Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Quick Detour Into the Exciting World of Exploitation Film: She Shoulda Said No!

After reading about Evelyn Nesbit in American Eve, her story reminded me of another beautiful young woman sacrificed on the altar of fame and celebrity scandal, Lila Leeds.

At the beginning of 1948, Leeds was poised to take Hollywood by storm. She'd had a small role in Lady in the Lake, and her looks drew comparisons to Lana Turner and Jean Harlow.

But then police busted up a marijuana party at her Laurel Canyon cottage, hauling in Leeds, and much to their delight, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum and Leeds were both convicted and sentenced to 60 days in prison. Both feared their careers were over; when Mitchum was asked to state his occupation for the police report, he replied, "Former actor."

However, Mitchum's studio rallied around him, and though some disapproved, the arrest gave his bad boy reputation even more cred.

Things would not go so well for Leeds, who was thrown under the proverbial bus. Even her agent, Louis Shurr said, "She had a promising career and was headed for success, if she had only behaved differently. It looks now as though she's blown her chances sky high."

Still, Leeds got one little break after prison - the chance to star in a sensationalized anti-drug movie in the spirit of the oft-mocked Reefer Madness. There was some trouble settling on a title. It was initially called The Devil's Weed, and for its Los Angeles premiere, it was titled Wild Weed, but the title was eventually changed to She Shoulda Said No!.

And sure, it bears many classic marks of the anti-drug exploitation film: teens smoke a little pot, get frisky, and smash up their cars; people go into marijuana "withdrawal," and a jittery fellow tries to throw himself out a window. However, She Shoulda Said No! is actually a pretty little terrific film, mainly because of Leeds's performance.

Leeds plays Anne Lester, a good girl working as a dancer to put her lazy, mooching brother through art school. Of course, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, Marky, stops by the dressing room to give the girls their fix, and wants to meet Anne the moment he lays eyes on her. One of Anne's dancer friends throws together an impromptu party, Marky gets Anne high, and before you can say Jack Robinson, she's his drug-dealing sidekick.

Leeds is perfectly lovely as a good girl, but it's once Anne Lester turns bad that the character really starts to shine.

When the cops try to pressure her into giving up Marky, Anne tells them where to stick it with such venom and contempt that it's almost like watching an interrogation scene from The Wire. Obviously, Leeds's memories of prison are still fresh here, but it's also clear that the gal has some acting chops.

In most movies like this, the Anne Lester character winds up a martyr, a junkie, a jailbird, or a repentent, wounded little sparrow, but She Shoulda Said No! avoids resigning her to any of these fates. And that's the best part of all.

Unfortunately, Leeds herself wouldn't be so lucky. Shortly after the release of She Shoulda Said No!, all the acting jobs dried up, and Leeds left California for over 15 years, during which time she was repeatedly arrested for drug possession and soliciting. For a time, she found an unlikely savior in the figure of Chicago madam Kay Jarrett, who helped Leeds hide from the press and care for her infant son shortly after she'd been abandoned by the child's father.

The story has a semi-happy ending, though I haven't yet uncovered the bulk of it. In the 1960s, Leeds returned to Los Angeles, sober and working as a minister with an evangelical church. She died in Canoga Park in 1999, and I'm still trying to fill in a lot of those missing years.

But in the meantime, add She Shoulda Said No! to your Netflix queue. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

April said...

Hi,

I am a relative of Lila Leeds. She was the niece of my great-grandmother. I am researching her story, and I was wondering if you can recommend a good biography of her, or perhaps point me to a source to verify that she died in 1999. Her passing didn't seem to catch the notice of the newspapers.

April
meretrice78@hotmail.com