Goodbye to Sandra Dee

For the past six months, I've been doing so much research to prepare for Grease. Once I understood that the show's raison d'etre is Authenticity, I realized I had to learn everything I could about the real, non-Happy Days 1950s. As I wrote in my earlier posts, I've been reading about the history of rock and roll, the history of sex in America, and the history of American teenagers and their culture. I've also been accumulating excellent documentaries on drive-ins, 1950s sexuality, 50s pop culture, the car culture of the 50s, and an excellent 10-part documentary called The History of Rock and Roll.

But I've also been watching tons of movies (and a little TV) from the period -- movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (which is so much better than you'd think!), Imitation of Life, High School Confidential, Teenage Doll, The Wild Ride, Tammy and the Bachelor (the movie Frenchy is talking about before "Beauty School Dropout"), High School Hellcats, Bucket of Blood (a great Beat horror flick), Rock, Rock, Rock, and so many more.

And then tonight I hit the mother lode. Gidget.

And now I understand, in a way I never did before, why Sandra Dee is the central metaphor of Grease. I often wondered why Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey rested so much of the show on that one over-arching symbol. Now I know.

Sandra Dee was a big star in late 50s and early 60s, and just in the two years that Grease spans, she released The Restless Years (1958), The Reluctant Debutante (1958), A Stranger in My Arms (1959), Gidget (1959), Imitation of Life (1959), The Wild and the Innocent (1959), and A Summer Place (1959), jumping back and forth between empty-headed teen comedies and stark melodrama. Today, it might be hard to understand what Sandra Dee represented, but she was the poster girl for the big studios’ attempts to make teen movies, a form which was up until that point the exclusive territory of small, low-budget producers like the ubiquitous Roger Corman.

But the studios’ teen flicks were inevitably artificial in the extreme, creating a freakish – and clueless – adult imitation of the teen world, a kind of cultural Frankenstein, that teens could see right through. To savvy teenagers, Sandra Dee was a teen sellout, and in a world where authenticity was the goal, there was nothing worse. She was a fake – in her life, in her acting style, and in her onscreen emotions. Teen audiences didn't want that; they wanted High School Hellcats and Teenage Doll. But adults loved Sandra Dee; she reassured them that their teen was a “good girl.”

In Grease, Sandy takes Sandra Dee as a role model (as many American girls did) – but not the real Sandra Dee, the cheery public character Sandra Dee, confusing her onscreen persona with her real life. Like millions of Americans in postwar America, Sandy (and presumably her family) are trying to live an American Dream that is pure fiction, particularly for the working class. That conflict is at the heart of Sandy’s arc in Grease.

But on another level, the metaphor gets even deeper – and this demonstrates the craftsmanship of this script – because Sandy’s relationship with Danny mirrors Sandra Dee’s difficult real life relationship with Bobby Darin. As Rizzo taunts Sandy with "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," she doesn't really know how dark that dark underbelly really is…

Darphne Merkin wrote in The New York Times in 2005 at the time of Sandra Dee’s death: …the “darling, pink world,” as she herself characterized it, that Sandra Dee was thought to inhabit by her fans had always been a grotesque mockery, plagued not by an overripened case of virginity but by childhood incest. The girl with brimming brown eyes and a fizzy lilt to her voice was born Alexandria Zuck in Bayonne, N.J. Her parents divorced when she was five; her father, a bus driver, disappeared from her life shortly thereafter, and her mother, Mary, married a much-older real-estate entrepreneur named Eugene Duvan within a few years. . . Worse yet, Dee's devoted but manipulative mother turned a conveniently blind eye to the defiled sexual appetites of her new husband. Duvan, who liked to tease his wife that he married her “just to get Sandy,” started having sex with his beautiful stepdaughter when she was 8 and continued doing so almost until his death when she was 12.

In fact, Sandra Dee later suffered from anorexia, depression, and alcoholism. All this made her cynically manufactured facade of sweetness even darker and more complex. This was the conventional, repressed, manufactured life from which Sandy Dumbrowksi must escape.

Merkin wrote: The thing is, [her career] happened so fast, was over practically before it began, that we can almost be forgiven for misconstruing her as a cultural simulacrum: a blip on the monitor, a media invention, an adorable incarnation of a feminine ideal of the reluctant or unwitting nymphet, rather than a flesh-and-blood creature with needs and wishes (not to mention raging demons) of her own.

Grease looks at the fifties with perfect, twenty-twenty hindsight, and it sees the darkness and deception of the decade’s role models and authority figures. Jacobs and Casey chose their central metaphor with great care. Sandra Dee wasn't happy in her real life because she was never allowed to be herself – to be authentic – and Sandy Dumbrowski suffers the same problem. Sandra Dee represents not just strict morality and virginity in Grease, but the entire manufactured, mainstream culture of 1950s America, the culture the kids of Grease are trying to escape.

Like I keep saying... the deeper I look, the more I find... and my chapter just keeps getting longer and longer..

Long Live the Musical!