Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Fran Fullenwider

Concerning the last item in my previous blog:

Fran Fullenwider was born in Harlingen, Texas on 16 November 1945. We can deduce German ancestry, though the Anglicised surname, which in Fran's case was a source of amusement, must originally have been Fullenwieder (literally: refill).

In the 1950s she moved permanently to the United Kingdom. As a child, she performed horse stunts in films. Later, she studied at the New York University film school and also graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Fullenwider’s physique would pre-determine her acting career: at 5ft 2in and 110 kg / 242 lbs, she would be chosen primarily for character or comedy roles. Initially, like most young girls, and with Twiggy all the rage, she dreamt of a svelte figure, but by the age of 21 she realised this was pointless and decided to let it rip.

Accordingly, from the 1970s she was affiliated with UGLY, the alternative modelling agency in London—this agency is said to specialise in freaks, but you will not find as many as you'd think: a cursory glance at the female models shows some are far from, being simply a bit heavier than the skin-and-bones Hollywood norm. The story is told—by a representative of the company, according to a blogger—that Fullenwider came in looking for a job as a secretary, but that since the office was designed for someone much smaller, she was offered to join as a model instead. She did well, and landed roles in both film and television. Her first television credits were a role as Angela Daniels in the episode "Any Complaints?" (1973) of Doctor in Change and a role as 1st Girl in the Pub in the episode "Golden Boy" (1975) of Sweeney. Her first film credits included The Mutations (1974), L’ispettore Regan (TV series, 1975), Una sera c’incontrammo (1975), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), during the production of which she angered Jim Sharman by having a coughing fit.

By 1975 she was auditioning for Federico Fellini, with whom, she would become friends. Godfrey Hamilton, who shared a house with her at a NW6 address in London during this period, tells the story:

one day in the mid-1970s she was called for an interview with Fellini, who was in London looking to cast Casanova, and when Fran returned home from the meeting she reported that – intriguingly – she had *shared* the audition/interview with Marianne Faithfull (“in a really naff frock.”) Fran was quite saddened that the Great Man had wanted Marianne to tell him all about that infamous o/d in Sydney- why had she, how had she, where was she at the time what was she thinking and feeling,… Fran thought it all a little demeaning (to Marianne) and felt Faithfull had been unnecessarily hassled.

Fellini didn’t choose Fullenwider, but, as I mentioned in my previous blog, the Italian director would express a desire to use her in some future film. Unfortunately, he died in 1993, before the right project came along.

More roles followed all the same, including The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), L’affittacamere (1976), and Melodrammore (1977), plus two appearances in the TV series, The Basil Brush Show (1975  - 1978): one in the episode dated 27 December 1975 and one three years alter in "Basil Brush's Magical Christmas". Fullenwider also participated in one of the first Miss Alternative World pageants. Her stage name is said to have been 'Miss Southern Comfort'.

By the late 1970s Fullenwider was getting plenty of attention. The magazines made much of her dimensions and the fact that she had no interest in reducing them. One magazine even added 200 lbs to her real weight, which would, over time, reach 286lbs—some say even higher. Hamilton has quoted Fullenwider as saying, in relation to her name, 'I kinda grew into it'. The fact is, however, that there was no shortage of male interest and she was deluged with fan mail and, at times, marriage proposals.

Next she was cast as a Buxom Beauty in The Monster Club (1980), with Vincent Price in the lead role.

Book dealer Callum James, who also houseshared with Fullenwider (for six years and with the aforementioned Hamilton), tells that

[w]hen she was approached to appear in Monster Club her stipulation was “a fee of $1500, a ‘Special Guest Star’ credit, and a limo to and from the studio.” The studio, in response, said yes to all her requests.

After this, her roles became fewer. She appeared in an episode of Wurzel Gummidge, a British children’s TV series, also in 1980, as well as in an episode of Angels, another TV series, and in three films: the Nutcracker (1983), Al limite, non glielo dico (1984), and Eat the Rich (1987).

With fees in the order of $1,500, one has to wonder about Fullenwider’s funding, but a blog quotes correspondence from a fan who may supply an answer, although how reliable it is, I cannot say; writing in September 2008, he stated:

I'm a law student at Baylor University, in Waco TX. We were talking about probate today, and our prof. read us an old Texas newspaper article about, of all people, Fran Fullenwider!! Apparently, Ms. FnW inherited millions from a wealthy TX aunt she never met, while living in England. The article described Fran as an "Italian moviestar and romantic lead", and said that she was 5'2" tall and weighted [sic] 220 lbs. Just thought it was funny to hear about her in an otherwise boring class.

In 1993 Fullenwider would be cast as Emer Trueba in The House of Spirits, a film based on Isabel Allende’s eponymous novel. She would share credits with major Hollywood stars, including Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, and Antonio Banderas. Yet, the film, which cost $40,000,000, made a huge loss and fell into obscurity.

Her final role would be as Countess in the episode "The Oval Portrait" of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a 13-episode British TV series based on the collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe first published in 1908. Fullenwider’s career thus ended in the Horror genre, the same way it had begun. Overall, she was more popular in Italy, where she played romantic comedy roles, than in the English-speaking world, and this is reflected by the fact that she has a page only in the Italian-language Wikipedia.

Until her death, Fullenwider resided at 26D Randolph Crescent, London, W9. She passed away at Princes Grace Hospital on 2 May 1997, aged 51. The cause of death was cardiac arrest and gastrointestinal bleeding.

It will be noted that, other than her death, address, and film credits, the publicly known details of Fullenwider's life are all anecdotal. And the personal information comes from postings in various amateur blogs dedicated to horror films, hardly reliable sources—indeed, I had to excavate the nethermost depths of the internet to find this information, encountering all manner of freaks and weirdos in the process. I suppose this only "adds to the fauna and the flora", as someone I once knew used to say.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Navigations in Popular Culture - Part 1

The second season of American Horror Story is set in a lunatic asylum, where just one song is offered to inmates for purposes of recreation. The song is left playing in the common room over and over again, all day long, and inmates are forbidden to stop it or prevent it from playing; indeed, doing so results in punishment (the asylum is run with an iron hand by a cruel nun, played by Jessica Lange). If the inmates were not crazy before being committed, they were surely driven crazy once they were, if only from having their psyches ceaselessly pounded by a song that, on top of it, consists of two melodies repeated without variation from beginning to end.

The song in question is "Dominique", by Sœur Sourire, from the album The Singing Nun. The singing nun was Jeanine Deckers (1933 - 1985), a Belgian nun of the Dominican Order, who was both the composer and performer. The single, "Dominque", released by Philips Records, and proved an international hit, outselling Elvis Presley during its tenure in the chart. Deckers recorded the album at the encouragement of her superiors, who had noticed her songs were very popular at the convent and with visitors, and thought it would be a good source of revenue.

Deckers gained nothing but sorrow from "Dominique". The royalties (at least $100,000) went straight into the convent's bank account. Her second album was ignored. And her relations with her superiors deteriorated to the point that she was forced out of the convent. She carried on as a lay Dominican, but she was prevented by Philips from using her stage names (both Sœur Sourire and The Singing Nun), which hampered her musical career, as, obviously, without them no one knew who she was.

Subsequently, the government came looking for a cut, and issued her with a $63,000 tax bill. She argued that the proceeds of her music had gone to the convent, but the convent denied any liability since she was no longer with them and, besides, they couldn't pay. Deckers thus spent the remainder of her years in serious financial trouble. In 1982 she attempted to solve them with a synth-pop version of "Dominique", but her efforts proved in vain. Three years later, citing her financial worries, she committed suicide by lacing alcohol with an overdose of barbiturates.

The synth-pop version of "Dominique" can be watched in YouTube, where a user has supplied video taken from Federico Fellini's film, Roma (1972). The scenes depict a runway show with models in religious garb. Among these there are two clad as Daughters of Charity, complete with oversized cornettes, whose extremities are made to flap as wings as the "nuns" make their way through the runway.

Now, the cornette had been already been phased out eight years earlier, on 20 September 1964, when the Daughters of Charity, a 45,000-strong society for apostolic life founded by Saint Vincent de Paul, were ordered to don a reformed habit, an act that was 13 years in the making and involved a measured and detailed consultation. The original habit, with its distinctive cornette, had been in use since the society's foundation in the 17th century. The Daughters of Charity worked in the field and were not required to remain cloistered; the choice of headdress was aimed at having these nuns look like middle-class women.

Fellini was friends with Fran Fullenwider, an American actress, originally from Texas, who made a career in Italian comedy, but who had roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and The House of Spirits (1993). I met her in London in 1994 and saw her a couple of times. By that time she had grown very large and had difficulty going down a flight of stairs. She invited me to join her and a couple of friends of hers for lunch at The Groucho Club, a private members club oriented towards publishing media, arts, and entertainment personnel. Needless to say I felt like a fish out of water there, even though I am a publisher, an artist, and a musician, but Fullenwider was kind and engaging company. Fullenwider told that Fellini desired to use her in a film, but death overtook him before a suitable project passed through his desk (he'd died the year before).

After that I never saw Fullenwider again, though it appears she left this world three years later. I only found out many years after the event, when a morbid blogger put her death certificate online.