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THE MATTER OF PRINCIPAL

Stardom, to be maintained, must be continually relaunched. Oscar-nominated actresses talk nervously about the Jill Clayburgh Career, aware that Clayburgh did maybe one too many movies about independent women. Switch course, change image, but retain sexuality . When 40 was still scary, Jane Fonda found fitness (and retained a sexual image on screen); when movie offers subsided, Katharine Hepburn went back to Broadway. But stars who last are after more than sexuality or money or attention--they must make career moves that count, or they’re counted out. Sally Field’s pursuit of director Bob Rafelson got her the feature “Stay Hungry,” which led to TV’s “Sybil.” An Emmy and two Oscars followed, and Sally Field became a role model for actresses in transition. TV series actresses are always in transition: “This is my final season” is their anthem, and their fear.

In March, Victoria Principal left “Dallas” after nine seasons as good-girl Pamela Barnes Ewing. She left with three best-selling fitness books (for Simon & Schuster), a six-figure endorsement deal (for Jhirmack hair-care products) and residuals that will last her the rest of her life. In March, she read the rewrite of a script for the CBS-TV movie “Mistress"--the saga of a small-town beauty who’s kept lovingly by a rich married man--and she wanted it. Badly. The problem: Nobody seemed to want Victoria Principal. And she knew it.

Working against her were certain “negatives,” and she knew what they were. Bring them up and even now her hands go tense and tighten into fists. Which one to begin with? TV ensemble actress. Never carried a film. Never carried anything but a commercial or a magazine cover. Too obvious a choice to play a mistress. Too beautiful to be sympathetic. Too sophisticated to be a victim. A lightweight.

“It’s not overstating to say that I crawled and scratched and did everything else professionally to get this part,” said Principal on a recent afternoon, serving lunch by her Beverly Hills pool. Crawl and scratch? The woman who’s had more magazine covers than Princess Di (and a more colorful past) and as much worldwide visibility as Joan Collins? “I just had to have this part. And I knew what I was up against. Or thought I knew.”

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The Yalie and the Beauty

Victoria Principal as “Mistress” may sound like high-concept TV, in an era of high-concept everything. But not to executive producers Sherry Lansing and Richard Fischoff.

Lansing--dubbed in a 1979 Life magazine article “the most beautiful woman in movies today"--was the first female production president of a major studio (20th Century Fox). Today--after five years of partnership with producer Stanley Jaffe (“Kramer vs. Kramer”)--she’s riding a current hit (“Fatal Attraction”).

Fischoff is the former Yalie and publishing veteran who brought the manuscript of “Kramer” to Jaffe, and went on to run the film division of Carson Productions, where he championed “The Big Chill.”

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If these credits are blue-chip, they mean primarily that the producers are expected to deliver touches of class. That’s a given within the industry. These are the kind of producers, in short, who are more apt to be at Malibu dinner parties on Friday nights than at home watching “Dallas.”

Pamela Barnes Ewing? Who’s she?

So what if TV Guide called Principal the most beautiful woman on television? That’s television. And whoever she was, she wasn’t wanted for “Mistress” (which airs at 9 p.m. next Sunday on CBS). The film is a relatively straightforward (if dark-as-night) drama about a mistress whose lover of nine years (Don Murray) dies and leaves her without resources--emotional or financial. “Mistress” is a rarity for TV, a two-hour character study, and among the original actresses sought were Marsha Mason, Barbara Hershey and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally the film was shot in 18 days by director Michael Tuchner (“A Man Called Adam”). The British director knew less about “Dallas” than Fischoff or Lansing and was only one of six players who had to be convinced that Principal could play more than Pam Ewing.

A Mistress Needs Sex

One recent afternoon, Sherry Lansing stretched out in her Paramount office, which used to belong to Lucille Ball, and said: “I have to be honest with you. If I really didn’t want her, Victoria would not have gotten the part. But I was thinking older . Therefore a woman with less optimism, a woman whose looks are starting to go. Victoria’s looks are not starting to go. I also wanted a feature (film) actress. An older feature actress. But once we saw what was available. . . .”

On another day, on a “Mistress” location at Los Angeles International Airport, Fischoff amplified Lansing’s story. “There was an extraordinarily gifted actress, older, who Sherry was interested in going with. And I said point-blank, ‘If you want her, I won’t work on it.’ Because I wouldn’t believe it, and nobody in the audience would, either. A mistress is still the ultimate accessory. For men, the idea that you can attract and perform with young flesh is a big part of the motor.”

A mistress sans sexuality obviously wouldn’t work. Ellen Meyer, the casting director for “Mistress,” suggests a one-word reason why Principal wasn’t originally wanted: “ ‘Dallas.’ A series shoots many episodes quickly and so Victoria never had the luxury of working on a role. She needed to get a new ball rolling, and this was a giant boulder. I think ‘Dallas’ made the ‘Mistress’ people skeptical. I’d watched how she grew on ‘Dallas,’ and I had a clue. To me, she was never a risk. But there was skepticism.”

In various ways. The Jaffe-Lansing production company was expected to deliver to CBS actors from feature backgrounds, not TV stars. “What we didn’t want to do was ‘Portrait of a Mistress,’ ” said Fischoff. “So my initial resistance to Victoria was twofold. If she wasn’t able to deliver the performance we wanted--and there was no indication she could--we’d all get nailed for doing exploitation. And then I wasn’t convinced Victoria was willing to dismantle her persona and cannibalize who she is and what she knows. . . . The girl in ‘Mistress’ is only special in a small-town way.”

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Covering Hollywood Bases

Two years ago, on a crowded afternoon at the Jose Eber salon in Beverly Hills, Principal ran into Farrah Fawcett, who was just off to New York to play in “Extremities” off-Broadway. Said Principal: “Rather innocently and sincerely, I said to Farrah, ‘Have you got an acting coach?’ Farrah looked at me, steadfastly, and said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you think you should think about it?’ I will never forget the way she looked at me, with real self-confidence, and said, ‘No. Because I’ve got it.’ She was so sure she had that character (in “Extremities”) that I became sure of her, too. . . . And that’s how I felt about Rae in ‘Mistress.’ ”

When Principal wants something, she can be adamant. She has an old-fashioned, undisguised desire for stardom, TV or otherwise. Principal found out that “they just didn’t want to meet with anyone from TV,” and after getting angry, she decided to be clear-sighted. “There had to be some way I could get this. What could I bring that was more than their expectation? What was I missing? I had no real piece of film to show them. I had only this conviction. Yet there appeared to be continued resistance to seeing me. I decided I wanted to meet them. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Covering every base imaginable--and unimaginable--is part of playing Hollywood. Before meeting with the powers on “Mistress,” the actress put in a call to Lansing. The two women have known each other since the ‘60s; in the mid-'70s, Principal--who had left acting and was a packaging agent with Irv Schecter Co.--asked Lansing, then a story editor at MGM, if she could come observe her doing business. Principal wanted to watch another businesswoman working, and at that point there weren’t many in Hollywood. Now a dozen years later, Principal was again calling Lansing with a question.

“This was a few days before the meeting. I said, ‘Sherry, are there any real negatives I should be aware of?’ I felt if there were deeper reasons for not wanting me, I should know. I mean I was having trouble with their reluctance to even meet with me. . . . Sherry did express that she was interested in a feature actress, but other than that she wasn’t adverse to me.”

Lansing remembers the call. “Victoria was saying, in effect, ‘Listen, Sherry, I want to come in and sell myself.’ At this point in her career, for her to have to prove herself to us or anyone was surprising.”

The hello-let’s-meet meeting was scheduled for a few minutes, but lasted 1 1/2 hours. Present were Principal, Fischoff, director Tuchner and casting director Meyer, but not Lansing, who was in Vancouver producing a feature, “Reckless Endangerment,” with Kelly McGillis and Jodie Foster. The meeting didn’t mean that Principal would become the mistress. “They were impressed but not sold,” said Lansing. “But what was extraordinary was her saying, ‘I know none of you believe in me--but I could have been this girl.’ ”

Meeting With Principal

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What everybody agrees on is that another actress at Principal’s level would have insisted on an offer up front. As Fischoff explained: “Before meeting with Lindsay Wagner or Mia Farrow or Cheryl Ladd, I would have had to put a firm offer on the table, matching their price or bettering it. Before an actress would read it, there would be an offer. For Victoria to come in without any prenegotiation was uncommon. And impressive.”

And not demeaning? “She didn’t do anything demeaning,” said Fischoff. “She just asked to be taken seriously. Given who she is and where she’s at in her career, it would have been stupid and totally disrespectful of me not to give her and John Kimble (Principal’s agent) that opportunity. There wasn’t an iota of resistance to seeing her.” The resistance was to giving Principal the part. Two weeks after the meeting, she still hadn’t heard back.

The obvious conclusion: There were other people in the race. “One actress said no,” Lansing said, “one had a problem about money and one was unavailable. We saw nobody else after those three, though offers came to us.” Then why the complications about giving Principal a yes or no?

“It wasn’t that complicated,” said Fischoff. “Victoria came in and gave a very carefully thought out and orchestrated presentation of the Victoria Principal Persona. I was still wary; this movie rests on the actress’ shoulders. Victoria had never carried a film, so she represented a gamble.”

And then there was the network. “CBS exerted a great deal of pressure, yes,” said Fischoff, sighing. “It turns out they were right. But nobody was saying, ‘We think she is a brilliant actress.’ What I got was, ‘We have a relationship with her and we think she will deliver the numbers.’ To come down so hard for her early on may have done Victoria a disservice.”

Kim LeMasters, CBS v-p for programming, last week said: “I think it boiled down to some sincere questions and legitimate doubts on Jaffe-Lansing’s part about whether Victoria had the acting prowess for the role. These producers come from a world in which attention can be paid to very minute details about a performer’s strengths. In TV, we don’t usually have that luxury of time.” But if it had come to a power struggle, who would have had the power? “The networks and producers have mutual vetoes,” replied LeMasters. “But we never wanted this to reach Draconian levels, and it never did.”

All Principal wanted was an answer. “To this day,” said Principal, “I still don’t understand what happened after the meeting.” Principal didn’t play the character, or read; she simply talked about herself and her career. “I know there was a drawback in the sense I was being forced upon them (by CBS). And I could see myself being perceived as just another series actress wanting to do a TV movie. But those last two weeks of waiting amounted to emotional upheaval, a roller-coaster. I could have used those two weeks to prepare.”

Fischoff remembered using the two weeks “to have some conversations. I made calls to people who’d worked with Victoria, people who’d represented her. I tried to do research, and it was positive; I wasn’t looking for dirt, but I wanted to make as informed a decision as possible. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t overlooking gold in front of me. There are other actresses who come out of nighttime soaps who are competent, or better, but why go with one of them rather than Victoria? I have a semi-photographic mind, and I remember Victoria in the meeting answering some of my questions with the identical language she’d used in a recent TV Guide article. That made me wary. I still didn’t know who this woman was.”

And Fischoff had to be sure that on screen she was going to be neither Victoria Principal nor Pamela Ewing. The “Dallas"-phobia was understandable: TV movie producers are often wary of series stars--preferring to go with a Lee Remick or a Joanne Woodward--because of the shorthand and tricks learned on series. “Victoria is brilliant about lighting and she knows exactly where the camera is, and what it sees, but that isn’t necessarily what you want in a dramatic performance. You worry that her good work was based on her extraordinary physical beauty,” he said.

Finally, director Tuchner convinced Fischoff that he could “communicate with Victoria and win her trust and get what we wanted. I trusted Michael at that point. He wouldn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear. And then, finally, it’s your turn to midwife; somebody had to take Richard Chamberlain seriously, or Tuesday Weld, but you are on the griddle when you do.”

Then you wait. Fischoff recalled not feeling really right about Principal until the second day of shooting: “We were shooting outdoors, and Victoria, who misses nothing, saw me out of the corner of her eye; I don’t hide emotions well. She saw I was displeased, and suggested we take a walk. I remember saying, ‘You aren’t doing it. You are still showing the confidence that made you into Victoria Principal. You have to lose that.’ And she did--that afternoon. . . . ‘Mistress’ is a character study, and if you study the character now, it works.”

Whether the critics see Principal stretching is something else again. The mistress is not terminally ill or badly dressed--she’s simply a girl lost in a world too complicated for her. Said Fischoff: “It’s tricky if you don’t have those buttons"--Field’s multiple personas in “Sybil,” James Woods’ schizophrenia in “Promise"--"that make everybody automatically sympathetic. But there’s a real transformation in the way this character spirals downward.”

Girls in Black Dresses

Ten days ago at Chasen’s, a rather extraordinary hive of tall young beauties mingled with a Hollywood gamut that ranged from producer Ray Stark to Creative Artists agent Ron Meyer to songwriter Sammy Cahn to socialite Nancy Olson Livingston. The occasion: a book party for designer Oleg Cassini (“In My Own Fashion”). The best-dressed beauties (tall Carol Alt taking the prize) mixed easily with the magnates. It was a pure Hollywood souffle, whipped up by masters, by people (like Cassini) who know beauty is power, too.

“Are mistresses happy?” Sherry Lansing asked a few days later at her office. “No. What they are is likable, nice. But if your life is under someone else’s control you can only be happy for a while. Yet in almost every movie, the mistress is portrayed as not nice, in some way. (“Mistress” writer) Joyce Eliason (“Tell Me a Riddle”) went out and met some mistresses. She found, almost without exception, sweet girls who didn’t believe in themselves. The thread is, letting someone else take care of them. I know these girls.”

Indeed. There is a private joke in “Mistress,” and it’s shared by Lansing and Principal. Somewhere near the end of the movie, Principal’s Rae Colton appears in a V-neck black crepe de chine Holly Harp dress. Fifteen years ago, that dress was the trademark of a legendary Hollywood mistress, and when Lansing saw the rough cut, she called Principal: “That dress! I knew what you were up to!” Both women remember the porcelain beauty of the mistress. The dress symbolized that time in their lives when “there but for the grace of God go I,” as Lansing put it several times in interviews.

“I went to audition for commercials when I first came to Hollywood,” said Lansing, “Alberto-Culver, Clairol, etc. Let’s say there were 20 other people on line. Some of those people were Farrah (Fawcett), Linda Gray, Jackie Smith, maybe even Victoria was on those lines.”

(“I wasn’t,” said Principal, who soon after arriving in Hollywood was cast as Paul Newman’s mistress in John Huston’s “Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”)

The paradox, not uncommon in this community, is that neither Lansing nor Principal liked their looks in those years, and before. That’s why the woman in the V-neck Holly Harp dress haunted them--the woman in black was truly beautiful. “But remember, great beauties don’t make the great successes,” said Principal. “The great beauties are the hostesses at Malibu restaurants. You look at their beauty in awe. If a woman knows from an early age she’s pretty, she also knows it’s a form of barter. Whether she likes it or not. And lots of women don’t like it. I was raised to be pretty, but I always thought I was too dark-looking.”

Lansing goes full circle the other direction about her own looks. She sounds word-for-word like the beautiful actresses who tell you wistfully that, when young, they weren’t pretty. The lesson is that they learned to live without relying only on looks. “I was this tall at 16,” said Lansing, who is 5 foot 10, “and I was gawky and I had no confidence, and was nervous. My mother felt it would give me confidence if I modeled, so I became a runway model because I was tall enough. This is how hard it was: I invited three boys to my prom, and all three turned me down. I still remember their names. One said to me, ‘Some day, Sherry, you’ll grow into your face.’ You never erase that kind of memory.”

Lansing is talking about “the small parts of yourself, the fears, which remain irreconcilable with the reality, the success.” It’s a Hollywood Woman’s Dilemma, especially a beautiful Hollywood Woman’s Dilemma, and Lansing and Principal have had enough years in therapy to grasp it. Said Lansing: “In reality, it would have been impossible for me to slip into a ‘mistress’ mold. In fact, I never lived with a man.” (Lansing’s only marriage, to a San Francisco doctor, ended in the early ‘70s, while she was still teaching grade school in Watts.)

For Lansing, “the message to be gotten from those Alberto-Culver days is ‘Take care of yourself.’ If you don’t learn how to do that, if you don’t feel good taking care of yourself, you become a child. Or you stay one.”

Cut to the Chase

Staying the beautiful child has been a theme of Victoria Principal interviews for a decade now: Her past has been so thoroughly examined that, as she puts it, “How could anyone possibly embarrass me now? What’s left to say?” What’s left is the possibility that Principal could have been a Hollywood casualty. “Victoria could have been interchangeable with a hundred Hollywood beauties,” said Fischoff. “She could have been Debra Paget. By now, she could have married rich and disappeared. Yet given her looks, given her body, she still wound up playing the wife and mother (on “Dallas”), the good grounded Pamela Barnes Ewing. She was Miss Ellie young. Yet in ‘Mistress,’ she’d have to be a woman whose willingness to trade on her body becomes a trap. Victoria has known since she was 12 that men were responding to her physical being. She’s a genius in her ability to make men feel special.” Which is why playing Rae Colton was so important to the star; she had the equipment.

Lansing remembered the project as “the first thing Stanley (Jaffe) and I talked about when we formed our company five years ago.” Principal talked about “Mistress” as the first thing in years that she’s sought with such fervor. But why, finally? Is Rae Colton really so special?

“No, and that’s the point,” said Principal. “Rae is a sweet, pretty, nice girl, but not special. She was only special to one man. When someone loves you that much, it automatically makes you special. But Rae would only be extraordinary in a town of plain people. She never came together as a human being.”

It’s casting against type, but then so is casting Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” and Close did practically what Principal did--she walked into the producer’s offices and demanded to be considered. “What’s irresistible,” said Lansing seductively, “is when determination matches a part. When you are confident enough to sell yourself--and good enough to deliver--that’s when you can cut to the chase.”

Postscript

Careers really can be relaunched. Only because of “Mistress” (for which she received a healthy six-figure salary), Principal has found renewed interest from CBS in “Scandal Kills,” a TV movie she developed two years ago, and next year is planning to co-star in “Cynthia,” a five-hour TV film for producer Chuck McClain (“Nutcracker”).

“I think she can do anything,” McClain said last week.

Is there life after a TV series? Yes, if you can claw and scratch--and act.


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