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Remembering Valerie Perrine, the Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol

The Oscar-nominated actress is one of the most underrated talents of the 70s, a bombshell who left behind a sensational body of work, literally and figuratively.

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Back in the 70s—when men were men, women were women, and breasts were real—Hollywood was obsessed with the idea of the outsider. Mobsters, bank robbers, whistleblowers—these were the heroes of 70s films. The final collapse of the studio system in the late 60s resulted in a decade of artistic (though admittedly bourgeoisie) auteur-driven films, before the 80s ushered in the age of the blockbuster, a precursor to today's franchise-driven cinema industry.

But back to the breasts. There's nothing quite like the mammaries of 1970s cinema. The most common, simplest way for women to transgress on film during this decade was through their sexuality—a source of power that was wrapped up in pain, pleasure, and nonconformity all at once. This was a vision of femininity that was unhinged and demure, crass and doe-eyed, all at the same time.

"In the 1970s and 80s as feminists began to examine the dynamics of the gaze of visual media, theorists such as Kaja Silv​erman argued that the female spectator did not simply adopt a masculine gaze but was always involved in a 'double identification' with both the passive and active subject positions," explains Cambridge University sociologist Wendy Chin-Tanner. "In this way, cinematic representations that subverted, challenged, and disrupted dominant cultural narratives of gender and sexuality had real power to change the way women viewed themselves, their bodies, and their sexuality."

No one represents this ideal more than Valerie Perrine, an actress who remains one of the most underrated talents of the 70s. She gave authentic, rasping performances opposite some of the decade's most prominent leading men, including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Redford, and worked with acclaimed actor-driven directors like George Roy Hill, (Slaughterhouse Five) Sydney Pollack, (The Electric Horseman) and Tony Richardson (The Border). Perrine was an exquisite beauty with wide-set sea-green eyes defining a cherubic face. And she had a body seemingly made for sin. But she was more than a pretty gal with to-die-for tits.

Among her first onscreen performances were appearances in Slaughterhouse Five (1972), a PBS adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman's Steambath (1973), and Lenny (1974), a critically acclaimed biopic of the comic Lenny Bruce. The latter, directed by Bob Fosse, starred Hoffman as the controversial comedian and Perrine as his wife, Honey Harlowe, and is as much a sad love story of two misfits as it is a cultural critique. 

Perrine's performance won her a BAFTA and landed her nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe; she also took home top prizes as best actress at Cannes and best supporting actress at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

"She was the thinking man's sex symbol," says screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Ed Wood (1994). "Valerie Perrine always felt very kind of real and honest and yet she had this sexual freedom that was sort of new to movies at the time. She could be a really good dramatic actress and a really good comedic actress. But you got the sense there was a real human being there."

Photographer Ricky Powell remembers Perrine as a "cool, laid-back actress with an outward cute naiveté and inward slickness."

So what happened to her? Why isn't she a household name>

Valerie Perrine was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1943 to a British mother and a father who was a US Army officer. She spent time as a child in a convent in Japan, and her army-brat teenage years included stops in Paris and Rome. She majored in psychology while at college college, but dropped out because the routine of school bored her; instead, she headed to Vegas to become a showgirl. Her ambition, moves, looks, and magnificent breasts served her well, and soon she was performing as the headlining dancer in the "Lido d​e Paris Revue" at the Stardust.

Her big break came at a dinner party in Los Angeles, where, according to an interview she did in 2013, a casting agent spotted her joking with her boyfriend over the phone and asked if she'd ever acted before.

In her screen test for the role of Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse Five, Perrine came in with no headshots to offer the producers, but at their request she wore one of her showgirl outfits, a G-string and skimpy bra, so they could see her figure. She got the part, naturally.

In the movie, Perrine is a naked siren who seduces Michael Sacks's Billy Pilgrim by floating in a tub, her buoyant bare breasts on display. (Years later, Perrine met Vonnegut at Elaine's in Manhattan, and he conveyed his pleasure with the cinematic adaptation.) She was in the same situation a year later for Steambath, where she was the lone female in a sauna that's really a waiting room for heaven. When PBS aired the artsy adaptation of the absurdist play, it was the first time full-frontal nudity appeared on television (viewers saw Perrine from the side).

Her nudity might not have been essential to the plot of either film, but the way she displayed herself was both performative and pioneering. The ease with which she inhabits her naked body onscreen is practically a blueprint for future generations of actresses.

"I was the only actress on the lot that could care less," she tells me of the nudity in Steambath. After years living in Europe, traipsing about St. Tropez in nothing but a G-string, she had no hangups about her body.

That attitude helped land her the role of Honey Harlowe in Lenny. It's a complicated role—Honey is a stripper, then a wife, then a junkie, then a mother, then a relapsed junkie. In essence, Perrine plays two Honeys—the one who five minutes into the film performs a show-stopping striptea​se, and the Honey who becomes that sad woman who never got it together, but can manage a nostalgic giggle from time to time.

"I just try to be real," Perrine has said of her craft. Her nuanced facial expressions and the way she holds glances with Hoffman give her performance a lived-in quality. (The two complement each other intensely; Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar as well.) The only problem was that Perrine was too good a dancer.

"Honey wasn't supposed to be a good dancer, and this was disappointing," says Perrine. "I was being directed by Bob Fosse and I had to look bad." Fosse choreographed Honey's moves to be off the beat but "I kept getting it right every time."

She also gave a great performance in W.C. Fields and Me (1976) opposite Rod Steiger, who she calls a "real jerk." But the biopic of the 1920s actor and comedian who lived in Charlie Chaplin's career was a flop, and Perrine never again got the acclaim she did for Lenny, though she did appear in two box-office hits, Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), as Lex Luthor's girl Friday. Her other movies include The Electric Horseman (1979), a film about a rodeo star gone corporate starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda; the disaster that was Can't Stop the Music (1980); and The Border (1982), an overlooked film about corruption on the California-Mexico border starring Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. By the 90s, she had essentially disappeared from Hollywood, though she did resurface for a small role in Nancy Meyer's What Women Want in 2000.

Maybe her shrinking from the public eye can be put down to her aversion to continue being merely a sex goddess. Perrine says she turned down the role that went to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981), because she "didn't want to do another film that had to do with sex." She did numerous Playboy pictorials—and has a couple autographed issues of her Superman-themed cover issue on her Facebook page up for grabs, but even for the uninhibited, there comes a time when what was once subversive becomes redundant.

Even if her star faded with time, she left behind a sensational body of work, literally and figuratively. "Perrine's performances play against the backdrop of a key era in feminist film criticism," says Caroline Hagood, a film scholar who is currently at work on a book on female poets writing about movies called Women Who Like to Watch. Notable writing from 1973, when Steambath came out, includes Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus; Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape followed in 1974.

When asked the key to surviving Hollywood, Perrine says with conviction, "Don't take it seriously. I'd do a film and then go off and run to Europe." In all our conversation, I don't detect a note of regret. And why would I? Even in the small pictures she made, she fines a way to stand out.

Take this video of her performing as Lillian Lorriane, one of Ziegfeld's legendary women, in the multimillion-dollar television spectacular Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (1978). As a former Vegas showgirl, Perrine must have known many women like Lorraine: beautiful, starry-eyed creatures without the chops to truly make it. Yet she plays the act with grace and poise, and an all-knowing grin that says she's smart enough to know the difference between them and her.​