It seems as though every generation can lay claim to at least one pop culture figure that dropkicked a whole mess of people into puberty. Jessica Rabbit certainly did the trick when I was growing up, but for those who came of age in the 1960s, an actress named Susan Oliver became the catalyst for countless instantaneous crushes. While her name may not ring any bells, the seductive gyrations she produced as a jade-hued Orion in the original “Star Trek” pilot forever etched themselves into many a grade-schooler’s memories. However, as the new documentary The Green Girl is quick to point out, Oliver led a fascinating life beyond being a fantasy to be played out in living color. At once a feminist, a pilot, an incredibly prolific performer, and so much more, Oliver was her own woman and damned proud of it. Only a select few have been privy to the full extend of her story until now, and though it runs into a few issues whilst telling it, The Green Girl does so in a genuinely heartfelt and humanizing manner.
The woman who would become Susan Oliver was born Charlotte Gercke on February 13th, 1932. Her early years were rough ones, as her parents divorced when she was young, leaving her unable to settle in one place for terribly long. But Miss Gercke remained a fierce and intelligent young woman, graduating high school years ahead of schedule and even pondering a life in a convent before she chose acting as her destiny. Adopting the stage name of “Susan Oliver,” she quickly amassed an enviable amount of television credits, appearing in everything from “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide” to “The Love Boat” and, of course, “Star Trek.” But her ambitions didn’t stop here, as she also proceeded to wage a battle for more respect for all women in the entertainment industry and even conquered her fear of flying by becoming an accomplished aviatrix. Unfortunately, the world at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, singular personality like Susan, who found her attempts to transition from the small screen to the silver screen and from acting to directing thwarted by those who saw her only as a guest star of the week.
At first, I was a little scared that The Green Girl‘s eagerness to spread the word about a subject who never got her due would outweigh its ability to do so with finesse. I haven’t a thing against the flick for being of homegrown origin, no problem with its deluge of clips not being of the most pristine quality or its interviews conducted in a chiefly static fashion. When you’re focusing on a woman who led a life as full as Susan did, form is a secondary concern, but given how sizable her list of feats is, it’s strange that The Green Girl feel the need to pad out its running time. The movie comes across a mighty stumbling block near the beginning, an almost half-hour chunk during which talking heads simply go on about stuff in which Susan has appeared. There’s some discussion about her versatility, how easily she could assume role after radically-different role, but it really feels like people are just reciting her IMDB page. Not only did this portion of the film eat up a chunk of time without making much of a point, it came dangerously close to giving the entire project a frivolous impression, inciting feelings of dread that all we’d be seeing was a lot of gushing about a random cult fixture without getting to know her as a person.
What a relief, then, that this is not the picture that The Green Girl ultimately becomes. Once it moves beyond the career retrospective, the film turns into an affectionate celebration of Susan Oliver and her indomitable spirit. Despite the flick’s title and number of “Star Trek” historians it interviews, Susan’s days as an alien are but a tiny fraction of the achievements chronicled here. Friends and family recount an indescribably kind soul who could simultaneously be tough as nails, who rarely said no to a job and gave every part that came her way her all. That Susan’s hard work and determination to be taken seriously as a director — an area in which women were practically never allowed to flourish and rarely are nowadays — were awarded with stonewalling and ridicule provides a heart-breaking final chapter to her life, which was tragically cut short when she passed away from lung cancer at age 58. But although the film doesn’t shy away from the challenges and dark moments Susan faced, it doesn’t dwell on her victimhood, concentrating on how much she fought till the bitter end. Through archive footage of the woman herself and anecdotes shared by those closest to her, a loving portrait is pieced together, paying proper tribute to someone the public at large knew only as that lady who popped up on TV all the time.
After braving the clip show portion of the proceedings, you’ll find The Green Girl to be every bit as respectful and admiring as it sets out to be. It ignores the urge to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to discussing the one appearance for which Susan has attained eternal cult fandom, having had the foresight to pick a compelling subject who did lots of other cool stuff in her day. The Green Girl would probably have been better serviced were a third of its running time shaved off, but it still whips up an engaging biography centered around one of the last people you’d ever expect.