Reflecting on her “speckled career,” as she calls it, one that’s moved in fits and starts with plenty of last-minute offers, Channing admits that not playing the ingenue eventually brings its own rewards. “I feel grateful that I’ve never been a Great Beauty—capital G, capital B—because I would think it would be very hard to see that go away,” she says.
Perhaps it’s only fitting then that her breakout role came in a revenge fantasy that parodied the easy ride that pretty girls enjoy. In The Girl Most Likely To…, a 1973 TV movie cowritten by Joan Rivers, Channing starred as an ugly duckling who, following a car accident and some terrific plastic surgery, hatches into a raving beauty and murders her former tormentors. “All these actresses they’d offered it to thought it was in such bad taste,” she says. “I, of course, did not! I threw myself into it.” She had two makeup teams—one to do ugly and another for beautiful—and spent half the movie in a fat suit and unibrow, with a washer stuck up her nose. As ABC’s highest-rated movie of the week that year, it helped Channing nab the role of a madcap heiress in The Fortune, the 1975 film directed by Mike Nichols that costarred Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Though Channing earned glowing reviews, The Fortune fizzled at the box office, as did her next few movies. Suddenly she couldn’t catch a break.
It was at a low point, she remembers, that she got a last-minute call to take on the role of wisecracking teenager Betty Rizzo in Grease. “It was literally, ‘Show up Monday,’” Channing says. She was then 33, and “though I looked a little younger than I was, this was kind of pushing it. I had to really act!”
There are those who insist that Channing pretty much stole the movie from John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and she still gets stopped on the street by fans of her Rizzo. Yet despite its popular success, Grease was derided by critics, and Channing found herself in free fall. “People were associating me with this movie that was looked down upon,” she says. “I felt helpless.” Her manager at the time, Grease producer Allan Carr, advised her “that I shouldn’t leave the house without looking like an 8-by-10 glossy. He thought I should live the life. I tried, but I didn’t do it very well.”
A couple of failed sitcoms followed, and Channing says she “hit bottom. I was devastated.” But then she returned to the stage, where she had started out, eventually winning a Tony in 1985 for her wrenching turn as the mother of a brain-damaged child in Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She landed the role of Ouisa Kittridge—whose privileged world is unraveled by a young con artist—in the original stage production of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation only after another actress quit midrehearsal. The performance earned her a Tony nomination in 1990 and then an Oscar nod for best actress when the play was made into a film. “Ouisa is what Stockard’s parents raised her to become,” says Guare. “This was their dream and her nightmare—that’s what she was acting out.”