Doris Dowling, 81; Film Star in U.S., Italy

Times Staff Writer

Doris Dowling, the deep-voiced brunet actress who made her screen debut as the hooker in Billy Wilder’s classic “The Lost Weekend,” has died. She was 81.

Dowling died Friday in Los Angeles of natural causes.

Born in Detroit, Dowling began acting on stage and then followed her older sister, the late actress Constance Dowling, to Hollywood.

Doris Dowling captured major attention -- even Oscar buzz -- in Wilder’s 1945 film about alcoholism, which earned Academy Awards for best picture, actor (Ray Milland), director (Wilder) and screenplay (by Wilder and Charles Brackett).


“Her performance as the girl in the bar in ‘The Lost Weekend,’ distinguished by the way she clips off words, will, it is believed, almost entitle her to academy recognition,” wrote Times entertainment columnist Edwin Schallert on Dec. 2, 1945.

It didn’t, but Dowling had made an impression. She was soon cast in another memorable film, the Raymond Chandler-scripted “The Blue Dahlia,” starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

Despite Dowling’s quick double success, she soon found herself caught in Hollywood’s postwar slump. With no scripts coming her way, she followed her sister to Rome, where both spent several years working in Italian films.

Director Giuseppe de Santis was impressed by the younger Dowling’s dark hair, soulful eyes, alabaster complexion and deep voice, which colleagues saw as “the face of Italy.” If she brushed up on her Italian, de Santis told her, she could become the star of his new film “Bitter Rice” -- as the jewelry thief hiding among and transformed by the Mondinas, or women rice workers, in Northern Italy’s Po Valley.

Like actual workers paid as extras, Dowling and co-star Silvana Mangano worked from morning to night in waist-deep water. When the film wrapped, Dowling needed time off to recuperate.

“It was frightfully humid,” Dowling told The Times after returning to Los Angeles in 1950. “We really lived the life of the people who work in the fields.”

The highly lauded, low-budget picture, along with “Open City” and a handful of others showing the realities of Italian life after World War II, helped rebuild the country’s film industry and secure its place in international theaters.

Dowling made five other films in Italy and France, including one in English, Orson Welles’ “Othello.”

The actress continued working intermittently until near the end of her life. She amassed credits in a dozen feature films, numerous stage plays encompassing the works of Shakespeare and more than 100 television shows, from the live “Playhouse 90" through such series as “Bonanza,” “Barnaby Jones” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She also appeared in miniseries, including 1980’s “Scruples.”

She served on the board of directors of Los Angeles’ Theater East.

Dowling married three times. She was the seventh wife of bandleader Artie Shaw, whom she married in 1952 and divorced in 1956. She was married to United Artists executive Robert F. Blumofe from 1956 until their divorce in 1959.

In 1960, she married publicist Leonard B. Kaufman, who survives. Dowling is also survived by one son, Jonathan Shaw.

No services were planned.