SUSAN CABOT

john cribbs

 

 

December 10, 1986 - Encino, California

By all accounts, Susan Cabot had a strange life. A Jewish girl raised in eight different foster homes in and around Boston, she eventually made her way to Manhattan. She did some singing in nightclubs and for ads on the radio before landing a spot as an extra in Kiss of Death (only the back of her head made it into the final film). She was signed by Universal and appeared in several supporting roles, but it was three years after she’d given up film acting that Roger Corman came knocking. Over the next three years she appeared in the American International B-movies that became her milestones including The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. Around that time she began a relationship with King Hussein of Jordan: he bought her a Rolls Royce but allegedly dumped her after learning she was born with the name Harriet Shapiro. Two husbands and a line of other notable lovers such as Marlon Brando (and Corman) ultimately produced a son. In a cruel twist of fate the boy suffered from dwarfism, a hard blow to the 5'2" actress who’d supposedly struggled to find work due to her modest stature. She quit acting for good in 1960 at the tender age of 33 and after her second divorce the two lived as recluses in their large Encino home, which is where she was found beaten to death on December 10, 1986.

Sorority Girl – the second of six features she'd do with Corman* – opens with an amazing animated title sequence, a low budget combo of Saul Bass and Chuck Jones by the great Bill Martin (he designed five such segments for Corman, three of them for films starring Cabot – after that his credits dry up, whatever happened to him?) Complimented by a fantastic score from Ronald Stein (Corman's Bernard Herrmann), Martin's visuals depict a young woman mutating into some kind of deformed monstrosity with six protruding arms, then gripping the sides of her head in silent gray Munchian agony before fading away into a bleak background of dead trees. This expressionistic representation depicts the inner struggle of Sabra, whose name itself evokes the image of some exploited circus animal. We meet her on her knees, defeated, alone on a beach in a one-piece swimsuit, vulnerable but too weakened to defend herself against the incoming waves. In voice-over she asks herself how she reached such a miserable low, sending us back some weeks earlier to an exclusive sorority somewhere in southern California.

Cabot puts a lot into Sabra: she walks about with a cocky stride and confident smirk set in a cold stare permanently on display. She's got a natural prettiness with a hard edge, speaking to those around her with either a forced politeness bordering on maniacal vacuousness or a sharp, stinging condescension. With short black hair and thin dark eyebrows like a demon Liz Taylor, she's a prim piranha in her perfectly pressed turtlenecks, prowling the dorm hallways on campus looking to practice her particular brand of oily manipulation. The funny thing is that it doesn't work on most people; only awkward, eager-to-please pledge Ellie - who sees in Sabra all the physical and preeminent qualities she lacks - finds herself ironing dresses at all hours and subjecting herself to painful, humiliating exercises at Sabra's whim. Not satisfied with this easy prey, Sabra sets her sights on stealing her popular roommate's boyfriend (the great Dick Miller, playing against type as Mort, the studly owner of a beachside bar). His rejection of her advances sets in motion a revenge scheme involving a pregnant student that leads to tragedy and Sabra's undoing.  

Sabra is a paradox: a ruffian without a crowd. In a reversal of the classic structure of nasty girls from the popular group picking on the goodhearted individual, here the clique are the innocent ones and ultimately gang up on the bully. As a senior member of the sorority she feels she has carte blanche to expose her sisters' secrets, claim their boyfriends for her own and casually torture pledges, the latter activity culminating in a good old fashioned spanking with the Greek paddle. Sabra's behavior stems from a paranoia which puts her on guard against fellow sorority members who'd just as soon ignore her. She's like Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol, acting like she's "in" with the Factory while clearly aware she's the subject of contempt and ridicule from those around her. Sabra believes people see her as an outsider - a cruel rich bitch - and acts the part accordingly. She wants to be accepted but has predetermined that her position at the school only allows her to criticize and abuse those beneath her. She's a self-hating sadist.

Of course someone brimming over with self-hatred didn't just pick it up on their own, that hatred had to be inspired by something. "Darling, I knew you were a rat the day you were born," Sabra's high society mother informs her over dinner. "It's hereditary then," she responds in kind. Corman isn't known for his subtle psychological dissection of characters, but the scenes between Sabra and her mom are scathing. Faced with the woman whose callous cruelty she's based her own character on, Sabra's perverse smile is harder than ever. A later scene when Sabra seeks her mother for solace after realizing she's gone too far only to be summarily chided and sent away is kind of heartbreaking, and only proves to her that her own personal punishment - condemning herself to a life as a monster - is justified.

Cabot does insecurity well. She quivers with self-pity when chastised but gets smug the second she has the upper hand, enjoying the power she has over others. To her blackmail is a logical next step from hazing and verbal abuse - it's all been written into her DNA. The fact that she's destined to be a horrible person is a tragedy. If her height truly was a perceived deterrent to her career, it at least afforded Cabot the skill of making her performance seem bigger. It's only in moments when Sabra has been overwhelmed and beaten down that Cabot's small figure is apparent. Whether or not insecurity over her small stature influenced her portrayal of Sabra is debatable, but she definitely uses it to enhance the performance one way or another.

Amazingly, Corman exercises a remarkable amount of restraint in Sorority Girl. There are numerous opportunities to take it over the top - for the heat to rise and the violence to boil over - but he doesn't go for easy exploitation gimmicks. There's no murder, only melodrama. Not much sex beyond the failed seduction of Mort and the controversial pregnancy which serves the story. The spanking scene and a brief catfight are played up a little, but aren't nearly as excessive as they could have been. It seems that for once Corman was more interested in the script than the sensationalism.

* Their first collaboration, the melodramatic rocksploition film Carnival Rock, also featured Dick Miller and co-starred Brian Hutton, eventual director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. Hutton quit directing in the mid-80s to become a plumber – true story.

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