In Memoriam: Genevieve Waite, Star of Golden Globe Nominated "Joanna"

by Yoram Kahana June 5, 2019
Actress/singer Genevieve Waite

ron gallela collection/getty images

For a little over a decade, 1955-1969, the Golden Globes gave an award for Best English Language Foreign Film, an offshoot of the Foreign Film category. That period coincided with the wave of artistic creativity in music, fashion, theater and movies in the United Kingdom. No wonder that most of the nominations and winners in this short-lived category were movies that best aimed at the zeitgeist and caught the spirit of that intense and colorful period, especially as seen and experienced in 'swinging'  London.

In 1965, the winner was Darling, with Golden Globe nominations also for Julie Christie as the promiscuous free spirit of the title role, and for director John Schlesinger. A year later the winner was Alfie, with six additional nominations, including Michael Caine in the title role of a bed-hopping lad, and the director, Lewis Gilbert. And in the penultimate year of the category another swinging 60s, free spirit,  promiscuous character, Joanna, was the subject of a  Golden Globe-nominated eponymous British film - which lost to Franco Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet, a lush, operatic production, a harbinger of a more settled, romantic era to come. 

Joanna was played by a young newcomer, Genevieve Waite, who died May 9 in Los Angeles, aged 71.

Waite moved to London from her native  South Africa and immediately became a media darling, as an actress, singer, and model. She was the quintessential face and voice of the 1960s, first in the U.K. where she dated the likes of Mick Jagger, then in the U.S.A where she was in Andy Warhol's orbit in New York, and finally in Los Angeles where she became involved professionally, creatively  and romantically in the flowering California music scene of the era.

Genevieve was born in Johannesburg to Lionel, an engineer, and Audrey Weight, who worked with anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman. She moved away from the South African unrest in 1967, at 19 years old, went to London and found work and fame almost immediately, when she met legendary hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who hired her to model, and British film director Michael Sarne, who gave her the lead in his film Joanna, the story of a ditzy, bed-hopping art student, searching for love in swinging London.

What set Joanna apart from similar films was the inter-racial romance angle. Joanna meets and falls in love with a ”negro” (that was the 60s, remember) night club owner, played by American actor Calvin Lockhart. The movie scandalized Genevieve's homeland, the segregated, racist South Africa where it brought death threats to her family. But even in more liberal Europe, it raised controversy.

Joanna premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968 to mixed reactions. Some objected to the inter-racial theme. Renata Adler, then chief film critic for the New York Times, reported that while at the end of the movie some were seen in tears, when Joanna cried, "This ain't the end, you know. I'm coming back," part of the audience shouted "No! No!".

Adler wrote that Joanna was like " a late meal by somebody confident who doesn't really cook... a peculiar and highly mixed event. A lot depends on whether you can stand Genevieve Waite, who plays Joanna with Walter-Keane-wide eyes, vacant face and a baby monotone. As she wanders about, being surprised in beds where she doesn't belong, searching for commitment, she verges on being unbearable. I didn't mind acutely, but the charm of it rather passed me by. The trouble is that the movie keeps going true and false by turns. There are genuine, well-struck scenes and then hours of one-note, hard-edge, baby-voice hipness that is about as alive as polyethylene. Joanna has an air of carnival distortion, the flatness, lacquer and voice track of a plastic doll."

Moments of the life of actress Genevieve Waite

(Left) In 2008, with daughter Bijou Phillips; (top) a scene from Joanna, with Calvin Lockhart; (bottom) in 1974, with John Phillips.

getty images/ moviepix/20th century fox/ethan miller

 

In spite of such reviews, Joanna did well enough to earn a Golden Globe nomination, and to get Waite signed by 20th Century Fox. She moved to New York, settled in the Chelsea Hotel, the epicenter of the swinging New York 1960s scene, and became a member of Warhol's Factory whacky world. Famed photographer Richard Avedon put her on the cover of  Vogue. And in the summer of 1969 her Joanna director,  Sarne, introduced Waite to John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas rock sensation, recently separated from his wife, 'Mama' Michelle.

The two fell in love and married in 1972. Their Buddhist wedding took place in a restaurant in L.A.'s Chinatown, with rock royalty present: Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca, 'Mama' Cass Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Jack Nicholson, and Donald Sutherland, Waite's co-star in Joanna. Friends Jerry Brown, Britain’s Princess Margaret, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and John Paul Getty Jr. sent regrets.

Phillips and Waite's artistic collaboration produced an album, Romance Is on the Rise, (1974) a hip disco-flavored update of 1940s big band swing music. The Plastic Ono Band provided backing, and Avedon shot the cove: Waite as a Vargas Girl pin-up.

But Waite's movie career floundered. She lost the role of David Bowie's girlfriend in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1977)  when her husband got into a fistfight with director Nicolas Roeg. Instead, she starred in Man on the Moon, a Broadway musical, written by Phillips as a vehicle for Waite. Warhol produced and his acolyte Paul Morrissey directed. It was panned by critics and closed after five nights, effectively ending Waite's acting career.

The Phillipses never recovered from the debacle. They moved to London, shared an apartment with the Stones' Keith Richard and Anita Pallenberg, and became addicted to cocaine and heroin. Some years later the pair would go to rehab, have a second child, daughter Bijou, relapse into addiction and divorce in 1988. Their decades-long relationship is preserved in a catalog of songs inspired and sometimes co-written by Waite, starting with the haunting  “Let It Bleed, Genevieve,” John's tribute to Genevieve's curious mind and her unique personality.

Their daughter, model, actress, and singer Bijou Phillips, said: "Our beautiful mother Geneviève Waite Phillips, passed away in her sleep. She was a beautiful soul and born from another planet. Her ideas, her songs, her voice, and her heartbeat to a beautiful African rhythm no one else had and I am so thankful she was able to share it. She was a light, a fairy, and a gift of a creature. Her mind was poetry and wit, her sense of humor was quick and dry. My father and my mother had a magical, wonderful, heartbreaking life together, but they created a masterpiece of music. It's nice thinking she is with our Dad, dancing around in heaven."

RIP, Joanna.