Note: The reviewer contributed $35 when the makers of The Green Girl sought $10,000 in donations to complete the documentary.
The Green Girl, a documentary directed by George Pappy, is a kind of valentine to a prolific actress. But it’s a valentine that doesn’t pass over the complicated life of Susan Oliver, who frequently played leading guest star parts of television but never had a big movie career.
Oliver led a remarkable life. In one shot, the documentary has the headline of a newspaper clip about how Oliver was appearing as a guest star in three series the same week at a time there were only three U.S. television networks. Oliver was also an accomplished pilot, attempting a flight to Moscow in a small plane (the Soviets wouldn’t let her into the country). She was also, by the 1980s, directing television episodes at a time there were few women directors.
The actress also had a complicated relationship with her mother. She never married or had childen (though at one point she was seriously dating pitcher Sandy Koufax). She also made crippling mistakes, including breaking a Warner Bros. contract to do a play, something that likely prevented her movie career from taking off.
The title comes from the first Star Trek pilot in 1964, The Cage, where at one point she takes the form of an Orion slave girl, who is supposed to be irresistible to human men. The unsold pilot was re-used in the later revamped Star Trek series, when a series of transmissions from a mysterious planet — ordered off limits by the federation — showing what happened more than a decade earlier. An image of Oliver in her green makeup was used at times in the end titles of Star Trek, making it one of the series’ most iconic images.
Oliver, of course, was much more than that and the documentary covers far more ground. Fans of 1960s spy entertainment, even if they don’t remember her name, saw her in shows such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and The Wild Wild West. She could play a slightly ditzy but very appealing heroine (The Bow-Wow Affair in the first season of U.N.C.L.E,, the first episode where David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin is the primary focus) and later a scheming, manipulative junkie (an early first-season episode of The FBI).
For baby boomers, the documentary includes faces from their youth such as Lee Meriwether, David Hedison, Roy Thinnes and Gary Conway. Oliver’s busiest period as an actor was when television paid decently but hardly guaranteed you’d get rich. Oliver later suffered economic problems after her peak earning power had passed. For fans of television of the period, The Green Girl is an interesting peek behind the curtain of show business.
The Green Girl has had some limited theatrical showings and can be purchased on DVD.
Oliver died of cancer in 1990, only 58. Many of the baby boomers who’d recognize her are around that age now. The documentary is 96 minutes but maintains a good pace. It’s a reminder that talent, no matter how plentiful, isn’t always enough. Grade: A.