Friday, January 8, 2021

Diana Millay (1935-2021)



The passing of Diana Millay has a poignance to it on many levels. For many fans, Dark Shadows was a part of their lives since its first episodes went on the air. It was a contemporary show rather than a piece of another generation’s nostalgia. As one of the first cast members, only 31 when she took the part, it is a wistful reminder that the show is on a steady course to becoming an animal that lives completely in memory. 

As Laura Collins, she followed Burke Devlin as a feared and much-talked-about piece of the recent past that refuses to be done with the Collins family. Is she a reminder of past sins? Given Roger’s cold and distant nature, it’s easy to assume that she is the victim of some sort, there to rescue David from a parental love so vacant that Liz is compelled to order carry-out in the form of Victoria Winters. Instead, she adds to Roger’s complexity when we find that she is the show’s first real female villain, causing us to think twice about who he was. Not only that, but she sets the stage as the first, real “outsider” female, creating a motif that balances Vicki. Vicki is also an outsider, but one who seeks only meaning and identity. Like Angelique after her, she represents the danger of women from the larger world. Laura allows us to appreciate the positive nature of the women on the show we’ve so far met. A primarily female audience was given a band of surrogate sisters, and now they and we have to close ranks against the interloper.

As that, her greatest legacy was as the first supernatural villain on the show. Ghosts are fine, but can they truly stack up against a living creature with an agenda? Not in the drama department. The introduction of Laura is the program’s first, longrunning risk into the personified paranormal. Yes, there was the ghost of Josette, but she’s expected in a spooky house, and exists at this point as a special-effect more than a truly interactive character. For all of the credit given to Jonathan Frid as the show’s first great supernatural foe, Laura has him beat. Not only that, but as a type of monster with no heritage nor blueprint. I’m still not sure what a Phoenix is, but Millay certainly was. The cool confidence of her performance successfully charted that new frontier for the show and made safe every choice they tried afterwards. 

Interview after interview gave Millay the platform to describe the joy of helping to create that character. She identified strongly with the mystical, alluring creature, both lustfully of this earth and empowered by primal forces beyond time. In her hands, the novel nature of the threat was an invitation for ownership and creativity. That self-assuredness cemented a character that is as credible as it as fantastic, and Millay gives Laura a set of missions that should contradict each other, but don’t. She is ancient-but-contemporary, tied to the past of Roger, his ancestors, and countless fathers before. But she is decidedly contemporary, also, existing on her own with no need for the Collins material resources or status. Yes, she needs something, but it’s the most unjustly ignored element of the Collins wealth: David. 

Millay relishes her performance like few on the show, and like the concept of the Phoenix itself, is a study in contradiction and balance. She convinces us that she is a loving mother and a ruthless force of hellish consumption. Few performers can maintain both of those impressions, but Millay had to and did. She was impossible to pigeonhole as someone with only one dimension. Thanks to the delicate nature of her acting, we experienced David’s twin senses of total fear and total need. She had to bring both of those elements out in David Henesy so that we could experience genuine sympathy toward his plight from her first moments until the end. I’m still undecided about the fate he faced beyond the flame. It’s a totally irrational curiosity, but Millay’s dedicated sincerity is impossible to ignore.  

The adage in performance is that every character is the hero in their own eyes. With Diana Millay, we never doubt it. When she returns as the character, it’s a harder sale to pitch, but she manages to do so again… with a twist. Now, undeniably a villain, Millay repeats her mission, but with a more colorful bent for unapologetic evil. She’s no longer an unopposed god among mortals. The presence of Angelique, Barnabas, and even seasoned occultist Quentin gives her a reason to revel in her plans rather than coyly allude to them. It’s yet another dimension to a character of teasingly allusive possibilities.  

Millay delighted in her identification with the role, often insisting that she had worlds in common with her. As a cast member dedicated to mysticism, going so far as to write several books on the subject, she was both an ensemble member and a committed fan of the show’s subject matter. She was an actor, reveler, and even thematic ambassador. Of course, she wrote about the supernatural.  Of course, she wrote and performed motivational lectures. Put the two together and you have Laura, and the Phoenix, and Millay and the ebullient sense of mischief that made us believe that Collinsport was a world of possibility for everything that followed. 

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