Monday, 4 August 2014

Going Green: Susan Oliver's Story In Full

Fiercely Independent

Those two words have stayed with me all the way since I first spoke to George Pappy about his biographical opus, The Green Girl in February of this year and now, having seen the pic, I agree that those six syllables do sum up Susan Oliver very succinctly.

Even with spending a good amount of time talking to director/writer/producer George, I didn't know what I was going to get but I did know it would be something that I would walk away from at least knowing a bit more about the girl behind the green.

Let's touch on that first actually - aside from the introductory reel and a few minutes within the body of the documentary, Star Trek and Susan's appearance in it do not take up a great deal of the running time. Now for some fans that might make you let your shoulders drop and feel shortchanged but what it makes you realise is how such a small part of her life made her recognisable to millions - and still does.

Pappy's work here covers everything from her birth as Charlotte Gercke on February 13th 1932 through to her death on May 10th 1990 but rather than taking a straight journey between those two points we're taken through a structured narrative arranged around key parts of her full life; her early acting career, the multitude of guest star roles, her relationship with her mother, her money issues, relationships, becoming a qualified pilot and her adept but underused skills at directing for television.
Edited by Pappy and Amy Glickman Brown, the format is standard with talking heads mixed with footage from a ton of classic shows such as The Invaders, Rawhide, Peyton Place, Wagon Train and The Virginian - but naming only those is a tiny drop in the pool and a search on IMDb will show you how prolific Susan Oliver was in the 1950's, '60's and 70's in front of the camera.

But as I said to start, those words echoed right through my watching of The Green Girl and as you listen to her friends, family and co-stars you get a better idea that Susan only ever did what she wanted to do and when she wanted to do it. Yes, there were year on year guest appearances in certain shows that she went back for but there was more going on away from the screen to keep her busy whether it was property management, getting to grips with the nature of the male-dominant directorial world or challenging herself to fly across the Atlantic solo. The acting helped pay for all this to become a reality but we do get a sense that it wasn't all happiness.

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Appearing alongside her step-brother James Gercke and step-sister Skip Gercke are female director Nancy Malone (who is credited on a couple of Voyager episodes) who is still fired up about the lack of women behind the camera and relates just how difficult life there was made difficult for Susan to the point where she had trouble getting a gig. There's also Celeste Yarnall who guest starred in The Apple as Yeoman Martha Landon and Catwoman/Star Trek guest Lee Merriwether. Talking more of their appreciation of Susan Oliver as an actress goes to show how well known she was but how her choice early in her career to get out of a contract affected her ability to get a major role thereafter. 

However as we see, she blossomed in other areas that even to the people interviewed find amazing to hear about in some cases. I for one found the story of her relationship (in more than one sense it seems) with flight instructor Mira Slovak very interesting when you got into the finer points about Susan's choice to make the potentially life-threatening flight across the Atlantic. Great for publicity but awful for your health but that didn't stop her from accumulating five flight world records during her time in the air. 

That's the big draw with The Green Girl aside from the blatant Star Trek link - Susan Oliver was not just a bit part actress. Her potential, even at the time of her death, was still hugely untapped and there could have been a chunk more for her to do - maybe even direct. That side to her was, as we see from both actors who worked for her on assignments or from peers such as Laurie Agard and the previously noted Nancy Malone, scuppered mainly due to a bad experience on one show one time - but as with the acting career that never flourished into full A-List stardom, one problem can cause life to spiral in a different direction. 

It is indeed that Fierce Independence which took Susan Oliver through every point in her life and made such an impact on the people we see here and I came away feeling as though Hollywood let her down or maybe passed her off to easily when there were seemingly so many who appreciated and understood what she was about.

The most telling aspects of The Green Girl are from two of her friends, actor Biff Maynard and Ron Wright-Sherr. While the other faces provide us with a close analysis of her working life such as David Hedison (nice guy, met him once on the way to the loo), Monte Markham (sadly I only remember him from a stint on Baywatch) and Ray Thinnes (quite good in The X Files as well as The Invaders); it is these two people who take us closest to Susan Oliver's real persona and seem to have understood who she was the most. After 90 minutes of putting the pieces of her life into perspective for the camera it is the emotions that rise to the surface for both Ron and Biff which show how much she is still missed 24 years after she succumbed to cancer.

It left me a little emptier knowing how such a packed, vibrant life had flicked and fizzled at the end - maybe fame was something Susan Oliver subconsciously shunned (she adamantly refused to have a star on the Boulevard) and is only now, thanks to this production, being recognised. I'm very glad that these 90 minutes don't focus heavily on her Star Trek appearance as it could easily have done. Fans of the show will be drawn because of the title but I don't think they will be disappointed with the result.

George Pappy has devoted the last few years to The Green Girl and I think he can walk away happy. It is a superb testament to the work ethic, the life and the beliefs of a woman who has for too long only been remembered for being Vina, stuck behind the final shot of the closing credits of one season of Star Trek when there were more layers and stories about her that had never been told. This documentary lays it all out and while it paints a very favourable picture of Susan Oliver you feel that there are still more things that we could do with understanding but may never uncover, in particular the relationship with her mother which is touched upon but not to the extent that it seems to have controlled her life. Nor do we see any of those who disagreed with Susan or had issue with her at one time or another.

While that might have put a negative spin on some aspects it would have darkened the production and the overall focus on achievement which we see in Susan's 58 years on this world. Keeping it positive reflects that ferocity to succeed in shadowy times that this actress faced at points in her life and I think she would be proud. The tragedy that was her forgotten, extensive and varied career is now worldwide - after all, having your story immortalised in such a poetic way through the words and recollections of those you knew alongside the moments of your career is going to last a lot longer than any old star on a pavement....

You can get your copy of The Green Girl now by heading over to the website.

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