Mary was never dirty. She was un-hinged, a wild child, mouthy, strangely smart, and as sexy as Peggy Cummins shooting guns between her legs in a cowboy hat (I’ll get to Miss Cummins later), but again, she was never thoroughly dirty. Why Mary (as in Susan George Mary, she of the 1974 muscle-masterpiece Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), wasn’t allowed to be the Crazy of the title has always irked me – just a little (after all, I like Dirty Girls).
Larry (that’s Peter Fonda, her partner in crime among other things), is allowed the nobler appellation of Crazy, and I suppose he’s just as nutty as Mary but…is he? He’s the would-be NASCAR driver, he’s the one who pulls off the heist, he’s the one who really drives and he’s Peter Fonda. And Peter Fonda, even while heavily tripping on acid, never appears crazy to me. Like his father and his sister, there’s something solid, intelligent, well bred about Peter. No matter how insane he allows his world to become, his default is rationality. Even when satanic snakes cover his camper (Race with the Devil, with the brilliant Warren Oates). That’s why through the entire run of Easy Rider, you know he gets it. There’s a quiet complexity to Peter Fonda that reveals a troubled but organized mind.
So with that control -- I would trust him behind the wheel.
But Mary? No. Definitely, no. And not because she’s supposedly “dirty,” and not because she’s a woman (however, sorry ladies, I will concede that a lot of women are not enviable drivers), but because she really is the crazy one. The fact that she jumps in the car, joins the heist, faces impossible peril -- nearly killed numerous times, and generally gets her rocks off in all her untamed, half open halter-top, Susan George abandon (glorious abandon), that’s crazy. But wonderful crazy. Crazy, like a stone cold fox. Crazy like the girl your older brother dates and your mother can’t stand crazy. Crazy like the young woman your father dates and all of us kids prays he will marry (he didn’t). Crazy like a woman – deliciously deleterious.
And if Mary loves wild joy rides and police pursuits in some hot 1970’s muscle that range from a Dodge Charger, a Chevrolet Impala and a Dodge Polara, then she’s not so loopy. Not in my world anyway.
And now that I’m calling Mary crazy, I wish crazy Mary lived in my world. I wish she lived down the street from me. I’d roll with her in my Torino, we’d go for some In-N-Out drive-through, and we’d take in a double feature at the New Beverly. Preferably Rolling Thunder, Two-Lane Blacktop, Gone in Sixty Seconds (the original!) and, of course, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. And no, not Drive. Walter Hill’s The Driver is more like it.
Where are the Dirty Mary’s in my life? Without them, as Bette Davis famously wrote, it’s a “Lonely Life. But one can dream, and since I’ve entered my auto-erotic girl car-crush reverie here, there’s even crazier, and perhaps dirtier than Mary: Peggy. Peggy Cummins.
As the femme fatale of Gun Crazy (also, appropriately called Deadly Is the Female), Cummins (named Annie Laurie Starr in the picture) the beautiful blonde bad girl of Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 noir classic, not only, in one famous scene, drive the car, but she shoots a lot of guns -- very, very well. She loves guns. Her boyfriend, the equally gun obsessed Bart (John Dall), is entirely her match, and they meet all phallic, primal cute -- in a sharp-shoot-off. But they also drive.
And in a gritty, exciting, modern, pre-French New Wave moment, she drives Bart to the bank, waits in the car, talks to a cop, knocks him down, jumps in after Bart’s robbed the place, and he takes over the wheel -- all in one take. Brilliant.
Maybe Susan/Mary and I will let Peggy/Annie drive. After all, there’s a bank right down the street.
But to round out the team with a different type of woman, there’s Alice -- the one who doesn’t live here anymore. Yes, Alice. That’s Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s underrated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Like Gun Crazy, it’s not necessarily a car movie, but there’s some majorly memorable moments in the automobile. Specifically, as Ellen flees her old life after her joyless husband passes away, and motors her enormous station wagon across the southwest with her pre-teen son Tommy in the car.
They talk, they bond, they argue, he tells confusing jokes that take too long and they listen to the AM radio. There’s no computers, no mini DVD players, no game-boys, no cell phones -- just mom and kid and heat and Elton John’s “Daniel.” And T. Rex’s “Jeepster” -- a funny musical moment matching a super cool glam song about a car while Alice and Tommy rumble down the road in a station wagon. Marc Bolan loved cars, and girls, hence the magical verse from “Get it On”: “You’re built like a car you’ve got a hub-cap diamond star halo.” Oh, Mr. Bolan. If only you knew what the verses meant to women who are so smitten with the vehicular.
I adore countless femmes in automobiles. There’s so many others, like Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express (I also love Dollars with Hawn and Warren Beatty, a movie not discussed enough); Maybe Thelma and Louise (but they kill themselves) and the sweet and sweely titled Heart Like a Wheel.
There's Katharine Hepburn sexily, insanely stealing cars in Bringing Up Baby; Faye Dunaway -- anytime she's near the car in Bonnie and Clyde (and is shot up to hell in one too); Lana Turner gorgeously losing her mind in the Bad and the Beautifull; Ann Savage's intense anger in Detour (there's so many noir pictures); and most certainly, all the women from Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Tura Satana would never allow that guy to enter the parking lot with Thelma around).
But as much as I adore those muscle speed sweeties, I’m going to dip from modern, real life this time, slam on the breaks, and… pick up Zoe Bell.
Bell, who plays Zoe Bell in the second (and better) half of Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse homage, Death Proof. I’ve discussed a few women in car movies and moments here, but so far, none have really been about chicks and sticks (sticks, as in gear shifts). But Tarantino’s ode to the glorious cinematic sleaze of the 1960s and 1970s is a female gearhead dream -- a movie that doesn’t just make one roar, but make one vroom. Preferably in a 1970 white Dodge 440 Challenger (AKA the Vanishing Point car Miss Bell so covets).
Tarantino gets women. Or he gets women who are frustrated by their lack of power in the world. His movies offer a lot of fantastical wish fulfillment, and that’s alright with me (after all, isn’t Spider-Man and its ilk wish fulfillment? Or anything with Jason Statham? Not that I don't like Statham. I do.) With his ball busting blast of female empowerment, Kill Bill, an operatic homage to Spaghetti Westerns, yakuza pictures, Hong Kong action films, Brian De Palma, Kinji Fukusaku, Giallo and the "Twisted Nerve" of Bernard Hermann (among others genres and filmmakers and Tarantino obsessions) and Inglourious Basterds, in which, really, a woman and not just the Basterds, takes down the Nazis (and a woman who loves movies – of course), Tarantino crafts pictures that are more aggressively pro-female (even if fantasy) than anything Nancy Meyer is offering the ladies. And he gives us mythic woman a la Charles Bronson, Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and (oh dear lord my favorite) Lee Van Cleef. We need that.
In Death Proof, after the girls specifically checked out a car simply because it’s the Vanishing Point car (which actually isn’t fantasy. I would do that. I have driven up to creepy houses and test driven cars. That’s how I bought my Torino. How many movies ever show women doing this?) they find themselves pursued by the rakish turned homicidal Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in a psychosexual act of vehicular rape. The movie’s second set of fiery femme then enact their revenge on not just Russell's Stuntman Mike, but on all the creeps in the world who want to forcibly, well, ram them. It's inspiring -- almost overwhelmingly so -- when we see real life stunt woman Bell actually strap herself to that Challenger, at what looks to be about 80-90 miles per hour, and then un-strapped, clinging to and climbing on that car for dear life. And having a good time -- even while terrified. As Marlene Dietrich might say, had she appeared in Two-Lane Blacktop, this is some kind of gear head.
So daredevil Zoe’s on board. And crazy Mary. And kooky Katharine -- maybe for just a nice, non stunt-laden leisurely drive. I'm sure all of these women enjoy a long drive, eating chips, stopping for ice cream. It's not all about speed demonry. And of course, like perilous Peggy -- we need some cash. And, in a perfect world we need, oh why not (this is my dream) Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me. The women deserve that kind of beauty. Or to be called Jaguar... if I may be so bold.