Not long ago, 82-year-old Angie Dickinson was interviewed by film historian Stephen Farber. When asked about her starring role in a 1974 Roger Corman gangster romp, she said something like this: “Big Bad Mama does not qualify as a classic, although I was very good in it!"
She was indeed. As a dirt-poor Depression-era Texas mom who turns to a life of crime to give her daughters a better future, Angie is spunky, smart, and above all sexy. In the course of the film she beds both a virile young stud (Tom Skerritt) and a courtly older gentleman (William Shatner), but there’s never any question that she’s the one on top. Whether delivering bootleg whiskey, robbing a bank, or plotting to hold an heiress for ransom, she’s the brains behind the operation, while also tenderly mothering her two nubile daughters. No question that the role kept her busy, but cast and crew all adored her. I should know: I was there.
Vince Rotolo and the good folks behind The B-Movie Cast recently invited me to share my memories of this New World Pictures classic. When I came to work for Roger, my colleague Frances Doel was hard at work on a female gangster story, a more light-hearted variant on Bonnie and Clyde and Roger’s own Bloody Mama. It was Roger’s practice, as a Writers Guild signatory, to get someone around the office to crank out a first draft over a weekend, so he’d only have to pay a guild member a rewrite fee. We next found a Hollywood veteran, Bill Norton (White Lightning), who didn’t realize that the script he was hired to improve had been written by the woman sitting across the desk in our story meetings. He only learned the truth when we got the giggles over his request to meet the originator of the story. At which point he very graciously insisted that Frances share his writing credit. (A modest woman, she still claims he was trying to evade taking full responsibility for the screenplay’s faults.)
Truth be told, the script is a lot of fun. It was a challenge to film, though, as director Steve Carver would be the first to tell you. We had to track down inexpensive 1930s-era locations, like a racetrack, a country church, a small-town Main Street, and a society mansion, all not far from L.A. Vintage cars and weapons too. Somehow we found what we needed, and persuaded such Hollywood pros as Royal Dano, Noble Willingham, and a very naked Sally Kirkland to help fill out our cast.
Yes, this was a movie that did not stint on T&A. Tom Skerritt was fine with it, but William Shatner proved a shrinking violet. (It didn’t help that Skerritt, whose character was supposed to be hostile to Shatner’s, took every opportunity to knock his toupee askew.) As for Angie, she knew that Roger expected full frontal nudity. A very sleek 43-year-old, she was comfortable in her skin, and had no hesitation in baring it for the camera. Her example was helpful to the plucky young women playing her daughters, Robbie Lee and Susan Sennett (now the wife of Graham Nash). The script calls for them to frequently take it all off, especially in a steamy ménage à trois scene with lucky Skerritt.
As production secretary I once fielded a call from Playboy, asking if the two were centerfold material. When I explained that Angie had the best figure in the film, the female caller sniffed, “Well, I hope I look as good when I’m her age.” You wish, lady. You wish.