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Shelley Plimpton. A contemporary American madonna. In Alice's Restaurant, she appears as a pale-faced, virginal groupie who goes to bed with rock stars as pragmatically as a kid collects box tops. In Bob Downey's Putney Swope, she is Madison Avenue's decadent innocent, and her freckles glisten in the sun. In Hair she sounded like a 10-year-old choir boy. In Glen and Randa, her latest film, she plays a girl with no family, no education, no past, who journey's with Glenn (played by her husband Steve Curry) across the vast U.S. wasteland which remains after the nuclear holocaust of World War III.
Randa is perhaps the ideal role for Shelley, who has the kind of face that never registers the past. Hers is the face of the here and now, the face of the Aquarian generation. Nevertheless, she does have a past; she has lived a life. When she was 3 her parents divorced. Her childhood years were split in half: summers with her father in Roseburg, Oregon; winters with her mother in Arizona. After her father died, she moved to New York City with her mother, who had a job in the casting department of a Broadway production company. That summer, "I got on a bus and went all the way to Washington state and all the way back. Whenever I stopped, I stayed with friends. When I was in a place where I didn't know anybody, I just rode around." She was 14.
Upon graduating from high school, Shelley got a job - as a cashier in the Night Owl. For two-and-a-half years she hung out there and in several other Village clubs. When the Rolling Stones first came to New York, she met them. She rode in their limousine. Then in 1966, the year of "California Dreamin'" Shelley took off for the West Coast with Sally Mann, her best friend. two chicks, hanging out, making scenes, and living from hand to mouth. A collage of time and events, names and places: The Trip. Sir Douglas Quintet. Phil Spector. Whisky a Go-Go. Bob Dylan. Frank Zappa. Beverly Hills.
Shelley and Sally walked along the Strip with painted faces. Old ladies pointed at them. A VW bus drenched them with water. But they didn't care.
And then there were the police. "It seemed like every day a cop would stop me and ask to see my ID. I'd have to sit in his car while he checked the runaway lists. My name was never there, but I'd go to the station anyway while someone called my mother in New York. Then I'd leave. At first, all of this bothered me, but then I got used to it." Nine months passed. Shelley began to miss new York. One day, out of the blue, blue sky, she received a letter from her boss at the Night Owl, asking her to come back to work. That was all she needed. She went back to New York.
Things were quiet for nearly a year, until June 1967. Into the Night Owl walked Rado and Ragni, co-authors of Hair, looking for musicians for their "American-tribal-love-rock-musical". They didn't find any musicians that night, but they did discover Shelley - working behind the cash register.
"Can you sing, dance, or act?" they asked.
"Great, you'll be perfect for the part."
But there wasn't any part for Shelley. During her audition, Rado and Ragni created Crissy, the teenybopper, just for her. Suddenly, there she was, off-Broadway in a funky T-shirt and bellbottoms, moving to center stage to sing her mournful saga: "I met a boy called Frank Mills on September 12th right here in front of the Waverly. But unfortunately, I lost his address...."
For Shelley, however, good fortune was everywhere. Arthur Penn and the casting people of Alice's Restaurant came to Hair and loved her. She auditioned for the role of a groupie with a runny nose. To make her first appearance on the screen, Shelley took a leave of absence from Hair.
Next came an invitation from Bob Downey ( a prince) to do a mock commercial for his film burlesque of Madison Avenue, Putney Swope. As a luscious, pastel-chic, Angel Face-Pond's model, Shelley frolicked with her black boyfriend, Ronald Dyson, in a wispy green glade, singing about that hot new product, Face-Off pimple remover.
Alice's Restaurant and Putney Swope opened within a month of each other, and Shelley was the season's "girl of the cameos".
Serendipity is evidently on Shelley's side. Randa, her first major role, fell into her hands as a result of a series of happy coincidences. The director, Jim McBride, who surfaced from the underground with his award winning David Holzman's Diary, has signed Shelley's husband, Steve Curry, to play the leading role of Glenn. But whom was to co-star?
"Why don't I bring my wife over? The part's beautiful for her," said Steve. "It's just how we are."
Enter Shelley's and Steve's manager, who told the casting director Shelley would be perfect for the part. "If you want to know anything more about her" he said, "she's auditioning for George Segal for Scuba Duba in summer stock right now." Shelley had no more than finished auditioning for Segal when McBride's casting director called. Segal gave out a resounding earful of "Wow" and "she's a great actress" and "she's fantastic" and "she's incredible". "It was funny," says Shelley. "Segal went into this whole thing without ever seeing me act. As far as he knew, I could have been the worst. But he dug me. The casting director was still down on the whole idea, but he relented and said 'Okay, bring her in.' I went in and they kept Stevie and me reading for two days. Then we had a screen test. Everything was nice and relaxed. We did two scenes from the script and Jim really dug them. I got the part."
They've been trekking through the wilderness ever since. As Glenn and Randa, they search for The City. Up and down a rock slide the walk, through a forest, across a river. Scavenging for food and shelter, the pair keep stumbling upon the incomprehensible remains of 20th-century civilization: the wreck of a car, for example, perched in a tree. Glenn, trying to explain this bizarre phenomenon, suggests that cars become trees the way leaves become butterflies. "It's a weird trip being Randa" says Shelley. "I have to forget everything I know."
Moving rapidly from one location in the wilderness to another is nerve wracking. Saturday: Bridle Vale Falls, Oregon. Sunday: Mount Hood. Sunday night and Monday: a 16-hour automobile voyage to Point Arena, California. Monday: The Redwood Motel, their home for the next six weeks.
The shooting of Glenn and Randa is loose, casual. Every day Jim McBride talks to them about the day's scene and then leaves the rest up to them. The little dialogue is largely extemporaneous. They play the parts as they feel them. Scenes are dropped. Scenes are added. "It's hard making a film" Shelley says "because there is no continuity. You do one little two minute thing over and over till you get it right and then it's on to something else. It's not at all like acting on stage. It's more like just doing something." Which is pretty much the story of her life. Just doing something. Just waiting for something to happen. Right now she's waiting to hear of she will play Jane in Bob Downey's Broadway version of Tarzan. And then she and Steve are waiting "to ear enough money so we can get some land and a house in the country so that I can start having babies."
"Lady Madonna, children at your feet..."