This article is based on an interview with Salome Jens in 2019 conducted for Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood’s book on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.
Editor Note: This article was co-written by Emma Westwood and Jez Conolly
In 1961, a small-budgeted, black & white film titled Angel Baby (directed by Paul Wendkos), introduced star-in-the-making ‘Miss Salome Jens’ to big-screen audiences.* As teenage evangelist Jenny Angel, the 19-year-old actor’s magnetism sizzles through every frame, even before she utters a single word. Her character starts off mute until the hands of a handsome preacher (pop heart-throb George Hamilton in a career-best performance)** encircle her throat during a faith-healing session and gift her the power of speech. Jenny then decides to dedicate herself to Jesus, using her newfound voice to preach the Gospel and convert others, although her innocence, beauty and charisma set her on a collision course with disaster.
This should have been the film that made Salome Jens into a household name but, in what appeared to become a trend across her career, it was not to be. In this case, Angel Baby was essentially buried by the makers of a bigger-budgeted, colour film titled Elmer Gantry (1960, directed by Richard Brooks) who believed the smaller film would detract from their own.
“There was something somewhat beautiful about that little movie. I loved it,” admits Salome Jens. “They [the producers of Elmer Gantry] were going for the Academy Awards. They saw our film, and they knew it was better than theirs, and they had spent a fortune on the film they had made. So they bought Angel Baby and they wouldn’t release it for two years.”
By then, the ‘evangelist film’ ship had sailed, which meant Angel Baby and Salome Jens never got the attention they deserved. But she still refers to the film with affection, despite a rather prickly interlude acting alongside Mercedes McCambridge whose method approach verged on cruelty – even sadism, in Jens’ own opinion – towards her younger, less experienced co-star.
“Mercedes was very competitive, and she was also always playing her part, so she’d be shouting, ‘Salome Jens is a big, dumb nut!’ She didn’t like me,” confesses Jens. “She said, ‘Don’t talk to me. I don’t want to know anything about you.’ So, you know, it was the second day of shooting and people were coming back to her saying, ‘You know, Salome’s really good. She’s really doing some work in that scene.’ So finally, she said, ‘I’m going to watch every scene.’ And she did.”
Tactics aside, Mercedes McCambridge is spectacular in Angel Baby as the older devotee married to younger preacher Paul (George Hamilton), clinging onto him in desperation when Jenny Angel’s presence marrs their relationship. It is to Salome Jens’ credit that she does not wither in McCambridge’s shadow but, instead, more than holds her own and rises to the mantle of her venerated co-star, maintaining a level of performance that is nothing less than awe-inspiring. While her recollections of Mercedes McCambridge may be tarnished, she speaks of the other veterans in the film, Henry Jones and Joan Blondell, with nothing but tenderness. In supporting roles as a ragtag duo of loveable drunkards, they help round out this film’s impressive cast.
“The sadists may have hated me but Joanie Blondell loved me and she protected me,” Jens candidly admits. “She saw to it that I was taken care of, right? She knew that I had a big load to carry and she was right there for me. That was the character she was playing in the film but it was also her nature. She was a nurturer and she was very kind to me.”
Despite her auspicious debut being pipped at the post, Jens would still be rightly lionised as an exceptional actor. Arguably, theatre is where she has felt most at home, including a highly acclaimed turn in Jean Genet’s The Balcony on the New York stage in 1961. Even Tennessee Williams was moved to acknowledge her stage presence in a letter that eventually made it into her hands and which she now cherishes as one of her greatest accomplishments. Aged in her ‘80s, she continues to teach at the Actors Studio West in Los Angeles; an association she has held for many decades and where she currently also assumes the co-artistic directorship alongside Lou Antonio (Cool Hand Luke).
In terms of other notable film performances across a long career, Jens’ credits include narrating The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), the ‘female guardian’ in the blockbuster Green Lantern (2011) and arguably her most ‘recognisable’ role as the ‘female shapeshifter’ in TV’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ironic given she is completely masked by makeup). However, of most interest to these authors is the part she would go on to play in John Frankenheimer’s controversial ‘extreme makeover’ film, Seconds (1966) – the third and often lesser-known film in his State of the Nation trilogy following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964).
Chosen by Frankenheimer for her “essence of doom”, Jens is pivotal as ‘company girl’, Nora Marcus, employed to settle the reborn Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson) into his new persona by way of seduction after his identity as Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is killed off.
“It’s probably a truer film than ever before because, certainly, an organisation could do this now – give you a second chance at a second life,” says Jens, of the negative reaction to the film. “So, it doesn’t become that impossible, does it?”
Seconds was famously booed at its screening in Cannes and then universally tanked at the box office, which Jens attributes to the film being “way before its time”: “People did not get it nor did they want to accept it as a masterpiece. Frankenheimer was brilliant. I mean, it’s just amazing what he did. They absolutely buried this film – they would not release it properly because they just felt it was too grim for the audience. They didn’t want to release it. They couldn’t release it as an ordinary film because it was extraordinary. It was not a commercial film.”
Similar to Angel Baby, it was Salome Jens’ privilege to work with practitioners at the top of their craft with Seconds when still young and developing herself. Angel Baby was co-shot by Haskell Wexler, while Seconds was shot by James Wong Howe who, by then, was one of the most-admired cinematographers in Hollywood responsible for pioneering the artform from its early years. Paul Wendkos was known as a director of TV, as well as the popular Gidget surf movies, while John Frankenheimer was already considered one of the best of the new breed of Hollywood directors, celebrated for his on-location, documentary-like style of filmmaking and the freedom he extended his actors to work their craft from having cut his teeth in live TV drama.
“There was a certain thing he was looking for,” Jens reflects. “And, because of my classic ability, there was something that I brought to it that he just felt was right for what he was looking for. He gave me the reins to do what I wanted to do, as long as it did not get sentimentalised.”
“I am still grateful because it was certainly a very important moment for me,” she continues in recalling Seconds. “Rock [Hudson, her co-star] was so much a part of all of this too. [In Seconds] he was given a chance for being recognised as an actor, not a matinee idol. Suddenly, it was a part that Rock really wanted to do and Frankenheimer really was excited about how he was going to make that work because he had to do a transformation of John Randolph and have him turn into Rock Hudson without it being a huge laugh. So he had to make that work and, of course, they really worked hard at that because he did it and implemented it. He did it very smartly. By the way, I loved working with Rock. He was a wonderful actor. I’m only sorry that he left us too soon because I think his work was special. They never really got who he was here in Hollywood.”
Salome Jens’ screen time may not be the longest in Seconds but her character’s influence is central to the plot development and injects a sense of levity into the film that would otherwise be missing, especially at an important turning point: the orgiastic ‘grape-stomp’ sequence. For anyone who has not experienced Seconds (and it is an experience), this scene sees the reborn Hudson taken to a hippie-inspired Festival of Bacchus by Jen’s Marcus where grapes are crushed, clothes are shed and Hudson’s Wilson is forced to confront the conservative former self inside him who is quite literally dragged kicking and screaming into the fray. In a sense, this is where he is really reborn. Specifically, Jens’ performance singlehandedly encapsulates the love, liberty and unbridled spirit of a new generation – something that the reborn Arthur Hamilton yearns for, but is unable to reconcile with his upbringing, experiences and memories.
“It was real people in that scene and a real event – the real deal,” says Jens of the grape stomp. “When we went up to Santa Barbara to film that, they designed a bathing suit for me because I said I was not going in nude. It was green, kind of a moss green, that would look nude on film. But, when I got there, I was really angry because I looked at all these people going into that grape bath and I knew they were very lovely people who believed in all this business. They do it every year and it was part of their culture. I felt like an outcast. I felt like I was being ridiculous.”
“They’ve got this huge bath where they put all these grapes,” she continues. “And then, of course, people get into that bath and they say, ‘Stomp that grape!’ I said to Frankenheimer, ‘That’s the scene? I’m going to get in that grape bath with Rock and with these people and we’re going to say, “Stomp that grape?” This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to do this. This will not work. This is silly.’ And I feel embarrassed because they’re beautiful people.”
“Anyway, Frankenheimer says, ‘It’s $10 million. You got to get in there. You got to do it.’ I was so angry. It starts getting dark and it’s time to do that dancing. Everybody else is covered up except for these wonderful people who outright got started jumping in that bath. So I said, ‘Look, I’m going to get in there but just once. So just be ready.”
“James Wong Howe – who was just a brilliant man and very, very beautiful – put his camera in a place where he could get me. So the time came and I just threw off that dress and jumped into that bath and started splashing grapes all over the place. I mean, I kept moving the grapes so that I was throwing grapes at everybody and we were laughing and throwing grapes so that you could hardly see me! I was covered! Then they threw Rock into the bath and I grabbed the whole of him and I wouldn’t let him go. I just pulled him to my chest and I stayed on his chest the whole time and it was just getting crazy, laughter and insanity. Afterwards, Frankenheimer said, ‘You know, you made that scene work and I really ought to thank you.’ But, as I say, it came out of the madness of the moment. I had no idea what was going to happen.”
While Angel Baby and Seconds are by no means isolated moments of greatness in Salome Jens’ beautiful career, they are shining examples of an actor whose talent is addictive. Even when surrounded by other formidable performers, she both complements and enhances their work while presenting as a beacon of brilliance in her own right. More people should know about Salome Jens.
Seconds by Jez Conolly and Emma Westwood is available at bit.ly/secondsauteur
* Even though she is ‘introduced’ in the opening credits, Angel Baby is not technically Salome Jens’ first film appearance but it did mark the film debut of one of her co-stars, Burt Reynolds.
** George Hamilton even sings the title song.