A Fond Farewell to Sondra Locke (1944 – 2018)

December 16, 2018
When word started filtering through two days ago that American actress and director Sondra Locke had passed away some weeks earlier, on November 3rd, 2018, it became a sad reflection of just how far she had disappeared from the public eye of the media that it took so long for the news to get out.

It became even more depressing to see so many headlines reporting her passing to be dominated by the name of an older macho Hollywood superstar whom she ended a relationship with nearly thirty years ago, rather than focusing on her body of work, which she left behind as an actor and filmmaker in her own right.

A Tennessee native (born Sandra Louise Smith in Shelbyville on May 28, 1944), Locke garnered recognition and critical acceptance right out of the gate, earning both an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her film debut in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968).

An adaptation of Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel about a deaf man living amongst a small circle of acquaintances in a 1930s US mill town, Robert Ellis Miller’s film updates the setting to the then-contemporary late-sixties south, and starred Alan Arkin in another Oscar-nominated performance.

Winning the part in a nationwide talent search with only a handful of theatre productions under her belt, Locke displayed some wonderful nuances in her role as a sensitive and troubled teenager who forms a close bond with Arkin’s older mute character.

Mainstream commercial success followed for Locke with a co-starring role in the horror hit Willard (1971), about a young social misfit (Bruce Davison) and the special bond he forms with his horde of pet rats that seem eager to do his bidding. With her blonde hair, pale complexion and large expressive eyes, and a petite, almost waif-like figure, Locke had a striking yet unconventional physicality that made her perfect for playing vulnerable women who often harboured an inner resilience and toughness, not to mention intelligence, to more than match it with her male counterparts.

Locke spent much of the early-to-mid-seventies appearing on episodic television shows, including Night Gallery, The F.B.I., Cannon, Kung-Fu and Planet of the Apes, before she landed the female lead in Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Civil War western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), playing the love interest to Eastwood’s title character, a widowed Missouri farmer seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and young son by Union militants.

Cast against the wishes of the film’s co-screenwriter (and original planned director) Philip Kaufman, The Outlaw Josey Wales signalled a huge turning point in both Locke’s career and personal life. Married to sculptor Gordon Leigh Anderson since 1967 (a marriage she claimed was never consummated), Locke and Eastwood embarked on a fifteen-year working relationship and romance that would result in a number of box-office hits and numerous Hollywood tabloid headlines.

Amongst the movies which Locke and Eastwood would go on to co-star in were the over-the-top action flick The Gauntlet (1977), the adventure comedy Every Which Way but Loose (1978) and its sequel Any Which Way You Can (1980), the modern neo-western Bronco Billy (1980) and the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact (1983).

“Sondra Locke was a very strong woman with a terrific sense of humour and I will always appreciate the personal interest and concern she took in making sure that my jump off the moving train went smoothly and safely on The Gauntlet. She was courageous and full of spunk, and I was very excited and thrilled for her when I learned she was branching off into directing, something few women still did at that time. She represented a new kind of leading lady for the 1970s. It was very sad to hear of her passing.” – Marneen Fields, Stunt-Actress on The Gauntlet

The Gauntlet and Sudden Impact in particular saw Locke deliver two strong characters and memorable performances, in the former as a tough, high-class Vegas hooker on the run from the mob and corrupt cops, while in Sudden Impact she ventured into complete darkness as a tormented artist and rape victim out to extract just desserts against the gang of lowlifes who had attacked her (and her now-catatonic younger sister) ten years earlier.

While Locke’s presence in front of the cameras sadly became increasingly rare as the eighties wore on, she diversified her talent by moving towards directing, with her debut in the chair being the wonderfully offbeat comic drama Ratboy (1986), in which she also starred as a bored unemployed window dresser trying to profit from a feral homeless boy with a snout and ears that give him the appearance of a human-rodent hybrid (allusions to Locke’s previous work in Willard did not go unnoticed). The Ratboy make-up effects were created by seven-time Oscar-winning genius Rick Baker, though the film itself was not a commercial or critical success (it has, though, developed a cult following over the ensuing years).

Her next directorial effort was Impulse (1990), a more traditional thriller starring Theresa Russell as a cop who goes undercover as a prostitute. Though the film did well as a home video rental, it was largely overshadowed by Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990) starring Jamie Lee Curtis, which had been released the month before.

Locke would direct two more features, the made-for-TV movie thriller Death in Small Doses (1995) and Trading Favors (1997), a crime drama starring Rosanna Arquette, before returning before the cameras for the first time in almost twenty years in what will now be known as her final performance, appearing opposite Keith Carradine in the romantic fantasy Ray Meets Helen (2017).

In her compelling 1997 autobiography The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly: A Hollywood Journey, Locke detailed her southern childhood and career, as well as her relationship with Eastwood and the pair’s tempestuous 1989 break-up which resulted in years of legal litigation, after Clint literally changed the locks on her overnight while she was on location directing Impulse.

While dealing with the stress of the fallout, and accusing Clint of deliberately torpedoing her career, she underwent a double mastectomy following a 1990 breast cancer diagnosis, an illness which would sadly return to claim her life nearly twenty years later, after she went into cardiac arrest brought on by bone and breast tumours.

Her talent will be missed but what she left us will endure.

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