originally published in Genesis magazine, 1981
reprinted without permission, no copyright infringement intended.
By now, most of the civilized world has been exposed to Pia Zadora in one form or another. Her nymphet's face and woman's body have adorned T-shirts, album covers, TV commercials, films, and billboards. Her first film, Butterfly, garnered her the newcomer-of-the-year award of the Foreign Press Association; she opens big-name acts in Las Vegas, from Don Rickles and Rich LittIe to Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
Pia Zadora's success has also inspired more than the usual share of resentment. Sometimes it takes the form of gentle ribbing. At the "Night of 100 Stars" at Radio City Music Hall, where more than two hundred of America's best-known performing artists gathered, Steve Allen quipped: "If a bomb were to fall on this place right now, it would be a big break for Pia Zadora."
More serious were charges that the Foreign Press Association had been "bought off," that it gave Pia its Golden Globe Award because Pia's husband, multimillionaire Meshulam Riklis, had spread money around to the members of the FPA to help boost his young wife to stardom; adding to the storm was the fact that the film in question, Butterfly, had not even been released at the time of the awards.
Butterfly did well at the box office, less well with the critics. Much of the backlash against Pia Zadora and the film stemmed from the fact that it had been financed with her husband's money. And Zadora's detractors point out that Riklis also owns a controlling share in the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, where his wife often performs -- ignoring the fact that she also plays at other hotels on the Strip -- and Dubonnet wine, for whom she does TV commercials. Pia Zadora has been performing professionally for seventeen of her twenty-five years, mostly onstage in Broadway musicals. Among her credits are roles in Applause, Fiddler on the Roof and the off-Broadway hit Dames at Sea. In person she is fresh, intelligent, playful and confident that any controversy about her career will blow over before very long.
GENESIS: How was Butterfly chosen as your first film, and who chose it?
Zadora: Matt Cimber, the director, had the James M. Cain novel it's based on in mind, and he brought it to Tino Barzie, my manager, who brought it to Rik. They were all enamored of it, and two weeks later we were in preproduction. We'd been waiting a long time for the right property, and this seemed to be the perfect thing. It was a picture we could shoot very cheaply; we didn't need much in the way of locations. I have trouble playing my age on screen. and what I liked about the role was that the girl is very young, yet she has a maturity that belies her years. It was something you could sink your teeth into, not just a normal seventeen~year old girl with an average mentality. And it was an actor's picture; I could not hide behind a lot of glamour and glitz. Here I am with my face dripping with perspiration, a little rag on me, in the middle of the des-ert, with no shoes on. That's the kind of thing I wanted to do. And I love Cain. He seems to be hot right now -- The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat. One of the themes of Butterfly is incest. Before now, I don't think people could deal with the subject. Now that there have been exposes in major magazines and on television shows, and several films, the subject is at least more out in the open. And I like the way Cain writes his women. Very strong. They're kind of lusty, they know what they want, they're full of conviction. Cain's women are sexual.
GENESIS: You might get the idea that James Cain didn't trust women.
Zadora: Well, although he may not have thought much of their integrity, he had great respect for them, for what they could do and accomplish. In all of his stories, they're the winners. They always come out on top. In Butterfly, the woman leaves the poor guy and drives away in the big white Rolls-Royce.
GENESIS: Is this the kind of film you would choose to see?
Zadora: Well, I like pictures with love stories. Basically, I'm a romantic. I don't like to go to the movies to see violence or some kind of spy thing with all kinds of information you have to assimilate to understand the plot. I like to see love stories: romantic comedy or romantic drama. My favorite movie was Romeo and Juliet. It was simple, beautiful -- you knew what was going to happen, it had romance to it. I was very young when the Zeffirelli film first came out, but I loved it. I'd done it at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
GENESIS: Your second film, Fake Out, set in Las Vegas, wasn't by chance shot in and around the Riviera Hotel?
Zadora: Oh, of course!
GENESIS: Why was that?
Zadora: Convenience. I mean, everyone knows by now that my husband has a controlling interest in it. The reason we shot it was that the script was geared to Las Vegas and it was something commercial that we wanted to have in the can in case Butterfly was a success and we needed a follow-up.
GENESIS: Or if Butterfly stiffed?
Zadora: Either way. That's why we did something else. Butterfly was certainly a vehicle for me, and if it died, it still would have served its purpose, in spades. We never expected it to give me the visibility it has given me. It was just a small thing as a vehicle, and suddenly the whole world knew about it.
GENESIS: And certainly there were a lot of people who resented it.
Zadora: You know, it's not the people in Hollywood who go to see movies that will make a movie successful; it's the people all around the country; it's word-of-mouth. Certainly, since it did well in New York, that's an indication, because New York is probably the toughest town after Los Angeles. I don't even consider Los Angeles to be a judge. People there are so involved with the film industry -‹ I won't say jaded, but you can't see anything objectively when you're so close to it. When you're involved in movies naturally you don't think this movie is as good as your own picture.
They may resent somebody infringing on their territory which is a natural thing. You don't come out of nowhere and win a Golden Globe! If were a struggling little actress who won, they'd say, "Oh come on, sweetheart. You won! Great!" and I'd be part of their clique. But no. The don't have that power over me; I'm not at their mercy. That may be what they resent. We don't go to Hollywood parties, not at all. Not that they're not good for someone else. I'm certainly not putting them down. But there's not enough time in life to go sit at a party, have a drink, and make idle conversation. There's too many important things to do. Just being together with my husband, spending time alone, which I have very little of. If we're going out to dinner, I like to be alone with him. Or with Matt, or my manager and sit and plan. Talk about pictures, which is important. The future comes quickly. Before you know it, you turn around and it's tomorrow.
GENESIS: Do you think it's because you didn't "pay your dues" in Los Angeles?
Zadora: I'm a stranger here. I'm a threat. Definitely. I didn't realize they were so insecure. It just came to me now, but it true. Very insecure. If somebody like me can be a threat they're obviously insecure. When the Golden Globe nominations were announced everyone in town said "Who is this?" Here were major studios spending forty and fifty million dollars on picture and all of a sudden an independent comes in with a two million-dollar picture and gets three nominations. What wrong with that?
GENESIS: The big rumor was that your husband spread his largesse around and "bought" the award for you.
Zadora: Exactly. Let me start from the beginning. When I first was nominated, I never expected to win, for the normal reasons. First, the picture was not released. Second, the people in my category were all in pictures that had opened, everybody knew them, they all received critical acclaim for the pictures. So there was no way I was going to win. I was thrilled with the nomination, but I didn't want to go to the ceremony. I hated the idea of sitting there smiling and not winning. But everyone said, "Look, they honored you with the nomination, you must go. Think positively. You'll get it next time." That kind of thing. I certainly wasn't thinking positively. Then they called my name -- the shock of my life! I was so thrilIed -- such a high -- I didn't sleep for two days. Then, when I started hearing the accusations, I was crushed. It was like somebody throwing a wet blanket over a fire. I was hurt; I cried; I didn't know what to do. I was just miserable. The strange thing is, now I can almost giggle at it. What it has done is given me a tremendous amount of visibility. Whenever there's a controversy or scandal, it's the greatest thing. But in my case, my husband has money, so that's the crux of the controversy. Certainly, by now, if there had been anything to the accusations, peo-ple would know about it. These things are easily investigated.
GENESIS: Evidently, Orson Welles had a rather hot time working with you and the cast on Butterfly.
Zadora: Oh, God! Orson was up on this podium, smoking a big cigar and holding a big bottle of vodka (he plays a very kinky judge). All of a sudden, he says very calmly, in the middle of a scene, "Excuse me, but I'm on fire." The cigar had dropped down onto his robes. Everyone turned around and saw flames, and we all ran to throw water on him. He was very calm about it. After everything died down, he said, "Well, that is the most exciting thing that's happened all evening." Very charming. He wrote me a beautiful letter afterward and sent me a bouquet of roses the size of this table. He was also nominated for best supporting actor in Butterfly. If he had won, there wouldn't have been any controversy. Or maybe there would have been. Who knows?
GENESIS: There are certain similarities to your career and that of Susan Alexander in Welles's Citizen Kane, where Kane uses all his money to promote his wife into a great opera star. What makes you different from that character -‹ other than not singing opera?
Zadora: Mmmm. A couple of things. I think I'd be in trouble if I suddenly got married and decided to be "a star," with no background. In a way, my past gives me a little credibility. Not that anybody cares what I did nineteen years ago, but I did have a career, and a legitimate one, before I met my husband. When we got married, I was willing to give up my career. He was the one who urged me to go back to work. Naturally, if he has the means to help me, sure, wouldn't you help your wife? Who are you going to help? Your girlfriend? Somebody else's wife?
GENESIS: You perform on-stage, have done television, films, records. What do you feel most comfortable doing?
Zadora: Film, I think, is my medium. I've really just begun, so I don't feel "most comfortable." I certainly feel more comfortable onstage because I've been doing it for seventeen years. But I do feel like it's my home, when I'm on the screen. I like it for several reasons. It's a much more sincere medium in terms of acting. When you're onstage, although you try to be sincere, you must always project to to back of the house, which inevitably has the tendency give you a larger-than-life quality. When you're on the screen, it's like being in frontof an X-ray machine. You magnified to such a great extent, every ounce of insincerity will show. It's a challenge for that reason. You have be one hundred percent volved in the character.
GENESIS: What do you feel you need to work on the most to be satisfied with yourself ?
Zadora: I'd like to keep going, to keep exploring. It's like anything else there's no way you can reach any kind heights or potential in your first film. The more you do, the more comfortable you get, the more new things you discover, the more things evolve, the more you can see yourselef. It's hard to be objective. You see things coming on the screen you might want to emphasize that you never knew existed before. I love it.
GENESIS: If you were to com pare yourself to another entertainer, who might they be?
Zadora: I used to get reviews saying I belt like Ethel Merman, or I have the sex appeal of Mitzi Gaynor, when I was on Broadway. I don't know. I can't compare myself to anyone. I don't see myself in a certain image. I'm sure there are certain traits I have that are like other people's, but can't think that way.
GENESIS: Do you ever find yourself playing the role of the "public Pia Zadora"?
Zadora: No, I never do. I'm one Pia Zadora, the same way all the time. That's why I'm happy. It took me a long time to get to the point where could be myself all the time. I'm not eighteen, you know. There were times when it was all new to me, when I'd sit interviews and try to be someone else, because I was nervous, scared. But not now. Unless, of course, it's a terribly intimidating situation, something awful. But I put things into perspective. Why? I mean, do I look natural you?
GENESIS: Yes, I'm just trying imagine you as a walIflower. Your biography says you were very shy as a child.
Zadora: Excruciatingly shy! still am. I was an only child and had a heart condition until was about four or five, a ventricle that wouldn't close. I grew out of it, but they had watch me carefully for a coupIe of years. I had to stay quiet. I think most performers are shy. It's an escape, escaping into a world of unreality. When you're performing, you can expose the character, drop the inhibitions, but not expose yourself.
GENESIS: You quit the business around the time you met your husband. How long did you stay away from performing?
Zadora: About two years. I wasn't sure whether I was doing it because I'd always done it, or whether it was something I really wanted do. I looked around me and saw women in their thirties and forties leading this very lonely life; they always work hard, and the work was gratifying, but they didn't have a life, really. That was not what I wanted. I was always ahead of my years. I stopped. I was lucky enough to have met Rik at that time. Our relationship developed, and that was it. Then we decided to get married, and he put me back to work.
GENESIS: Are you attracted to your co-stars? For example, Desi Arnaz, Jr., in Fake Out?
Zadora: Oh, he's such a sweet kid. So normal, so nice. No hang-ups. It was like having a big brother around. And he has great eyes. Theres a scene in Fake Out where I'm in the tub with bubbles all over me, drinking wine. He plays a young cop. I ask him to stay, because I like him and just got out of prison, so I'm lonely. He leans over to kiss me and says, "Well, I guess I better turn in my Good Conduct Medal." Then the phone rings, and he falls into the tub.
GENESIS: A rough job, but somebody has to do it. You're starting another film.
Zadora: Yes, Lonely Lady, from the novel by Harold Robbins. It's a story of a girl and her struggle with Hollywood. It's kind of a spoof of what goes on in Hollywood. She gets married and divorced, gets pregnant and has an abortion, goes on drugs, has a gay relationship, and finally wins an Academy Award.
GENESIS: Are you deliberately courting a sex-kitten, Bardot-type image?
Zadora: I don't think so. I enjoy being sexy. The interesting thing about "sex kittens" or "Sexpots," whatever they say, is that the first thing that comes to mind is the tragedy that is associated with their lives. Although I've admired them growing up and seeing them on the screen, it kind of scares me. I certainly wouldn't want to emulate their lifestyles. Brigitte Bardot is different. She was always happy, strong, her own woman. Her, I adore. I'd love to meet her. Or maybe I wouldn't. It might shatter my image of her. She's such an idol to me; she's terrific. You just want her to remain up there on that pedestal; you don't want to know that someone like that is a real person. We just like to see them on the screen.