A blonde bombshell with talent and chutzpah to match her voluptuous body and sharp looks, Carroll Baker—the former Karolina Pieckarski–was born in 1931 in Johnstown, PA, known best as the site of the famous great flood of 1898.
Her father was a travelling salesman who divorced her mother when she was young. After a move to another Pennsylvania town, the family relocated to Florida where, at the age of 18, Carroll won the title of Miss Florida Fruits and Vegetables in 1949. After taking dance lessons, attending classes at a St. Petersburg college, and short stints as a magician’s assistant and TV weathergirl, the aspiring thespian made her way to New York and the legendary Actor’s Studio. There she befriended other talents taking classes like Ben Gazzara (who she dated), Jack Garfein (who later became her second husband), Rod Steiger, and James Dean. Dean helped introduce her to director George Stevens, who’d later cast her in Giant with Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
Baker got a small screen part in 1953’s Easy to Love, an Esther Williams sing-and-swim vehicle with Van Johnson and Tony Martin. She followed with some TV commercials—Winston cigarettes among them—before snagging Broadway roles in Escapade and All Summer Long. Her marriage to furrier Louie Ritter dissolved, but the theater exposure led director and Actor’s Studio honcho Elia Kazan to cast Baker in the lead in Baby Doll. Kazan chose her over Marilyn Monroe, another Actor’s Studio attendee.
Based on a story by Tennessee Williams, Baby Doll stars the 28-year-old Baker as the seductive teenage bride of Mississippi cotton gin owner Karl Malden. As part of the marriage contract, the alcoholic Malden has agreed that he must wait until “Baby Doll” turns 20 to consummate their marriage. In the meantime, she sleeps in a crib in a short nightgown and sucks her thumb, which drives Malden into a tizzy. Enter Eli Wallach, a business rival of the alcoholic Malden’s, who believes his competitor has burned his plant down and is willing to use Baby Doll to get back at him.
Because of its sexual themes and Baker’s erotically-charged performance, the film was a lightning rod for controversy from the get-go, and soon drew the ire of Catholic organizations that condemned it. While it won approval from the Motion Picture Code, the pressure from various groups led to Baby Doll being pulled out of theaters. Time Magazine called it “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited”.
Of course, the film could have catapulted Baker to stardom at the same time Marilyn Monroe, another blonde Actor’s Studio alumna, was making major cinematic waves. For her scorching turn, Baker received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Dramatic Role.
“I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Baker’s Baby Doll is one of the sexiest film performances in screen history. Baker’s performance is brilliant — innocent and brazen, stupid and smart, ladylike and lazy…” wrote critic and Turner Classic Movies guest programmer Kim Morgan in 2010 on her blog at sunsetgun.typepad.com.
Surfacing within months of Baby Doll was Baker’s supporting part in Giant, playing the daughter of socialite Elizabeth Taylor and rancher Rock Hudson (She would later also appear in the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever told, also helmed by Stevens).
Then, she starred in a series movies of varying degrees of success: The Miracle (1959), playing a novitiate nun who falls for British military officer Roger Moore; But Not for Me (1959), as a secretary who falls for older Broadway producer boss Clark Gable; and the WWII drama Bridge to the Sun (1961), based on the memoir of Gwen Terasaki, the American-born wife of a Japanese diplomat who faces deportation and prejudice when World War II begins.
Baker’s star was rising, but it really got a jolt when her husband and fellow Actor’s Studio student Jack Garfein directed her in Something Wild (1961). The controversial film cast Baker as a teenage rape victim who hides the attack from those around her. Despondent from the incident, she plans suicide, but is stopped by a garage mechanic (Ralph Meeker) who may have other plans for her.
Even though the film drew attention for its onscreen rape, Baker’s nudity and a score by Aaron Copeland, the film divided audiences and critics. Jonas Mekas in Film Quarterly wrote that Something Wild was the “most interesting American film of the quarter; it may become the most underestimated film of the year.” But the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the rape sequence “quite exhausting to sit though” and that “it is not too satisfying, because it isn’t quite credible and the symbolic meaning (if there is one) is beyond our grasp.”
While the independent effort didn’t cash in at the box-office, it did bring Baker higher profile parts, and showed she was an actress who was not shy of flaunting her assets or revealing her emotions onscreen. As a sexpot whose arrival at an isolated pumping station in the African desert starts the British crew there erupting, Baker added even more heat to 1962’s Station Six Sahara’s steamy locations. She found prestige parts in the first segment of the anthology saga How the West Was Won, playing the romantic interest of mountain man James Stewart; and as a school teacher in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), John Ford’s final saddle opera.
After missing out on the coveted role of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Liz Taylor (Warner Brothers wouldn’t let her out of her contract), Baker hooked up with producer Joseph E. Levine for three films, all of which accented her sex kitten image. In The Carpetbaggers, based on the Harold Robbins trashy best seller, she played gold-digging nympho Rina Marlowe, the Jean Harlow alike to George Peppard’s Howard Hughes roman a clef. The film’s success made Baker one of the world’s top sex sirens, especially after the 1962 death of Marilyn Monroe.
The Carpetbaggers was followed by signing an exclusive contract with Levine that brought Baker a then-impressive $5 million over the next few years. After being showcased in a Playboy Magazine spread–she was also showcased a few times in their annual “Sex in the Cinema” feature–Baker starred as Sylvia (1965), the fiancée of millionaire Peter Lawford, who enlists the services of private detective George Maharis to find out about her past. Maharis sniffs out all sorts of lurid stuff about Baker’s background.
The movie didn’t draw large numbers. Since The Carpetbaggers, with Baker playing a role based on Jean Harlow, had fared much better, the cagey Levine next cast Baker as the platinum goddess herself in the much-hyped biography Harlow (1965). The supposed lurid details of Harlow’s life were front and center, whether they be the actress’s relationships with her lecherous stepfather (Raf Vallone), her domineering mother (Angela Lansbury), and movie directors who were sexually aggressive (Leslie Nielsen) or self-destructive (Peter Lawford). According to studio hype, Baker and Harlow shared the same measurements—35-24-35.
While a competing film on the same subject—shot quickly and cheaply in a videotape-like process, and starring Carol Lynley as Harlow and Ginger Rogers as her mother—stole some of Harlow’s thunder, the feud between producer Levine and Baker grew nastier throughout production.
Years later, Baker recalled that Levine “behaved like he owned me and my husband thought it was all terrific as long as I kept bringing in the money. I started objecting to everything, but it was too late. The sex-symbol image had already started. I turned down parts and they blacklisted me. Then Paramount tried to squeeze me out of my contract and take me for everything I was worth financially, and my marriage was breaking up… The press attacked me viciously at every opportunity. I came very close to suicide.”
Ultimately she and hubby Garfein—a Holocaust survivor for whom the Catholic actress converted to Judaism to wed—parted ways in 1968. Baker was eventually awarded custody of their children, Blanche Baker and Herschel Garfein, after much legal sparring.
After winning $1 million in a lawsuit and getting out of her contract with Levine and Paramount, Baker appeared opposite Robert Mitchum in the Africa-set Mister Moses (1965). Baker then decided it was time to get away from it all, so she moved to Italy, where she began working steadily in erotic dramas and Italian thrillers—or “giallos.”
Now into her 30s, Baker learned how to speak Italian, and starred in one sexy suspenser after another. In most cases, the films featured Baker as the sultry lead character, often cast as “the American” in the picture, who is being terrorized or subjected to cruelty in one way or another. In America, the efforts were usually relegated to grindhouses, or featured as the “Adult Shocker” at drive-ins. Over the years, however, they have amassed a strong following around the world by fans of Italian horror films from the era. To these connoisseurs of cult cinema, there’s always room for giallo—especially if Carroll Baker was in it.
She’s the lead in 1968’s The Sweet Body of Deborah, as a woman who discovers her new husband may have killed his previous wife. A mysterious stalker seems to have it in for Deborah, threatening her in order to make her pay for her spouse’s past.
Then Baker appeared in four films by Italian exploitation auteur Umberto Lenzi, notorious later for the vrutal cannibal efforts Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive.
Baker’s first Lenzi fest was Orgasm (aka Paranoia) (1969), in which she plays a recent American widow who returns to her Italian villa, where she’s befriended by a handsome stranger and his sister. Sexual tension and liaisons abound, but Baker eventually realizes not all is as it seems with the curious siblings. The film received an “X” rating and 1 ½ stars from film critic Roger Ebert, who deemed one of the worst films of the year—and it was only August. Over the years, however, the tide on Paranoia has shifted, as aficionados generally consider it one of Baker’s best Euro-efforts.
In the second Lenzi offering, So Sweet…So Perverse (1969), a hot-to-trot Baker lures a married couple, concerned about the disturbing noises they hear from an upstairs apartment, into a game of deceit conceived by Baker’s diabolical ex-lover.
Lenzi’s Diabolique-like thriller A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) casts Baker as a race car driver (!), rehabbing from an auto accident at her former husband’s villa, who gets an offer from her ex’s current spouse to do him in. Carroll proved that Danica Patrick has nothing on her.
1972’s Knife as Ice, the final Baker-Lenzi collaboration, has Baker essaying the part of a woman who has been mute since childhood, after witnessing her parents’ horrific deaths on a train. Now, after her cousin has been killed, she seems to be targeted as the next murder victim. But who is the culprit? The sensational sex and violent elements of giallo thrillers are toned down for this thriller that’s more in the Hitchcock mold.
Baker took on other genre projects as well in Europe, from the western Captain Apache (1971) with Lee Van Cleef, to Baba Yaga: Devil Witch (Kiss Me…Kill Me) (1973),in which she plays a sorceress who possesses a beautiful female photographer.
After a nearly ten-year hiatus in Europe, the actress returned to American screens at age 46 in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977), an extremely dark comedy in which Baker plays a beautician who runs a murder-for-hire operation out of her apartment, enlisting her salon help for double duty as assassins. Warhol produced the film, which was designed for midnight movie status a la John Waters’ movies. It never really clicked as a cult item, although it does have its share of fans to go along with its grotesqueries.
Still, the film marked the return of the near-forgotten Baker to American audiences. She married husband number three, British stage actor Donald Burton, and, in 1983, had her tell-all autobiography, Baby Doll, published to popular success. There was no shortage of disturbing tales in the book, stories about her troubled childhood, her dysfunctional family life and her climb out of depression and bankruptcy after the Hollywood door was slammed shut on her.
Throughout the rest of her roller-coaster career, Baker split her time between England and the States. She kept busy up through the late 1990s, working steadily in supporting parts in high profile movies (Star 80, The Watcher in the Woods, Kindergarten Cop, Ironweed, The Game), TV series (L.A. Law, Tales from the Crypt), and touring in such plays as Bell, Book and Candle, Forty Carats and Motive.
When asked about her experiences on and off the screen, the sometimes brassy, sometimes fragile Baker answered with a question.
“Life seems to be a never-ending series of survivals, doesn`t it?”