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Playing Nancy Drew: Sleuth and Consequences
Books' Ubiquity Puts Onus on Actresses

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Let us consider the Mystery of the Rock-Bottom Career.

Clue No. 1: She's a onetime Nancy Drew and a "working actress" whose only 2007 credit on the Internet Movie Database is a project called "Soupernatural," a drama about "what happens in a small-town newsroom when it is rumored that the Messiah is serving soup at a local church festival."

Clue No. 2: Her co-"stars" in said film include Lou "The Incredibly Deaf Hulk" Ferrigno, Pat Priest and Butch Patrick (perhaps you know them as Marilyn and Eddie Munster), and Kathy Garver. You know -- Kathy Garver. Riiight. Cissy on "Family Affair"! (Oh, if only Buffy -- well, Anissa Jones, technically -- hadn't OD'd back in '76: the dream cast that could have been . . . )

Clue No. 3: Her spokesman declines an interview request because "this year is really full for her."

What could it all mean? Wait a minute . . . we've got it! Mystery solved: Pamela Sue Martin needs better representation.

Heed this cautionary tale, Emma Roberts. You may soon be riding high in the new big-screen "Nancy Drew." But a few missteps and -- bam! -- it's "Soupernatural: The Second Serving" for you. For as successful as sleuthing icon Nancy Drew has been in books -- volumes upon volumes of literary derivatives for the past 77 years -- history shows that no such degree of invincibility is conferred upon film and TV versions of the character.

Not that Nancy's been an on-screen flop, necessarily, but when you give readers countless chances to delve into her world, everyone gets to create a precise visualization of what Nancy must be like. Bonita Granville in the '30s, Pamela Sue Martin and Janet Louise Johnson in the '70s, Tracy Ryan in the '90s, Maggie Lawson and Emma Roberts in the new millennium -- those Nancy Drews simply may not sync up with the public imagination, and the productions aren't guaranteed the shelf life, so to speak, of the books.

So, how have Nancy Drew's cinematic incarnations (and the actresses involved) fared over the years? Let's investigate further.

Granville was already a busy young performer when she made four Nancy Drew films in 1938 and '39. They've been fodder for Turner Classic Movies and budget DVDs, and they'll soon be released as a DVD compilation, "The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection." (If it's journalistic intrigue you want, forget "All the President's Men." "Nancy Drew . . . Reporter" -- that's the film for you.) Granville, who died in 1988, is a lot of fun to watch, as long as you don't mind a Nancy who's really, really high-strung. (Kinda makes you wonder if Judy Garland was the only '30s Hollywood teen getting diet pills shoveled her way by the studios.)

But hey -- it was the Depression, after all. Someone had to be zipping around in a snazzy roadster (one of the period elements that gets a nod in the new film), talking a mile a minute, biding her time until she was old enough to tackle something like the Case of the Rich Bachelor -- precisely what Granville did in real life, in fact, marrying an oil millionaire in the late '40s. She acted regularly, too, into the '50s, and also established herself as a TV producer, bringing "Lassie" to the airwaves.

"I found the [Granville] films really entertaining," says Andrew Fleming, director of the new "Nancy Drew." "I liked the fact that there was this lightheartedness to them and this kind of pace. They made some choices in those that surprised me."

In 1977 and '78, TV viewers had Martin (well into in her 20s then) sleuthing her way through ABC's "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries," which -- in the era of sexual liberation -- imbued Nancy with quite a sex-kitten vibe. She fits in perfectly with the powerful, intriguing TV beauties of the day -- "Charlie's Angels," "The Bionic Woman," "Wonder Woman" -- saving the world with nary a hair out of place.

Season 1 is available on DVD, and Season 2 will be released this week. (The show's format devoted some episodes to the Boys -- Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson -- some to Nancy, and some to the three of them adventuring together.) Martin went on to play Fallon on "Dynasty" in the '80s, and then -- uh, well -- did we mention that she's having a really full year? Bless her "Soupernatural" soul.

There's actually another thrice-named actress who got a shot at the Nancy Drew role on the '70s series: Janet Louise Johnson replaced Martin during the final season, appearing on four episodes before the show went off the air in early 1979.

The actress, who was still in her teens when she got the job, swears that she used her middle name for Screen Actors Guild membership reasons (to differentiate herself from another Janet Johnson) -- and not because producers were hoping that viewers wouldn't notice the switcheroo with Pamela Sue Martin. Johnson came from a modeling background, and despite her brief stint on the series, "it gave me confidence to pursue acting," she says. (She later changed her name to Janet Julian.)

"These amazing actors were doing the show -- Joseph Cotten, Ray Milland, William Schallert. What an opportunity it was to work side by side with these people."

Julian describes her subsequent career as "mostly B movies," and she says she gave up the business 11 years ago to raise a family. Professional high points, she says, include the 1990 film "King of New York" with Christopher Walken, and the early-'90s cable series "Swamp Thing" -- which she considers her "best work."

Nancy Drew returned to television in 1995 for 13 episodes of a syndicated Canadian series featuring an actress, Tracy Ryan, who has scarcely been heard from since. Let's face facts, though; there are two words that should never, ever appear anywhere even close to an actor's résumé: "syndicated" and "Canadian."

ABC took another stab at the character in 2002, with Maggie Lawson as Nancy in a two-hour TV movie/pilot episode that failed to take off. Lawson's current gig is the USA Network series "Psych."

How will Emma Roberts fare after "Nancy Drew" hits theaters later this week? Can the character ever achieve the same popularity on the screen as she has on the page? (The books' estimated sales are a staggering 200 million copies.)

The director Fleming says that he's aimed for a close connection to Nancy's literary roots: "I really tried to use the books as inspirations, because I think that's what people have latched onto."

Elizabeth Rhodes, a Fairfax County children's librarian, wonders if an adaptation like the new film is really what the books' fans want -- and if it can achieve popularity on the scale of blockbuster children's-lit films such as "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings" and "Chronicles of Narnia."

"The success of a Harry Potter movie comes from it being so faithful to the books," says Rhodes. Nancy Drew readers may prefer a similar approach: big-screen adaptations based on individual books. "They like the fact that it's historical and old-fashioned," Rhodes says.

When she saw a preview for the new film -- with Roberts as Nancy in a broadly drawn contemporary setting and plot -- Rhodes says she had mixed feelings, knowing that any media adaptation will likely bring increased attention to the books, but also knowing that Nancy Drew's most devoted fans could be disappointed.

"I was like, oh, they're updating Nancy Drew," says Rhodes. "I hope that works out for her."

Staff writer Jennifer Frey and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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