There are many tent-pole moments in Angie Dickinson's showbiz career.
She has worked with celebrated directors and classic co-stars. But she has no hesitation when asked to single out her favorite: Without a doubt, Dickinson says, it's Rio Bravo, the 1959 John Wayne Western.
"It's the best, for many reasons, of all my movies," she says.
To this day, in fact, if Dickinson encounters it playing on TV, "I dare not linger on that channel for long or I cannot turn it off," she says. "Once it starts, I'm hooked."
Join the club. On Tuesday, the historic Texas Theatre (231 W. Jefferson Blvd. in Oak Cliff) will be filled with movie lovers who share Dickinson's sentiments.
A free screening of Rio Bravo, introduced by the leading lady herself and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, is part of a 10-city Turner Classic Movies "Road to Hollywood" tour.
We chatted last week with Dickinson, still vibrant at 81, and Mankiewicz about the film.
Rio Bravo is widely considered to be one of John Wayne's best. What do you think made it so good? Why do you think it has endured?
Dickinson: It's a great screenplay. And Duke's relationship with each of us, in the other roles, is so rich. With Dean Martin [as Dude, the drunken deputy], they're like great brothers. He is trying to make a man out of Ricky Nelson [Colorado, the gunslinger from Fort Worth]. He has a wonderful relationship with the old man in the jail, Walter Brennan [Stumpy]. And then he is absolutely thrown off his game when he meets me. As much as he'd like to run me out of town, he finds me a little irresistible.
No kidding. The banter between your character, Feathers, the lady gambler, and his, John T. Chance, are reminiscent of Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. It's as if you're having two conversations at once: the actual words being used and the sexually charged subtext.
Dickinson: Exactly. It's like a towel. Drape someone provocatively in a towel and it's much more interesting than naked. A little subtlety, a little nuance. When he goes out of the room shaking his head, as if to say, "Women, I'll never understand them," it's one of the funniest moments I've ever seen Duke do.
Mankiewicz: As a matter of fact, there are a couple of lines that are almost flat-out stolen from To Have and Have Not, in a tribute way, of course. The screenplay is very sophisticated.
Was it mind-boggling, the idea of flirting onscreen with the great John Wayne?
Dickinson: Well, yes, of course. It was pretty awesome. But then you have to get over it and be an actor. He was not quite the god at that time that he ultimately became. He was a huge star, don't misunderstand me, but he wasn't a god yet. Otherwise, I would have been terrified. But also, more than that, Duke was such a genuinely marvelous person and he had done this so many times. So it was not the big deal for him that it was for me.
Where do you think this movie ranks among Wayne's best, among Martin's best and among director Howard Hawks' best?
Mankiewicz: I would say among the best for all three. When you see Dean Martin, it's clear that if his career had started differently, he could have been very successful as a serious dramatic actor. There's way more depth for John Wayne's character here than in many of his movies. As for Hawks, it's hard to rank because he made so many great pictures, but this is certainly among his best films.
Do you think Wayne was underrated as an actor, because people fail to recognize that it takes talent and hard work to make what he did look so effortless and natural?
Mankiewicz: You answered the question in asking it, but I'm happy to share in that. I did a TCM cruise event in which we screened The Searchers. You can't tell me that that's not a brilliant performance. Here too. There's great depth to his character. He's a terrific actor. His greatest problem, I think, was he became too big a star to be taken seriously as an actor by some people.
While you're in North Texas for the screening, is there anything else you plan to do?
Dickinson: I have a great friend in Fort Worth, Van Cliburn, and I'm going to visit him. He has been ill, so I'm thrilled that I have the chance to have dinner with him. I met him years ago through a mutual friend and I went to see him play [a] Rachmaninoff concerto in a theater, and our friendship just grew and grew from there. He's a fantastic man, just so dear. And those hands! You look at those hands and you don't believe they're real. But more than that, he's a wonderful man.