In the opening moments of director Brian De Palma's homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill, bored suburban matron Angie Dickinson steams up a shower stall less with hot water than with her graphically filmed erotic fantasies. Later she greedily submits to seduction by a stranger in the backseat of a Manhattan taxi. Then, terrifyingly, a razor-wielding psycho slices up her pretty face in the most brutal scene in perhaps the year's most controversial movie. So far the shrewdly cynical combination of sex and violence has earned the thriller gushing reviews, some $25 million at the box office, cries of exploitation from feminists and a charmingly unnecessary confession from its star: "I am not," asserts Angie, "Doris Day."
Undeniably. Yet Dressed to Kill's R-rated pillow talk has brought Dickinson, 49 this month, the biggest movie smash of her checkered career. "This is the first time I've had this instantaneous reaction, the feeling I'm a hot number," Angie glows. The National Association of Theatre Owners certainly helped by naming Dickinson Female Star of the Year. The recognition is especially sweet since Angie has a smaller role than co-stars Michael Caine and Nancy Allen, who happens to be director Brian De Palma's wife.
But the admiring whistles are accompanied by a few familiar catcalls for NBC's forcibly retired Police Woman. (Dickinson's other major TV effort, the miniseries Pearl, reruns on ABC this week.) As LAPD Sgt. Pepper Anderson, Angie was the first actress to carry a prime-time drama, but the show was criticized for its calculated violence. Dressed to Kill, likewise, has women fit to be tied. Several feminist organizations have banded together to picket the film nationwide. The New York-based Women against Pornography (author Susan Brownmiller was a founder) charges that Dressed to Kill "perpetuates the ideology that brutality, pain and humiliation are essential to women's sexuality."
Dickinson's response is typically blasé. "I suppose there are rapists and murderers walking around just waiting to be triggered, and this could do it," she shrugs. "But so could an innocent billboard of a woman cutting a melon." Director De Palma adds sanctimoniously, "This movie is basically about a woman's erotic fantasy life and it's got to be shocking on some levels. And the fantasy I'm dealing with—being forcibly attacked by a faceless stranger—is very prevalent, not something I dreamed up." Asks Angie, "What are people supposed to get erotic about? An elephant? A cup of coffee?"
Her preferred answer, of course, is that people should get excited about Angie Dickinson. On the Tonight Show these days, she comes on like an overwrought Mae West. "I love hot weather," she gushed during her last visit. "I like to take my clothes off in the heat." She then asked a nonplussed Johnny Carson to describe his erotic fantasies. (Carson, blanching, cut to a commercial.)
"There was a time I wanted to be thought of as an actress," Angie explains, "but as I got along I realized I could be both, and that it was a compliment to be a sex symbol—as long as the sexiness isn't laughed at. I don't want to be a joke sex symbol, but a genuine one." So what if nearly two decades have elapsed since she won Hollywood's Golden Garter Award for the town's best legs in 1962? "I wonder if I'm too old for cheesecake—I don't want to embarrass myself," Angie frets. "But as long as people say I'm sexy, I'll keep trying."
Dickinson is anything but taken aback by the film, though three scenes had to be trimmed to avoid an X rating. "I would like to have seen the X version, because I think it would have made the audience gasp," smiles Angie. Actually, the unexpurgated version was unreeled for titillated New York reviewers, is now making the rounds on the Beverly Hills private screening-room circuit and will be shown abroad. Those scissored scenes show more below-the-belt nudity and two graphic throat cuttings. "I would love to have seen my character, Kate Miller, get it in the throat," Angie smirks. "Kate is such a bore."
Lest anyone be misled about the explicit nudity, De Palma forthrightly announced that much of the skin shown was not Angie. It belonged to a 23-year-younger neck-to-knees stand-in. "I was shocked," says Dickinson, not because of the subterfuge but because "the movie company admitted it. Why destroy the illusion? Let them think it's Tahiti, even if it is Burbank." De Palma insists his decision had less to do with topography than property values. "It wasn't because Angie doesn't have a great body or would have minded doing it," he claims. "Why weigh down your leading lady when you can use a stand-in?" Dickinson had "nightmares" that they would pick a woman "too bosomy," prompted by an earlier film whose doctored print ads "made me look like an Italian Dolly Parton." While Angie fretted, De Palma chose Victoria Lynn Johnson, a sometime model and 1978 Penthouse Pet of the Year, for the shower episode. (Dickinson appears briefly later on in a nude scene shot from the back.) "I was delighted with Brian's choice," Angie admits, "and happy I didn't have to do all that stuff in front of everybody."
Not quite. Filming the "wonderful and horrendous" scene in which she is partially undressed in a taxi, Angie recalls, "The camera was hidden. Every tall bus and truck came down while we were shooting and all they saw through the window was me getting laid in the backseat. I've never been so embarrassed in my life. Some kids got out of a bus and yelled, 'Hey, Police Woman, right on!' They were so thrilled, it was hysterical."
Dickinson can use the amusement. Though she has been linked in the past to ladies' men like Frank Sinatra, the late David Janssen and even JFK, her love life has apparently been in limbo since her well-publicized split in 1976 from her husband of 11 years, songwriter-composer Burt (Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head) Bacharach, 51. If her stock answer has a tired sound—"I'm still separated from Burt Bacharach, but we are still good friends"—it's because Angie doesn't know how else to describe their admittedly "weird" relationship. Burt is now making romantic music with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager (they collaborated on Ann-Margret's current Middle Age Crazy). For her part, Angie sees her Police Woman pal, Earl Holliman, but declares, "I'm too busy to date."
One reason is tragic: Angle's mother died last month after a long battle with cancer. "It was a horrible death and I just wanted to be with her," says Angie, who, with daughter Nikki, 14, recently escaped for five days of R&R at a Wyoming lodge. "It takes everything out of you, makes you feel lousy, so I haven't really been interested in going out. Maybe after my vacation I'll get my dance card filled again."
She still lives with Nikki and a housekeeper in the eight-room Beverly Hills home she shared with Burt (he kept their beach digs near San Diego). But, Angie says, "I don't like my house. I've never had a party because I don't want to apologize to my guests when they arrive." Instead, she attends the parties of agents Swifty Lazar and Sue Mengers, and occasionally arranges small restaurant dinners with friends like the Kirk Douglases and the Gregory Pecks. Otherwise, says Angie, "I am a mom and my responsibility is to take care of Nikki."
Ahead are more movie properties—she plays the brunette villainess in the forthcoming Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen with Peter Ustinov—and will do a TV slink-on as a hostess of an ABC pastiche, Sixty Years of Seduction in Film. "I won't abandon TV just because it abandoned me," she snipes in a reference to Police Woman's abrupt cancellation two years ago. None of which leaves much time for reflection as she approaches 50. "If I took an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course and suddenly had a lot of extra time," muses Angie, "I'd love to spend it playing poker." And why not? Angie Dickinson has proved in her first half century that when the stakes are high she is a born winner.