In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes that it is sad for any moviegoer to have no film star burning during his or her most impressionable years. Through passing time it becomes evident that our favorite stars wereeminent “because of the way they first marked consciousness. Once penetrated, we never forget the scar.”
Paula Prentiss was introduced to movie audiences at the age of 20 in the cult beach comedy Where the Boys Are (1960), in which she played an independent and sensitive young woman. For some male cinema-goers she made us aware of the alternative role of females who had a decidedly affirmative participation in the world’s affairs.
Another important aspect of her film persona was her humor. Watching Paula Prentiss is always fun — a delight to the eyes and ears. The rich inflexions of her voice, her free acting style, and the unusual ways in which she uses her body — quite often being the center of the jokes, as in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) — are all part of the fun.
Sometimes glamour is the only reason why some film stars are on the screen, but in Paula’s case her beauty was but an additional asset: a tall, lean brunette with a wonderful smile, dark and dreamy eyes, and an attractive figure that guaranteed her inclusion in the list of the 100 sexiest stars of film history as voted by moviegoers and published by the British magazine Empire in 1995.
The credit for projecting such an invigorating persona through the screen, though, must go mostly to Prentiss herself. She came to Hollywood when the star system was ending, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer put her in other films (often as Jim Hutton’s love interest) that today are best remembered for her presence. Bachelor in Paradise (1961) — based on a story by Vera Caspary, the author of Laura and Les Girls — and The Honeymoon Machine (1962) are the best of the lot. The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962), Follow the Boys (1963), and Looking for Love (1964) are sadly afflicted by routine scriptwriting and direction.
Paula’s Latin origin, her close family upbringing, her dramatic training (or even that she has been in love with and married to actor-director Richard Benjamin for over 40 years) all combine to project a characteristic sense of warmth, humor, and assertiveness.
She was born Paula Ragusa on March 4, 1939, in San Antonio, Texas, into the family of an Italian immigrant and his American wife. Once in an interview she declared that “I really needed my family because I didn’t seem to have much of a chance with anyone else.” At Virginia’s Randolph Macon School she was always the tallest kid. But in 1958 she met a student taller than she in the Northwestern University drama department. In addition to height, she was impressed with the sophistication of Jewish New Yorker Richard Benjamin.
While appearing in a production of A Hatful of Rain she was discovered by a talent scout and went straight into Joe Pasternak’s production of Where the Boys Are. In 1961 she married Richard but remained under contract with MGM while he was still a struggling actor.
A decisive year in Paula’s career was 1963, when Howard Hawks cast her with Rock Hudson in Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964). For this role she was subsequently compared to Lombard, Hepburn, and Kay Kendall, and here she gained her reputation as a kooky screwball.
Paula (with Rock Hudson) in Man’s Favorite Sport?
Under Hawks’ direction she blossomed completely in the type of comedy that seemed created for her style and was appropriate for the times. Though hardly a feminist film, Sport? featured a strong feminine role model and belonged to a genre still adequate for the ’60s. But Hawks was old, stars and agents did not have the strong influence in productions as they do today, and drugs, violence, and sex were more bankable at the time. It was, after all, the age of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde. American society was taken by war, free love, and the assassinations of public figures. Paula finished the year winning her diploma in a dramatic role in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1964) and by making Peter Sellers crazy in the family comedy The World of Henry Orient.
While shooting What’s New, Pussycat? in 1965, Paula had a nervous crisis and retired from the screen for five years. In the meantime she appeared for one season with husband Benjamin in the cult CBS television series “He and She” (1967). “He and She” went almost unnoticed at the time, but today it is considered a breakthrough situation comedy that signaled new ways of production for shows like the much more successful “Mary Tyler Moore” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” Again, in the series Paula played an intelligent and independent worker, a different type of woman from the usual female roles on American television at the time — the witch and genie of, respectively, “Bewitched” and “I Dreamed of Jeannie,” whose self-assertion depended entirely on the fantasy frame of the shows. Paula was nominated for an Emmy for “He and She” and, though already a film star, was named best television female newcomer.
She returned to the big screen in the offbeat comedy Move in 1970, after Richard Benjamin had starred successfully in Goodbye, Columbus the previous year. They appeared together in the film version of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1970) and on Broadway in a play by Edward Albee. She also did the TV movie The Couple Takes a Wife and was seen in other films as an addict in Ivan Passer’s drama Born to Win (1971), as a stoned actress in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), and as an Italian-American girl in Crazy Joe (1973). Her most notable roles of this period consisted of a highly dramatic performance in Alan J. Pakula’s excellent thriller The Parallax View (1974) and her portrayal of a suburban housewife in The Stepford Wives (1975).
With Alan Arkin in Last of the Red Hot Lovers
By this time Paula and Richard had begun their family with the birth of their son Ross, and some changes were made at the Benjamins’ household. It was once written that Paula Prentiss rated her career below that of her husband’s. It does not seem so. The Benjamins are considered a normal couple, judging by their marriage and the appreciation of their colleagues. In mature and responsible relationships, there are occasions when one of the partners commits to activities for the benefit of the other and for the unity of the family. In some show-business marriages, husband and wife do not agree on what to do, because fame and fortune come first; quite often when the wife is in films and the husband does something else, the marriage breaks up. In the case of Paula and Richard, they agreed on the respective roles they each should play in life, and she decided to stay home to raise Ross (and their daughter Prentiss, born four years later) because she wanted to. Nothing can replace that joy of seeing one’s children grow up, and she still had time to make jokes on motherhood as a nurse in “Saturday Night Live” and act in a couple of TV movies.
Paula Prentiss returned briefly to the big screen in Harold Becker’s beautiful romantic thriller The Black Marble in 1980. (According to the film’s press release, the producers told her that the part was hers if she would gain fifteen pounds!) She also appeared as Jack Lemmon’s wife in Billy Wilder’s Buddy, Buddy (1981.) After Saturday the 14th (1981), in which she co-starred with husband Richard, she went went back home to stay with Ross and Prentiss, did more TV movies and special appearances in series such as “Burke’s Law,” and did some theater work with Benjamin.
Her last major role in the spoof Saturday the 14th
Today Ross and Prentiss are college students and Richard Benjamin is a well-known Hollywood filmmaker. He has directed the highly acclaimed My Favorite Year (1982) and Racing With the Moon (1984); the underrated and seldom-seen Little Nikita (1988); the hits Mermaids (1990) and Made in America (1993); and finally Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), the comic remake of No Man of Her Own starring Ricki Lake, in which Paula made a cameo appearance as a wicked nurse.
Paula Prentiss lately has been thinking of returning to acting. She will be as welcome to the art as ever. Along with actresses Candice Bergen, Stefanie Powers, and Jane Fonda, her work and projection paved the way for assertive career women of today’s films, from “working girls” and social-issues advocates to the androgynous “femme-Nikitas.”
The Benjamins today — as Paula might say in her
delightful Southern accent, “Happy as a dead hog in the sun!”
(Photo copyright © 1997 by People Magazine)