It’s good to be bad

Pub date October 11, 2011

TRASH It seems hard enough to be a successful child actor without losing your head eventually, let alone one so identified with a particular role that no one is ever inclined to let you forget it. Yet The Bad Seed‘s Patty McCormack has survived intact the formative experience of playing arguably the most notorious child role ever — hundreds of times on stage and once in a 1956 film version that refuses to go away.

At least it was the most notorious until The Exorcist (1973) — but remember, demon-possessed Regan was a victim, not a perp. Seed‘s pigtailed Rhonda Penmark was a stone-cold sociopath, manipulating everyone around her and arranging the “accidental” deaths of those who couldn’t be manipulated.

In 1954, when William March’s novel was published to acclaim, this was a pretty shocking conceit; its theatrical adaptation the next year only fanned the flames. In a move very rare for Hollywood, all the principal Broadway players were retained for the film, a prestige project directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Most of them wound up Oscar-nominated, even if a Production Code rule requiring no crime be left unpunished forced the original ending to be softened (if you can call it that).

When she began playing Rhoda, McCormack was just nine, but already had prior Broadway, TV, and big-screen credits on her resume. She was, it seems, a stone-cold pro, though not an off-camera brat. However, she had enough of an edge not to fit into the uber-perky Sandra Dee mode of the era’s teenage ingénues; instead, she spent those years doing TV dramas, then “graduated” to a run of exploitation movies with ace titles, like 1968’s The Mini-Skirt Mob (“Hog straddling female animals on the prowl!”) and The Young Runaways (“They experiment with drugs … with sex … with each other!”).

Afterward she continued to work on television (including extended roles on both The Ropers and The Sopranos), on stage, and in occasional movies — notably being devoured by mutant cockroaches in 1975 cult horror Bug and recently playing First Lady Pat in 2008’s Frost/Nixon.

When McCormack appears this weekend at the Castro as the guest of honor for impresario Marc Huestis’ latest tribute extravaganza (not for the first time — that was in 1999), you can ask her about all these career highlights and more. But of course primary curiosity will be directed toward The Bad Seed, particularly since the film will be screened, and preceded by a drag “Miss Bad Seed” contest.

The actress has always been a good sport about this lingering fame from over half a century ago, but has reportedly refused any offers to reprise her signature role (or take the mother’s) in any Bad Seed sequel or remake. Yet she relaxed that rule, sorta kinda, to portray the person Rhoda might have grown into in a couple of direct-to-video cheapies released during the mid-1990s.

Mommy (1995) cast the veteran thespian as Mrs. Sterling, widowed by more than one wealthy husband (heh heh), now raising perfect little daughter Jessica Ann (Rachel Limieux) just the way she likes it, alone. When anyone attempts to interfere in that Mini-Me molding process — like a teacher who inconceivably gives a medal of academic merit to another student — Mommy gets very, very angry. Nonetheless, her sharklike smile always returns in time to greet the police interrogating her over the latest violent death she insists having nothing to do with.

Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, the Iowa-shot film is so bad it’s just … bad, amateurish and witless despite the fun McCormack is clearly having. Not to mention the weird appeal of her supporting cast: playwright and lead Exorcist priest Jason Miller looking pretty ill as a cop, velvet-voiced scream queen Brinke Stevens as Mommy’s suspicious sister, “First Lady of Star Trek” Majel Barrett as that unfortunate teacher, pulp maestro and definite non-actor Mickey Spillane as an attorney.

It made enough of a splash, however, to warrant Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day two years later. This sequel has marginally improved production values, better kills, and the line “I know, dear, you’re innocent. Like O.J.” Now a famous murder, Mommy has been released from prison with an experimental anti-psychotic implant in her brain — not that it stops her. Meanwhile Jessica Ann has taken up figure skating. There are no bonus points for guessing what kind of blade her pissy coach’s throat gets slit with.

These movies are for Bad Seed and Patty McCormack completists; drinking games can only help. However, the interview extras that have the star talking about various phases of her career are so entertaining you might hope for Mommy 3 so they can continue. 



Sat/15, noon (brief Q&A), 7:30 p.m. (gala tribute), 9 p.m. (film only), $10-$25

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 863-0611