By Ray Bennett
LONDON – Like many a young man who saw Robert Altman’s classic ‘Nashville’ in 1975, I was a little bit in love with Cristina Raines, who turns 70 today, She played a singer in a folk trio that featured her then boyfriend Keith Carradine (pictured above) but she told me she hated the sound of her own singing voice. ‘When I sing, I hyperventilate and get dizzy,’ she said. ‘It’s very hard for me to listen to myself. I cringe. It’s the worst thing I ever heard in my life.’
That made life difficult for her as her singing in the TV-movie ‘Sunshine’ led to her role in ‘Nashville’. One day In 1974, she went to a screening of the Robert Altman film ‘Thieves Like Us’, in which Carradine appears. ‘As I was leaving, Altman came up to me and asked if I would be in his next movie,’ she said. ‘I just looked at him and said, sure.’
When she reported for work, she was surprised when Altman asked her to sing: ‘I was scared to death and I had to fight with the musical director so I didn’t end up on the soundtrack album. That was okay because I didn’t like the way I sang anyway.’ Carradine did sing, of course, and he won the Academy Award for best song for his track ‘I’m Easy’.
Raines faced the same dilemma when she signed to play torch singer Lane Ballou in the primetime soap ‘Flamingo Road’. She was very nervous but Michael Filerman, the show’s executive producer, did not share her opinion. ‘We thought she was a singer because of “Nashville” and “Sunshine” but we weren’t looking for a Beverly Sills or Barbra Streisand,’ he told me. ‘She just had to have a kind of whisky, cocktail voice. Once we’d cast Cristina, she told us she didn’t really sing. I said, “Oh, I see. You got the part on false pretences.” She giggled and went on to sing and she’s lovely.’
Veteran co-star Howard Duff (pictured below with Raines, Harmon and Morgan Fairchild) felt the same way. ’I don’t know why she says that,’ he told me. ‘I think she’s pretty damned good.’ Joan Crawford had played Lane Ballou in the 1949 feature film ‘Flamingo Road’ and Filerman said ‘We were looking for someone who had Crawford’s srong, dark kind of earthy quality. Miss Crawford, to give the devil her due, played Lane much tougher. We wanted Lane to be tough in that sultry way but on TV you have to show some vulerability for audiences to want to see you every week. Cristina has those qualities. She has a brightness about her. She’s very sensual and she has a vulnerability that makes her very sympathetic to audiences.’
Duff said he didn’t see the resemblance: ‘I’ll tell you who Cristina does remind me of, though, and that’s Ava Gardner when she was her age.’ Raines, in fact, had worked with Gardner in Michael Winner’s 1979 supernatural tale ‘The Sentinel’ and was a big fan. Duff was entitled to his opinion as he and Gardner had been lovers in the late 1940s between her marriages to bandleader Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. Duff said, ‘I see a great deal of similarity with Ava. They’re both great gals, they’re both beautiful and they’re both on the salty side, liable to say anything.’
I first met Raines in 1980 when she was dating Mark Harmon, one of her co-stars on ‘Flamingo Road’. I stopped by to see them on the Warner Bros. set of the primetime soap and I joined them one afternoon at Faulkner’s Falcon Studio on Hollywood Boulevard where they both were taking lessons in onscreen swordplay. Former Olympic fencer Ralph B. Faulkner had for decades taught actors such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn how to sword-fight in the movies.
Joseph Sargent’s tear-jerker ‘Sunshine’ was the highest-rated TV-movie ever when it aired in 1973. Raines played a 20 year-old mother diagnosed with terminal cancer. When she began to receive letters from people who had lost a loved one to cancer, she learned at the age of 21 about the power of television. ‘Once, I was approached by a young woman in a public restroom,’ she said. ‘She wanted to know how to stay alive. She couldn’t have been more than 22 and she was dying of cancer. She thought I had an answer. That’s when I realised the immense responsibility that filmmakers have.’
Raines went on to have many feature film and television credits but in 1991 she quit showbusiness to become a nurse caring for cancer patients. ‘Sunshine’ had really left a mark.