Forbidden Divas RIP: Help Me, Rhonda!

David Melville Wingrove’s latest Forbidden Divas piece seems like a suitable way to close out The Late Show for 2020. Though the film itself is not a particularly late one in its star’s life (or that of its director or anyone else), it is also an obituary, and you can’t get any later than THAT.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Help Me, Rhonda!

“It was to save your life that I became…what I am”

~ Rhonda Fleming, Queen of Babylon

A weird numinous glow seems to emanate from movies you loved as a child. When I was eight years old, I thought that Queen of Babylon (1954) was quite simply the most wonderful film I had ever seen. It was a flashy, splashy, trashy Italian epic about a feisty red-haired shepherd girl named Semiramis (Rhonda Fleming) who rose to become queen of a vast empire.  Not that she was driven by anything as crass as a lust for power. It was true she got married to the evil King Assur. But she only did it to save the man she loved – a dashing rebel leader named Amahl (Ricardo Montalban) – from being tossed into a giant swimming pool and eaten alive by hungry crocodiles. This was my introduction to the fact that any and all relationships involve some form of compromise.

Watching Queen of Babylon today, it is hard to imagine a movie better calculated to appeal to a gay eight-year-old. The wardrobe worn by Rhonda Fleming is the sort a drag artiste would kill for. She does an erotic dance before the king in a bikini made of aluminium foil. It is eerily similar to the one worn by Ursula Andress in The Tenth Victim (1965). OK, so she stops short of firing bullets out of her bra. But she still makes short work of a gorgeous half-naked slave boy, who has been placed in the middle of the dance floor for just that purpose. She marries the king in a crown that looks like a silver filigree flower pot perched on her head. The fate of empires may hang in the balance, but this movie is less about politics than about fashion. That can only ever be a good thing.

An actress who never quite scaled the heights of Hollywood stardom, Rhonda Fleming is the ideal protagonist for a movie like Queen of Babylon. That is because her acting is never marred by subtlety or underplaying of any sort. Her every pose and expression is designed to fill a vast Technicolor screen. Her eyes blaze imperiously in every close-up. At each crisis – and one arises, reliably, at intervals of five minutes or less – she raises an arm in front of her face to indicate shock. She has remarkably beautiful hands, with long and sinuous fingers. But she repeats this gesture so often and so energetically that we fear she is about to gnaw her arm off at the elbow. This bothered me not the slightest as a child. After all, what was the point of acting if nobody could see you act?

So bowled over was I by this bravura display that Rhonda became, albeit briefly, my Absolute Number One Favourite Star. She was supplanted a year or so later by Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria (1965). I was desperate to see Rhonda in other movies – but, alas, by the 70s she and the films she made had fallen out of favour. She had drifted into doing guest spots in TV cop shows or ‘witnessing’ on evangelical Christian broadcasts about how Jesus had helped her through her countless divorces and remarriages. Like her friend Jane Russell, she was a devout Born Again Christian and a staunch right-wing Republican. But she seemed a remarkably nice lady for all that. To put it bluntly, Rhonda Fleming talking about Jesus was more fun than most other people doing most other things.

It took me years to catch up on the rest of her career. Born in Los Angeles in 1925, she was perhaps the only female star to be discovered by the infamous gay super-agent Henry Willson. (She seemed like a girl who would have baulked at sleeping her way to the top; with Willson as her agent, it is a safe bet she did not have to.) Her debut at the age of 19 was as a mental patient in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Spellbound (1945) Her character was meant to be ‘a nymphomaniac’ – and Rhonda confessed years later she had not the faintest idea what that word meant. She went home, looked it up in the dictionary and was profoundly shocked. But she played the role with undeniable gusto. Along with the Salvador Dalí dream sequence, Rhonda Fleming is the liveliest thing in that film.

She played a few more minor roles in major movies – she appears, for a few minutes each, in The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) – but it was major roles in minor movies that made Rhonda Fleming a legend. She was Cleopatra in the riotous no-budget Serpent of the Nile (1953). Even a dance by Julie Newmar, with her body painted gold all over, could not quite upstage Rhonda. Her greatest roles were in two films by Allan Dwan. In the homoerotic Western Tennessee’s Partner (1955) she is the madam of an establishment called The Marriage Market. It is decorated in red plush and gilt and is all too obviously a whorehouse. In the Technicolor film noir Slightly Scarlet (1956) she plays a nice upstanding girl with a trashy nympho sister (Arlene Dahl). As the film progresses, we learn that the ‘bad’ girl is really not all that bad – and that the ‘good’ girl is really not that good!

Her role in Queen of Babylon is both a ‘good’ girl and a ‘bad’ girl depending on the scene. Hence it is more complex than that of her co-star Ricardo Montalban. The devastatingly handsome Mexican actor is given little to do apart from shake his great big sword in defiance of tyranny. Then he gets captured, stripped to the waist, tied up and tortured in as many sadistic and photogenic ways as possible. I can think of no more satisfying use for his talents. The director Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia lays on the depravity and gore to a degree Hollywood at that time would not have dared. The mass catfight in a dungeon rivals the Sapphic excess of Prisoner of Cell Bock H. And if Ben-Hur (1959) is famous for its chariot race…well, this movie has a scene where monkeys race around a banquet hall in chariots pulled by dwarfs. Dare I confess I enjoyed this race a whole lot more?

Somehow I doubt Rhonda Fleming talked much about Queen of Babylon in later years. When she flew to Rome to make it, she had not yet learned a lady does not do anything she cannot reminisce about at Republican Party conventions. Her last years were dedicated to charity and good works and her death in 2020 – following those of Olivia de Havilland, Juliette Gréco and Lucia Bosè – made me fear that almost nobody I like will be left alive by the end of this epically awful year. Queen of Babylon is the sort of movie little gay boys dream about in their sleep. It says that you too may one day grow up to be a queen, if only you wish hard enough.

David Melville

7 Responses to “Forbidden Divas RIP: Help Me, Rhonda!”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In 1965 Julie Christie became my Number One Star — and still is. Her escapades in Capri with her gay pal “Malcolm” made an enormous impression on me and I’ve been looking for a Julie to hang with ever since. (I am needless to say, a tad older than you.)

    Rhonda Fleming is marvelous, especially in “Slightly Scarlet” with fellow bombshell Arlene Dahl (mother of hunk-a-liciousLorenzo Lamas) and “While the City Sleeps” –where she’s terrorized by Drew Barrymore’s father.

  2. We all need a Julie to hang with.

    Dahl is transcendent in Anthony Mann’s very weird The Black Book.

    I did a Rhonda Fleming mini-interview after finding she was on Facebook… it should be somewhere on Shadowplay, but I have no idea where… she couldn’t remember much about her movies, a problem I now apparently have with my blog…

  3. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I would love to read the interview with Rhonda if you ever find it!

    Not sure I could ever have attempted such a thing. Terence Davies? Charlotte Rampling? OK, fine. All in a day’s work, But Rhonda? I would have been just too hopelessly star-struck!

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Norman Lloyd (who just turned 106) is in “The Black Book”

  5. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    So glad somebody is still alive!

  6. Arlene Dahl, a mere stripling at 95.

  7. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    For quite a few years, SLIGHTLY SCARLET – which stars Rhonda and Arlene – was my go-to title as The Classic Movie Where Both Stars Are Still Alive.

    First it was LETTER FROM AN UNKOWN WOMAN, then it was YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, then it was SLIGHTLY SCARLET.

    I have no idea what movie could claim the honour now. WEST SIDE STORY? MARY POPPINS? But those are already from the 60s.

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