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The Cinema of Exploitation Goddess Candice Rialson

For a few years in the mid-1970s, Candice Rialson was one of the most popular actors working in exploitation films. She was pretty, bright, and vivacious, with an extremely likable screen presence and genuine flair for comedy. Her career fell victim to prejudice and her own lack of enthusiasm, but she nonetheless left behind a decent body of work, as well as inspiring the Bridget Fonda character in Jackie Brown (1997).

Rialson was born in 1951 in Santa Monica, California, and grew up in Orange County. At eighteen, she was crowned Miss Hermosa Beach, which led to a bit part in The Gay Deceivers (1969) and sparked her interest in an acting career. A lot of attractive girls want to be actors, especially in California, but Rialson, with her blonde hair, healthy build, and peachy complexion, had an all-American look particularly perfect for the time (it was – or at least, was soon to be – the era of Farrah Fawcett Majors), and she received an offer to star in a low budget film called Pets (1973). 

Rialson plays a hitchhiker who has a series of adventures: escaping from her controlling brother, being rescued by a black man, then kidnapping a sleazy married guy with a black girl she meets, picked up by a female artist (played by former Elvis Presley co-star Joan Blackman) for whom she poses and then makes love, and going to live with an artist who keeps her captive in his basement as a ‘pet’.  It’s an exploitation film but one with ambition – there are some interesting shot compositions, it attempts to tackle an odd sort of theme (it was based on a series of one-act plays, and each section deals with people trying to imprison Rialson), and there’s a few moments which genuinely surprise you (like where the black girl throws a dog off a cliff). The main reason to watch it is Rialson, who has to carry the whole movie on her shoulders and is very impressive. It’s an action-packed part: she seduces two men – her abductee (an older guy) and a burglar – and is seduced by a woman; she’s very natural on screen, comfortable with her body, believable in the role and sexy as hell, although she doesn’t get to show off her comic ability, so effective in later films.

Rialson went on to be cast in episodes of TV series like Adam’s Rib and Shaft and TV movies like The Girl on the Late Late Show (1974). Producer Julie Corman of New World Pictures then offered her the lead in Candy Stripe Nurses (1974). This was a “three girls” movie, a melodramatic subgenre which typically focused on the adventures of three female friends, mostly romantic, in some exciting profession. Three girl pictures had been around since the 1920s – notable examples include Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Three on a Match (1932), The Best of Everything (1959) and Valley of the Dolls (1967)  – but New World had given them a new lease of life with The Student Nurses (1971). This film, directed by Stephanie Rothman, took the formula and added more nudity, comedy, and social  comment; it was a huge commercial success and led to New World making four more ‘nurse’ adventures (Private Duty Nurses, Night Call Nurses, The Young Nurses, Candy Stripe Nurses), two films about teachers (The Student Teachers, Summer School Teachers), and one each about flight attendants (Fly Me), models (Cover Girls), and actresses (Hollywood Boulevard). (Fly Me and Cover Girls were pick ups, the others were done in house). Jon Davison, producer of The Student Teachers and Hollywood Boulevard, said the formula was to take three professional women, give each of them their own story, and mix in sex, humour, and some social issues from a liberal perspective; Jonathan Kaplan, director of Night Call Nurses, said Roger Corman would insist on frontal nudity from waist up, full nudity from behind, and no pubic hair.  You could argue that other female-driven pictures at New World from this time were, in a way, also three girls movies, such as women-in-prison stories  (The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Women in Cages, The Hot Box, Caged Heat, Black Mama White Mama, The Arena) and women-turned-gangster tales (Big Bad Mama, Crazy Mama).

Candy Stripe Nurses was the fifth and final New World nurse picture. It was written and directed by Allan Holleb, who later told Ari Bass the studio “wanted a little social consciousness, a little romance, a little comedy, and a little sex. Another requirement was they wanted a sex clinic.” The movie is bright, breezy fun, albeit with the inherit dodginess of 70s “tits feminism” exploitation filmmaking. The plot is typical of the genre: the three girls are candy stripe nurses at the same hospital; the sexpot blonde  (Rialson) tries to seduce a famous rock singer (the sexy comic plot), the uptight brunette (Robin Mattson) falls for a college basketball player who is being given speed by his coach (the kinky/medical issues plot), and the ethnic (Maria Rojo) tries to prove the innocence of a supposed armed robber (the political plot).

Rialson is vivacious and cheerful, delivering comic lines with aplomb and seeming almost wholesome as she constantly takes her clothes and off hops into bed with various men – she makes nudity and sex appear like natural, clean fun, never sleazy; you only wish she had a better storyline. Mattson also gives good value, and her romance with the jock is one of the best in the series; their seduction scenes in the gym are downright hot, because they’re both clearly into it, and their characters have great inherent conflict (she’s an uptown girl who wants to be a doctor, he’s a sporty moron). However Rojo seems a bit too uncomfortably young for this sort of thing (although am I right in thinking that her sex scene was a dream sequence?). It doesn’t help that she has to do her plot without the other girls whereas Rialson and Mattson get to be friends with one another; there is no sense of camaraderie between the three of them – it’s like two movies, one with Rialson and Mattson, and Rojo off in her own storyline. I would count this as third best in the nurses series, after The Student Nurses and Night Call Nurses. It’s clunky but has an enjoyable theme song and plenty of high spirits; Dick Miller, who was in a lot of these movies, has a small role as a heckler at a basketball game. 

Rialson went into another exploitation film, Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974), made for the short-lived Premier Releasing Company. This follows the Big Bad Mama (1974) template  – a tough woman and her daughters use sex appeal to get what they want from men  – with Oscar winner Gloria Grahame in the lead and Rialson as one of her offspring; it’s a more evil character than the former Miss Hermosa Beach normally played, but she’s quite good as a sort of Lolita-esque tease, who delights in tormenting chubby men. There are two other daughters, all of whom show a lot of flesh, including an utterly gratuitous shot of Candice staring at herself in the mirror to open the film. The acting is fine and it’s a great concept – the girls look for men to seduce and kill – but the movie is never as much fun as you want it to be. They didn’t quite get the story right – the pace is too slow, unlike Big Bad Mama where there’s lots of action, here it’s mostly hanging around houses, and there’s no driving narrative. Also, who wants to watch a three girls film where the guys triumph?

Rialson had small parts in an episode of Maude and the TV movie Guilty or Innocent (1975), as well as the Clint Eastwood action flick The Eiger Sanction (1975); these were prestigious projects but her roles weren’t great  – for instance in Eiger she was simply billed as “art student”, and had just one scene, throwing herself at Eastwood.

Rialson had a far better opportunity back at New World in Summer School Teachers (1975). It’s one of the best of the studio’s three girls movies, if not the best – and a lot of this is due to Rialson, playing a PE teacher who wants female students to play football and comes up against a sexist male coach (Dick Miller again). The other girls are Rhonda Leigh Fleming, who has an affair with a student, and Pat Anderson (veteran of Fly Me and Cover Girls), an art student who gets involved with another teacher and has a debate on pornography.

It’s boisterious and amusing, a bit wonky in places (make that very wonky – in one scene you can see the boom in shot), but it flies along, with a lot of social comment (corruption, women sport, opportunity for women, etc), and features a hilarious near-anarchic football game at the climax. It helps that the writer-director was a woman, Barbara Peeters, so the film feels like a screwball comedy rather than something sleazy. There is nudity – Rialson seduces a nerd teacher by a lake (and falls in), there’s a more stylised sex scene involving Fleming which involves strobe lighting and ice cubes on the nipples (there’s always a stylised sex scene in these pictures – there was an LSD one in The Student Nurses and a trippy one in Candy Stripe Nurses), and Anderson is frequently photographed with nothing on. But the women are confident and in control: they do most of the seducing,  they stick up for each other and the sisterhood, and the messages are mostly positive – girls should be able to do whatever boys can do, physical fitness is good, corruption is bad. This is the best character Rialson ever played – she’s spunky, full of energy, fights for girl sports, encourages her overweight neighbour to exercise, seduces the nerdy teacher because she likes him (Peeters isn’t afraid to show Rialson’s gut in this love scene), and she loves her rowdy dumb brothers. Good fun – and much better than New World’s other ‘three teachers’ entry, The Student Teachers.

Rialson tried to break into studio films again, and was cast in one scene in Silent Movie (1976) as a nurse slapping Marty Feldman… but it was re-shot with another actress.  She was briefly in Logan’s Run (1976).

New World came to the rescue a third time with Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a three girls movie about actresses, which was the debut directorial effort for the studio’s in-house trailer editors, Joe Dante and Alan Arkush. The opening minutes of this feature some sky diving stock footage, bare breasts, and move in-jokes, pretty much setting the tone for the rest of the film, famously made as a bet by producer Jon Davidson who told Roger Corman he could shoot the cheapest film ever for New World. This was accomplished by incorporating footage from previous New World/Corman films: sky diving (Private Duty Nurses), car chases (Caged Heat, Crazy Mama), a period car crash (Big Bad Mama), roller derby (Unholy Rollers), Philippine action films (The Hot Box, Women in Cages, The Big Doll House), The Terror (they see it at the drive in), a futuristic car chase (Death Race 2000).

The film revolves around three girls trying to make it in Hollywood as actresses – Rialson, Rita Grey, and Tara Strohmeier, with Rialson having the biggest part. They are confronted by lecherous men and a mysterious killer – although the murder plot gets forgotten for great slabs of time. The picture has tremendous energy, a breezy tone, a  love of movies (film buffs will love the in-jokes), and an amazing support cast including Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and Dick Miller. Rialson is incredibly charming and a perfect leading lady;  apparently Roger Corman wanted Roberta Collins (The Big Doll House, Death Race 2000), but the directors held out for Rialson – I’m a Collins fan, but it was the right decision because Rialson brings not just looks and comic timing, but also a plucky underdog persona that is immensely appealing.

The film does suffer from some New World requirements of the time. There’s a scene where Rialson plays a rape victim which starts off funny but then becomes unfunny because she gets her top ripped off and is really traumatised by it. Later on Rialson watches the scene on screen while at a drive in, then is almost genuinely raped by the projectionist. These sequences feel out of place in an otherwise cheerful movie.

Of all the seventies exploitation starlets, I feel Rialson had the best chance of breaking through to mainstream stardom, or at least fame – she was attractive but not threateningly so, affable, skilled at comedy and drama, with a first-rate on-set attitude (none of her collaborators seem to have a bad word to say about her); you could easily see Rialson as, say, a Charlie’s Angel, or one of the kids in Eight is Enough, or as the star of an Aaron Spelling TV movie. But she never got the chance. In fact out of all the New World female leads, only one, Pam Grier, got the lead in a studio feature, and that was decades later, with Jackie Brown. Rialson, Roberta Collins, Pat Anderson, Claudia Jennings, Rainbeaux Smith… they all struggled to break through to the next level, leading one to conclude they were simply discriminated against in Hollywood.

So Rialson followed Hollywood Boulevard with the lead in a low budget comedy musical fantasy for AIP, Chatterbox (1977), the movie which Arkush and Dante suggest killed her career because she plays a woman with a talking vagina. There are actually worse concepts for a comedy, and with really smart handling this could have been worth watching – maybe even been quite feminist. But as used here the film is far too depressing: Candice’s character clearly doesn’t like her talking vagina, who creates nothing but trouble for her. She really goes through the wringer (Candice, not the vagina) over the running time – a lesbian tries to rape her, she’s put naked on a board in front of a room of scientists while her vagina sings (and she’s clearly not having a good time), she’s forced to perform a big song and dance number where her clothes get ripped off, her love interest is an insecure drip (are we meant to be glad she gets with him in the end?); if I’m not mistaken she’s also gangbanged. So, although there’s plenty of nudity, it’s not that fun; this is in contrast to films like Summer School Teachers where her character was in control and the undressing came about due to her character’s decisions. It should be said, Rialson is very engaging in the picture, as usual; she’s a great trooper, giving 110% and manages to take the sleaze out of everything her character does (and still be sexy). There’s something actually quite moving watching her try so hard in a role that is killing her career with every minute of screen time.

It was her last lead. ‘Three girls’ movies were out and male leads back in; she was shunted down the cast list for some B flicks, Moonshine County Express (1977) (co-starring Claudia Jennings, another 70s exploitation favourite), and Stunts (1978), and guest starred on Fantasy Island. Her last appearance was in Winter Kills (1979), a major feature, but she is billed as “second blonde girl” and mostly just rubs John Huston’s crotch.

Rialson had had enough and retired from acting – and why wouldn’t you, if after six years of work, including several leads, the best studio gig you could get was “second blonde girl”? She married, moved to Studio City, and had one child. She refused an offer to come out of retirement for Hollywood Boulevard II (1989) and died of liver disease on March 31, 2006 in Palmdale, California, only 54 years old.

It’s a shame Candice Rialson didn’t get more chances, but she did leave behind a decent legacy – Hollywood Boulevard has become a cult favourite and Summer School Teachers deserves to. In the pantheon of 70s exploitation goddesses, which includes names like Pam Grier, Margaret Markov and Roberta Collins, Rialson occupies an honoured place.

Main sources:

Bass, Ari. “In Search of the Drive In Diva – Candice Rialson, New World’s Legendary B Movie Goddess Steamed Up”. Femme Fatale. Vol. 2 no. 2.

Trailers from Hell entries on The Student Teachers, Candy Stripe Nurses, Night Call Nurses , Chatterbox

About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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