Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maria Ford, and a Pier without Peer

On a beautiful early fall day, just as the sun was slipping into the Pacific Ocean, I found myself in one of my favorite L.A. places, the Santa Monica Pier. Yes, the pier is the home of that brilliantly colorful solar-powered Ferris wheel you can find decorating the border of my website. I love Ferris wheels in general: they offer a great view, as well as a dramatic reminder that life has its ups and downs. But, even more, I love the old pier itself. It’s so tawdry, so vulnerable (to shifting social and political tides as well as to the ravages of rain and wind). On the pier, the air is pungent with the smells of salt and fish and the deep-fryer. Gulls cry; vendors hustle passersby into making impulse purchases; someone is always playing the drums. And as the sun inches through the clouds on its way to its watery resting-place, the sky turns golden.

This is what they call in the movie biz “magic hour,” that fleeting time of day that cinematographers try so hard to capture on film. Given the inevitable delays that filmmakers expect on their sets, it’s extraordinarily difficult to shoot an important dialogue exchange at magic hour. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

Still, the Santa Monica Pier is photogenic at any hour. Given its location near major Hollywood studios, it’s probably the most photographed pier in existence. In fact, the official website (which traces the pier’s history back to 1909) gives particulars about how to book a shoot. The list of movies and TV episodes photographed here is a long one. In the Nineties, it appeared in Titanic and Forrest Gump. It also had a picturesque role in an earlier Oscar winner, The Sting: Paul Newman’s character lived in one of the tiny apartments still flanking the historic carousel built in 1916. I also remember glimpses of the pier in Inside Daisy Clover, one of those Hollywood movies that savage Hollywood life. And the pier played itself in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s dark and powerful look at marathon dancing during the Great Depression. In that film, dancers desperate to win cash prizes tried to stay on their feet in a ramshackle ballroom perched just above the waves of the cold Pacific.

One of my strangest pier memories involves a fledgling actress named Maria Ford. She was discovered by Concorde producers Anna Roth and Andy Ruben dancing nude in a seedy joint in the San Fernando Valley, and she was just what they needed to play a stripper in Dance of the Damned. Since her talents were obvious to anyone with eyes, Roger Corman quickly decreed that she would star in his next film, Stripped to Kill II. Because we had a strip-club set handy, the dances were filmed first, after which it was time to create an actual story. That’s where I came in. I was asked to meet Maria on the Santa Monica Pier, where writer-director Katt Shea Ruben was shooting pick-ups for the previous film. Maria, clearly working on her image, had poured herself into an ultra-red dress. She had powdered her face kabuki white, and drawn onto her cherry-red lips an endearing little cleft. I have never before felt so clearly that I was meeting someone of a different species. The combo of sexpot and Little Girl Lost she projected couldn’t help but remind me of Marilyn Monroe. But Maria was for real . . . or as real as anything on the Santa Monica Pier ever gets.

(I'm delighted to add a link to a Maria Ford fansite I've just discovered.)


  1. I had a brief daydream quality crush on Ford in the 90s. She did seem to have a quality about her that was lacking in other scream queens/exploitation starlets. If I am remembering right, she did some movies with Don Wilson. FUTURE KICK, RING OF FIRE and its WARRIORS styled sequel, RING OF FIRE 2 I think were three of them. Where is she now, exactly?

  2. You know, I don't know where Maria is. I tried to find her when I was working on my Corman book, but with no success. I last glimpsed her on-screen in Odette Springer's controversial documentary, Some Nudity Required. The word is that she's since had breast implants and all sorts of other cosmetic surgery. There was always something fragile about Maria, and I wish her the best. One day I should tell the story about her role in the 1990s remake of Masque of the Red Death.

  3. I saw her in a television show a few years ago and can't for the life of me remember what it was, but I do recall her plastic surgery being very noticeable. It may have been an erotic show on cable or something. I forget. It's been several years ago.

  4. BTW - fun article about Paul Newman here:

  5. She seemed to be in every direct to video movie made for a year or two there in the mid-90's. I liked seeing her in the movies - she had presence and looked terrific.

    I hope to get to visit the Santa Monica pier one day.

  6. She was very pleasant to see around the Concorde-New Horizons office too. When I think of her in person, she's blonde, wearing bobby sox, and handing out homemade cupcakes. She also, as I recall, dotted her i's with little hearts. (I may have made that up, but I think not.) Not exactly her screen image.

  7. I was a big fan of Maria's back in the 90s when she was one of the top B-Movies Queens around. She had a natural beauty and above average acting skills.

    I was shocked when I looked her up on the internet about a decade ago to see what she was up to since I haven't seen her in any movies in awhile. She was unrecognizable in the then recent pictures I found.

    I then read that she was trying to distance herself from her B-Movie and often nude past to be in more "legit" movies. I couldn't help thinking that she changed her appearance so drastically to not be recognized as "that" Maria Ford. It would appear that at one point she really did try to start anew as I found some head shots which were labeled her as "Magdalena Cristo". However I couldn't find anything she did under that name and she went back to using her "regular" name fairly quickly it would seem.

  8. Thanks for writing. Maria was lovely and talented, but I suspect she was also deeply troubled. I never learned enough about her to understand what was going on in her head, but I can imagine her trying on new identities. "Magdalena Cristo" -- quite a name!