonderful in all. A lead role in Roger Corman's Oskar Minimal (1957), as the lonely wife of a shrinking scientist showed that she really had the chops, and a part in Douglas Sirk's Cashmere Perfection was to follow, Polly's shadowboxing scene with Tab Hunter the most memorable moment in the box office smash of summer 1960.
She brilliantly avoided megastardom at this point, taking roles in campy dreck and small independent projects, apparently at whim. Straddling both was Return To Zembla from 1968. Boob-house legend Russ Meyer made this as a sequel to Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. In the novel, our narrator, Charles Kinbote, who claims to be an exiled king from the country of Zembla, provides radically mistaken commentary on a poem by poet John Shade, claiming the poem to be about himself, and his journey from Zembla. We slowly become aware not only of Kinbote's delusions, but of his contribution to Shade's death. Return To Zembla sees Kinbote (Kurt Just) struggling back through the wilderness of a post-hippy America, running into busty flower children everywhere. Polly plays a visionary femme whose dreams of Zembla fit Kinbote's descriptions, and who helps the hero on his journey home. He doesn't get there; they rut endlessly.
The iconic roles continued: In Bob Fosse's electric Manhattan-set Alice in Wunderland (1977), Polly played the Queen of Hearts in a disco-fuelled re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's yarn. Memorable choreography and turns from an eccentric cast, including Fosse himself (The Mad Hatter), James Caan (the Cheshire Cat), Richard Pryor (the Black Rabbit, running to a meeting with his dealer), Donna Summer (The Duchess) and Pat Benatar (the Dormouse) mean this is an endlessly watchable slice of nonsense.
And on and on; whenever she seemed certain to fade into poor television and straight-to-video purgatory, up she would pop in something bold and deviant, like Abel Ferrera's kinetic Segue (1990, alongside William Burroughs as a shotgun-toting bus driver) or Claude Chabrol's deft suppression-of-story undrama Subtext (1995). These proved she still had legs and wit. The argument that she might have been a 'great' actress with different choices is moot, especially when you consider how good she is in so many things. Even when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1982 for her role in Harold Ramis' A Confederacy of Dunces, she refused to take herself seriously. 'One felt all along, that we were playing a game that Polly wanted no part in. That was charming and quite something.' said Leslie Ann Warren, a fellow nominee that year. Or as critic Giles Hunter puts it: 'Polly is among the most gifted and prolific actresses of any generation, but her name is nowhere to be found on any awards list; not, I would venture, because she fails to live up to the ceremonies' implicit criterion of importance, but because she steadfastly refuses to try.'
Too Beautiful To Be Plausible: The Tale of Polly 21 Directed by Lucy Fedoro, Produced by Lucy Fedoro, Jeff Lynch Starring Polly Ventuno, Norman Mailer, Lee Majors, Germaine Greer, Joan Rivers, Gore Vidal Ultimo/Gossard Productions 94 mins Release Date UK/US: Nov 2006 Tagline: 'You Know Her. You Don't. You Love Her. You Should.'