You already know that this a good year for big-league 50th anniversaries, from Beatlemania's advent to the first Civil Rights Act with any balls to speak of. So before April comes, let me draw your attention to a distinctly minor milestone: the premiere of The World of Henry Orient on March 19, 1964.
Among my contemporaries who know the movie at all, I've never met one who doesn't cherish it. But considering that the contemporaries I'm on good terms with include a fair number of professional film critics, it's interesting how rarely Henry Orient gets its due as one of our formative moviegoing experiences. This one we keep for ourselves.
Plot, courtesy of the novel by veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson's daughter Nora: two Manhattan 'tweeners cultivate an obsession with a pretentious and silly musician named Henry Orient (Peter Sellers, then at the peak of his vogue). The rich one—Tippy Walker as Val—is looking for an escape from being caught between her kindly but absentee businessman father (Tom Bosley) and her bitch of a high-society mother (Angela Lansbury). Val's middle-class sidekick, Marian 'Gil' Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth), is . . . well, a born second banana, meaning she's at once susceptible, resentful and yellower. Their innocent pursuit of sophistication goes from lyrical and zany to disillusioning once Val discovers that her haughty mom is having an affair with Henry.
At one level, this is unmistakably fake Salinger. But it's also Salinger feminized—kid sister Phoebe's story, you might say, with no Holden Caulfield in sight—and that's the movie's main claim to originality. Girls on the cusp of adolescence who learn about the fibs and betrayals of adult sexuality were fairly novel screen protagonists in 1964, especially since the hormonal changes fueling Val and Gil's mock-conspiratorial quest aren't in much doubt. From Heavenly Creatures to Ghost World and the Kirsten Dunst-starring Watergate comedy Dick, pretty much every subsequent movie about girls' secret worlds owes Henry Orient a debt.
Shot largely on location, the ur-flick is also a priceless record of a vanished, almost fairy-tale New York, from Gil and her mother's cozy West Village digs to an impossibly benign Central Park. But events had turned Henry Orient into a time capsule before its release. In the can before JFK's assassination, it came out a month after the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show—two events that unexpectedly altered a social fabric the moviemakers had taken for granted, the nature of teenhood's predilections included. A dear friend of mine once told me that he'd gone to see Henry Orient multiple times the week it came out, transfixed by instant nostalgia for a period he knew was as dead as the dodo.
Yet inadvertently or not, the movie also prefigures any number of '60s sea-changes, from its prescient attentiveness to female perspectives on sex—Henry the swinger's satyriasis makes him a figure of ridicule at a time when Hugh Hefner's Playboy philosophy was still in full swing—to the clash youthful idealism and fantasy with grown-up hypocrisy and cynicism. In one especially intriguing touch, fatherless Gil and her mother share their household with Mom's jolly, ever so slightly butch woman friend "Boothy"; the relationship's nature goes tactfully unexplained. And the fade-out, which has ye-ye music swelling on the soundtrack as our two now definitely nubile heroines swap makeup tips—"I want my mouth to look like a crimson gash," Val announces, a line that's still startling today—airly charmingly anticipates all hell breaking loose down the road.
That's why the perfect sequel to The World of Henry Orient is the real-life story of what became of its two child actresses, most fully recounted in a New Yorker piece by John Colapinto a couple of years ago. Merrie Spaeth, who soon quit acting, grew up to be a Republican PR flack, overseeing Ronald Reagan's White House communications office and then spearheading the Swift-boat campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004—her "biggest regret," according to Colapinto. Now 65, she's still at it, proving media consulting to Fortune 500 CEOs and such via her company, Spaeth Communications.
Tippy Walker, on the other hand, made a couple more movies—neither reportedly any good—before the counterculture, at least so far as I can tell, more or less swallowed her up for a time. During Henry Orient's making, the then 17-year-old actress had found herself inveigled into a romance with the movie's married, 43-year-old director, George Roy Hill—and so much for saluting his enlightment about teenage girls' vulnerabilities and the obnoxiousness of male privilege. Nowadays, still dependent on occasional handouts from friends to stay afloat in lean times, "Elizabeth" Walker lives quietly in New Haven, painting and writing poetry. Unlike Spaeth, she knows The World of Henry Orient is her one claim to immortality, and has shared her memories of the film's making—her unconsummated but intense affair with Hill included—in various forums online.
Someone ought to write a book about the pair of them. You could hardly ask for a better dramatization of their generation's garden of forking paths: The World of Ronald Reagan vs. Disorder And Early Sorrow. But I bet I know which of the two is more annoyed that they'll be linked forever.