The Eyes of Vonetta McGee

It’s her eyes I remember best.  They were large and brown.  Exotic, to me anyway.  Haunting.  Or haunted.  Either way, they burned right through you but not in a witchy, malevolent way.  They were kind, her eyes.  Hopeful, even.  On Saturday, July 10, 2010, Vonetta McGee’s eyes closed forever.

I first saw Vonetta McGee in BLACULA (1972), though that wasn’t her first film role.  Correction: I’m sure I first saw her in pictures from BLACULA; I didn’t get to see the film itself for a few years.  The classic “blaxploitation” pictures didn’t play at my local cinema and they didn’t run much on TV in the early 70s, so once those movies hit VHS I had a lot of catching up to do.  But whether glimpsed in a black-and-white photo or up on the screen, Vonetta McGee had the kind of beauty that gets poems written and ships launched and empires built.  You could have dropped her into any era and she would have fit in nicely… in a Medieval setting, in a jazz age drama, in a film noir, a pirate movie, a romance, a shoot-em-up… anywhere.  Born in San Francisco and trained there in black box theatre and church basement dramatics, she got a proper start in films in Italy.  Her brother Andy remembers Italian citizens chasing the pair of them down the street for a closer look, a picture, a moment with someone who looked famous even before she really was.  Luigi Magni cast her in the title role in his comedy FAUSTINA (1968), an interracial romantic comedy in which McGee’s local beauty is courted by a local slacker and a charming con man.  The Magni film wasn’t widely seen outside of Italy and Sergio Corbucci used McGee’s relative obscurity to “introduce” her in his downbeat, snowbound western THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

The production was a whiplash about-face from the frothy FAUSTINA, with McGee as a frontier widow who hires a mute gunman (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to kill the bounty hunter (Klaus Kinski) responsible for the death of her husband.  There’s a bleak beauty to the film and a general air of defeatism and dread but few moviegoers could have been prepared for the almost apocalyptic cynicism of THE GREAT SILENCE‘s final frames.

Deglamorized (as much as she could have been), McGee was a credible western character… decent but desperate, desired by all men but isolated in agonizing loneliness, haunted but hungering.  The actress’ few love scenes with Trintignant are comparatively chaste but underscore the film’s focus on the fragile, perishable goodness of people in the face of greed and fear.  Actresses in spaghetti westerns can be so interchangeable, often because roles were given to them at the caprice of producers who were their husbands or boyfriends.  I honestly don’t know how Vonetta McGee came to THE GREAT SILENCE but she does the film proud.  (Alex Cox was suitably impressed by the film to give McGee a role in his 1984 indie hit REPO MAN.)  Had she stayed on in Italy, I’d like to think that McGee could have done well in the cycle of psycho-thrillers were popular between 1969 and 1978.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Sergio Martini got down on his knees and begged Vonetta McGee to stay on and star in some of his films, roles that eventually went to Edwige Fenech or Anita Strindberg.  Whatever her reasons, though, McGee headed home and never looked back.

McGee had an uncredited walk-on in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1968) with Sidney Poitier and Poitier called her back for a bigger (albeit supporting) role in THE LOST MAN (1969), a remake of Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT (1948).  The film was poorly received and McGee didn’t get much notice… and that’s where BLACULA comes in.  As crass a cash-in as there ever was, this American International Pictures release has earned a substantial cult following in the almost forty years since it was made.  It’s an invigorating, slightly outre outing with a script that wisely keeps its sense of the absurd from Bogarting the narrative joint; the film’s capital asset is its cast.  Little known at the time, William Marshall became an instant celebrity (if mostly a niche market one) as Mamuwalde, an African prince and diplomat vampirized by a racist Count Dracula (Charles McCauley) in the 18th Century and revived in (then) contemporary Los Angeles.  Shot right in Hollywood, the film has regional flavor to burn and a great cast of supporting actors in Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas, Gorden Pinset, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Ketty Lester… but the heart of the film is the moving relationship between Mamuwalde and the modern woman (McGee) who is the reincarnation of the wife from whom he was taken two hundred years earlier.

At this point, spoilers for BLACULA are unavoidable, so back off if you still haven’t seen this movie.  (What are you waiting for, fool?)  Killed by the LAPD in the hail of gunfire they point at Mamuwalde, McGee’s character is saved, after a fashion, from her untimely death by the bite of Blacula, which gives her eternal un-life.  Unfortunately, the protagonists promptly drive a broken broom handle into her heart, ending this second chance mere seconds in.  Kitted out with vampire fangs and a double, Bride of Frankenstein shock of white streaks in her natural, McGee’s death scene is surprisingly poignant.  She plays the moment for its weight in pain, both the heartache of losing love so shortly after finding it but also the literal pain of death.  Adding to the pathos is costar Denise Nicholas’ anguished reaction from the sidelines (“She’s my sister“), giving this demise a surprising and (perhaps not surprisingly timely) gravitas.

Vonetta McGee had a few good leading lady years, with a prominent (but small) role in the LAURA-esque MELINDA (1972), whose murder becomes the obsession of disc jockey Calvin Lockhart.  She played opposite Fred Williamson in HAMMER (1972), Hari Rhodes in DETROIT 9000 (1973)  and was an Ethiopian princess who teaches Richard Roundtree what it really means to be African in SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973).  I do know that one of the first things I ever actually saw her in was the TV movie THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), Dan Curtis’ attempt to reboot THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) with sexy supernatural debunker Roy Thinnes running down a the demon Sargoth in Carmel, California.  McGee is sixth-billed and her participation reduced to three scenes, in the role of a dealer in antiques and curios who sells a ring to a crippled artist attempting a bid at immortality.  McGee’s secretive Madame Jeckiel ultimately feels guilty for releasing such evil upon the world and attempts to right that wrong… to her ultimate peril.  McGee gets only a few minutes of screen time in THE NORLISS TAPES but her final scene is among the project’s many hair raising moments.  And speaking of hair, around the same time that she shot this busted TV pilot, she appeared on the syndicated music show SOUL TRAIN, where she was interviewed by host Don Cornelius and two members of the studio audience.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGfAAKj92Os&feature=related]

McGee and her “old man” Max Julien would go on to appear together in the sadly obscure western THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974).

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (riding high on the success of SUPERFLY), the film was financed by Columbia Pictures, who were hoping for something on the order of a black BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967).  Given a limited budget but considerable free reign from the studio, Julien oversaw the entire production, from producing to editing to costume design.  He had written the script for Jack Starrett’s CLEOPATRA JONES (1972) as a vehicle for McGee but the executives at Warner Brothers gave the title role to Tamara Dobson.  This time out, Julien ensured that his lady would be his leading lady and THOMASINE & BUSHROD is remembered by the comparatively few who have seen it as a lost classic despite the fact that Columbia pulled the film before it could find its audience. (Time gave the May 1974 release a mixed review but couldn’t deny the charisma of its two stars.) The failure of THOMASINE AND BUSHROD drove Julien into something like a self-imposed exile (although he continued to write, sculpt and even design clothing) while Vonetta McGee went on to more character roles… opposite Clint Eastwood in THE EIGER SANCTION (1975) and as a militant patterned after Angela Davis in BROTHERS (1978).  Approaching 40, McGee was seen in mostly episodic TV fare through the 1980s (with REPO MAN breaking up the monotony mid-decade).  Long since broken up with Max Julien, McGee met her husband Carl Lumbly while appearing in a few episodes of the weekly series CAGNEY AND LACY.  Lumbly and McGee had a son in 1987 and McGee left the business within the next decade to devote herself to her family.  Although the couple appeared together in Charles Burnett’s TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990), it’s a shame that no other filmmakers could capitalize on the startling handsomeness of this couple or their boundless utility.  Independent writer-director Oscar Williams did shoot scenes with Lumbly and McGee for a proposed updating of THE WATTS MONSTER (aka DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, 1976) set during the LA riots of 1992 but that project remains as I understand it unfinished.

Or maybe, just maybe, Vonetta McGee enjoyed the tranquility of a private life after thirty years of attention, frustration and expectation.  Given that she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while still a teenager, you might say Vonetta McGee cheated the odds to live a good, long life… if not nearly long enough.  Whatever the final balance, when she closed her eyes for the last time last week and slipped away, cinema lost one of its most beguiling and unsung heroines.

26 Responses The Eyes of Vonetta McGee
Posted By Marilyn : July 16, 2010 11:46 am

What a great tribute! I’m really not familiar with her body of work, but that face is unforgettable, even if you only see a picture of her. Thanks for giving me some viewing suggestions for the coming week.

Posted By Marilyn : July 16, 2010 11:46 am

What a great tribute! I’m really not familiar with her body of work, but that face is unforgettable, even if you only see a picture of her. Thanks for giving me some viewing suggestions for the coming week.

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : July 16, 2010 3:32 pm

Oh, my god, she was so beautiful. Next to Pam Grier, she was the one for me growing up. What a wonderful, poetic tribute, Richard, the kind of attention she richly deserved in life as well.

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : July 16, 2010 3:32 pm

Oh, my god, she was so beautiful. Next to Pam Grier, she was the one for me growing up. What a wonderful, poetic tribute, Richard, the kind of attention she richly deserved in life as well.

Posted By murft : July 16, 2010 4:15 pm

Thanks so much for this. If you hadnt written this, i wouldnt have heard of her passing.

Posted By murft : July 16, 2010 4:15 pm

Thanks so much for this. If you hadnt written this, i wouldnt have heard of her passing.

Posted By suzidoll : July 16, 2010 5:35 pm

Thanks for remembering Ms. McGee. We were talking about her at Facets today, and I am going to send everyone to your blog post to read this nicely written remembrance.

Posted By suzidoll : July 16, 2010 5:35 pm

Thanks for remembering Ms. McGee. We were talking about her at Facets today, and I am going to send everyone to your blog post to read this nicely written remembrance.

Posted By le0pard13 : July 16, 2010 8:25 pm

Dennis Cozzalio said what my heart feels. Besides being beautiful, she was a highly underrated actress. She left this world far too soon, and was too little seen. This is one special and memorable tribute, Richard. Thank you very much for posting this.

Posted By le0pard13 : July 16, 2010 8:25 pm

Dennis Cozzalio said what my heart feels. Besides being beautiful, she was a highly underrated actress. She left this world far too soon, and was too little seen. This is one special and memorable tribute, Richard. Thank you very much for posting this.

Posted By Chris Poggiali : July 16, 2010 8:58 pm

A beautiful and moving tribute. Thank you for writing this, Richard.

Posted By Chris Poggiali : July 16, 2010 8:58 pm

A beautiful and moving tribute. Thank you for writing this, Richard.

Posted By rhsmith : July 16, 2010 9:56 pm

It was a pleasure to write, although I’m unhappy for the reason I had to write it. Sometimes it takes someone’s death to show you how poorly represented their careers are, at least on the Internet. I saw the same boiler plate bio for Vonetta McGee on a dozen sites, which doesn’t do the lady justice, not at all.

Posted By rhsmith : July 16, 2010 9:56 pm

It was a pleasure to write, although I’m unhappy for the reason I had to write it. Sometimes it takes someone’s death to show you how poorly represented their careers are, at least on the Internet. I saw the same boiler plate bio for Vonetta McGee on a dozen sites, which doesn’t do the lady justice, not at all.

Posted By Medusa : July 17, 2010 12:41 pm

Vonetta did a memorable “Starsky and Hutch” episode called “Black and Blue” in 1978, and it’s on YouTube — definitely worth watching. It’s in five parts, this is the link to Pt. 1:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVFRVtIfSSc

Posted By Medusa : July 17, 2010 12:41 pm

Vonetta did a memorable “Starsky and Hutch” episode called “Black and Blue” in 1978, and it’s on YouTube — definitely worth watching. It’s in five parts, this is the link to Pt. 1:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVFRVtIfSSc

Posted By melanie : July 18, 2010 6:20 pm

Great article,Richard.Vonetta was very lovely.I look forward to seeing some of her other movies.Thanks!

Posted By melanie : July 18, 2010 6:20 pm

Great article,Richard.Vonetta was very lovely.I look forward to seeing some of her other movies.Thanks!

Posted By Helen : July 19, 2010 11:19 pm

Thomasina & Bushrod shows up occasionally on Encore Westerns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ms. McGee in anything although I am familiar with her name & of course I know Lumbly from Cagney & Lacey.

Posted By Helen : July 19, 2010 11:19 pm

Thomasina & Bushrod shows up occasionally on Encore Westerns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ms. McGee in anything although I am familiar with her name & of course I know Lumbly from Cagney & Lacey.

Posted By Neville Ross : July 20, 2010 10:11 am

Sad to see her go…she was a great actress in Blacula, and was most likely a great actress in these other movies I haven’t seen. She will be missed.

Posted By Neville Ross : July 20, 2010 10:11 am

Sad to see her go…she was a great actress in Blacula, and was most likely a great actress in these other movies I haven’t seen. She will be missed.

Posted By BROTHERZ (1977) | Moorbey'z Blog : August 31, 2014 2:51 am

[…] The Eyes of Vonetta McGee […]

Posted By Galen Kalbach : January 26, 2015 3:58 am

I was a friend and classmate of Vonetta at San Francisco State. I cared for her during her recovery from treatment from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Hawaii working on a small rock event in Honolulu in 1957. I have great memories of this loving and wonderful Lady. So sorry to find out about her passing at such a late date.

Posted By Galen Kalbach : January 26, 2015 4:01 am

Sorry, missprint, It was in Honolulu in 1967.

Posted By tolly devlin : June 4, 2015 6:17 pm

What a great piece on Vonetta McGee. I am new to this site so I am catching up with some of these great posts written in previous years.

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