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Monday, August 23, 2010

Saturday night dead: Why the Bionic Woman, Shirley Partridge and a onetime-"Alice" waitress are still the boob tube's most dramatic storytellers

Click here for YouTube video of Diane's Celebrity Ghost Story
If home shopping is where celebrities go to die, then the Bio channel is where they breathe new life into their personas by selling tales of the dead.

And my living room is one of millions where Celebrity Ghost Stories gives older stars some newer currency—hello again, appropriately-scarfed Lindsey Wagner and Shirley Jones—spinning accounts of the non-living every Saturday night. (Finally, another show to take the "Saturday Night Dead" heat off the comatose SNL.)

Take it from me—these vintage, award-winning actors, actresses and storytellers know how to weave a yarn. (Carrie Fisher and John Waters, anybody?) Perhaps this is due to the oft-superior quality of the storytelling material performers were given back in the day. But that's another topic. 

Or is it?

Last night, I sat riveted as Golden Globe-winning actress Diane Ladd—mother of Laura Dern and a onetime sassy, singing waitress on TV's Alice, for you pop culture junkies—told her ghost story with more drama and grit than Mel could shake a spatula at. (Or kiss, for those of you waiting for a Flo reference. Speaking of bizarro otherworlds, how freaky is it that Ladd's greasy spoon server Belle in 1980 replaced Polly Holiday's Southern-fried, spun-off Flo—the very character Ladd originated in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning and sitcom-inspiring 1974 film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore? [Ladd received an Oscar nod for her movie portrayal and a Golden Globe for her TV performance.])

Anyhow, Ladd was giving the performance of a lifetime—Martha Mitchell's, that is—during her Ghost Stories segment. Mitchell, wife of former Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, died in 1976 after Washington D.C. and the press dismissed her as a crazy drunk when she came forward to expose some serious Watergate secrets. (Her account and reputation would be validated and vindicated after her death.) Fifteen minutes after Mitchell died—at exactly 4:45 a.m. on Memorial Day, Ladd says—she appeared as a "gold vision" in Ladd's apartment at the Watergate Hotel, the actress recounts.

(Here's a scary scene from Diane's Oscar-nominated role in the 1990 film Wild at Heart.)

Later that day, Ladd claims Mitchell, this time identifying herself as "Martha," again visited her during a live performance at the Kennedy Center. Ladd was playing the lead role in Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander. "There's 1500 people there, waiting for me to speak my lines," Ladd says, "so I take a breath and before I can speak, someone else speaks. She says, 'Chose you... Must... Martha...' Then silence, and everybody out there's waiting for me to speak so I had to go on with the play."

The following morning, Ladd appeared on Maury Povich's acclaimed D.C-based talk show Panorama. Afterwards, Povich informed Ladd that "Martha" must be his friend Martha Mitchell—who died at exactly 4:30 a.m. the previous morning. Fifteen minutes before her "golden vision" visited Ladd. At first, Ladd says she was incredulous, wondering why this was happening to her. "I'm not a reporter," she says. "I'm just a blond-haired tits-and-ass actress."

Soon Ladd says she'd discovered her destiny and began a 34-year crusade to tell Mitchell's story, a harrowing tale that Ladd says includes U.S. government officials holding Mitchell captive, tying her down, giving her a shot "against her will" and putting her "through living hell" after she threatened to be a Watergate whistle blower. "Martha Mitchell was Watergate and she had something to tell us that hasn't been told," Ladd says. "All the congressmen and representatives mocked her, called her a dirty, crazy alcoholic, called her insane, but she was a truth teller."

Ironically, not too long ago most of America would have mocked Ladd for sharing her ghostly encounters. But something tells me this lady—who has fought Oliver Stone and Paramount in her decades-long struggle to tell Mitchell's tale—could make a believer out of anyone. Apparently, Martin Scorsese is now behind her efforts to turn Mitchell's story into a feature titled Woman Inside.  According to her production company's website, the film is in pre-production—and Scorsese is quoted as saying, "Woman Inside is one of the best scripts I've read in ten years!"

With a ringing endorsement like that, one thing is certain: This two-time Mel's Diner hash-slinger knows a spine-chiller of a good story when she experiences it. Let's hope her golden vision finally becomes a silver-screen reality.

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