A new direction for Connie Stevens
Somehow singer-actress Connie Stevens didn’t get the memo that film directing is considered a young man’s game. Sure, there are plenty of filmmakers over age 60 who are working, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Clint Eastwood, who is turning 81 in May. But they all started directing four decades ago -- and they’re all men.
In 2007, Stevens directed and cowrote her first feature film, “Saving Grace B. Jones,” which played a few festivals in 2009. It screens Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival and is set for theatrical release this year. The 72-year-old Stevens will start her second film as director in a few months.
A bouncy blond with a distinctive raspy voice, Stevens first came to fame as photographer-singer Cricket Blake on the 1959-63 ABC detective series “Hawaiian Eye.” She appeared in such films as 1958’s “Rock-a-Bye Baby” with Jerry Lewis and was a popular entertainer at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas for some 15 years. In between gigs, she also was a single parent to her daughters, actresses Joely Fisher and Tricia Leigh Fisher, from her short-lived marriage to crooner Eddie Fisher.
Stevens had long wanted to direct a narrative feature -- she had helmed the 1997 documentary “Healing,” about nurses who served in Vietnam -- but she admits she kept putting it off. Then 9/11 happened. Stevens lives in Beverly Hills, but at that time she was staying at her apartment in New York. “I watched it out my window,” she said recently.
“It was very traumatic. I was stuck in my apartment for seven days, and when I came back, I drove back with Diane Ladd and her husband,” she recalled. “We were on the superhighway in Missouri and it said Booneville. I said, ‘I have been there. I know it.’ ”
So they took a detour to the small town. “On the way, I was telling them the story.”
In 1951, Stevens was living in Brooklyn but one day went into Manhattan with friends for a stage show and movie. The theater was big, and she became separated from everyone else. “It was so late,” she recalled. “I found a bus, and I went home.”
During one of the bus’ stops, she witnessed the murder of a man outside the window. “I had never seen that kind of violence. The murder made me catatonic.” So her father sent her to live with the family of a friend of his in Booneville. Living with the family was the friend’s sister, Grace, who had recently been released after years in an asylum. “I fictionalized certain parts, but everything Grace did [in the movie], what she said, is just verbatim of what I could remember.”
After visiting Booneville and reuniting with people she knew in 1951, she came home and the script “just flowed.” After she finished the script, she gave it to a friend to read. “He said: ‘You have got to do this movie. It will help people and teach people about compassion.’ ”
The film, shot in Booneville, stars Tatum O’Neal as Grace, Michael Biehn as her brother, Penelope Ann Miller as Grace’s sister-in-law and Stevens’ daughter Tricia as a pregnant neighbor.
Stevens had other experience with mental illness. She bonded with actress Frances Farmer, who’d made a short-lived comeback in a low-budget 1958 film, “The Party Crashers,” they’d both appeared in. Farmer had been a major star in the 1930s and early ‘40s but had been in and out of mental institutions. “She wouldn’t talk to anybody. She would stay alone. But I think it was because I had this experience with Grace. I befriended her. People would come over to me and say, ‘She seems to respond to you. Would you go over and ask Miss Farmer to come on the set?’ She never finished the film....”
Stevens didn’t seem nervous about directing her first feature film. “The first time I heard the actors says the words that had come out of my head, that was quite a spectacular feeling,” she said.
Miller was impressed with Stevens for many reasons. “I think she has a lot of respect for actors,” she said. “Certainly, there is always stuff to learn as a first-time director and knowing what is necessary to shoot. I think she was always trying to cover her bases. She is just a workhorse, that woman. Her energy is just amazing.”
After her three months in Booneville 60 years ago, Stevens returned home to Brooklyn. “I was a lot stronger,” Stevens said. She soon came out to California to live with her father. “I stayed and then I left home at 15. I have been working ever since. I got with [the singing group] the Three Debs and then the Four Most. That is when I was discovered by an agent. I did the movie ‘Dragstrip Riot’ and then they showed that to Jerry Lewis and I got “Rock-a-Bye Baby.’ I sang in it, and I got a recording contract.”
She did a lot of guest spots on TV shows shot at Warner Bros., including “Maverick,” “Sugarfoot” and “77 Sunset Strip” before she got “Hawaiian Eye” with Robert Conrad. Stevens also had a hit record with “Sunset Strip” heartthrob Edd Byrnes called “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb).”
“Recording was difficult,” she recalled. “I was doing a TV show where I sang every week, but studio head Jack Warner never allowed me to sing a song on the show I recorded. ‘Kookie’ was done at 2 a.m.!”
‘Saving Grace B. Jones’
Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival
Where: Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 12:45 p.m. Saturday
Contact: www.womens filmfest.com