By Dave Riley
They come to Los Angeles by the dozens every week — some even say by the hundreds. They are young and beautiful. They arrive at the depots by train or bus, at LAX and Burbank by plane, or off the interstates, in used vehicles that brothers and other relatives had chipped in to buy to send the actresses on their way to Hollywood stardom. Back home in Mason City or Monkton or Millinocket they were frequently not only the prettiest girls in town but the most talented performers with singing voices that everyone agreed “simply can’t miss.”
This was how Beatrice Vivian Divic’s life in California began. She was born in Detroit in 1925. She eventually had aspirations of becoming a model and at age seventeen she went to Los Angeles to chase her dream.
I know what you’re thinking — Beatrice Vivian Divic is the birth name of some star who went to Hollywood and later changed her name to June Lockhart or Dorothy Malone or Angela Lansbury, all of whom were also born in 1925. But no, Ms. Divic’s life in Southern California followed a more traditional path.
A modeling career didn’t pan out, and in her late 20’s she married a painter named Johnson — an artist, not a house painter — whose first name, alas, remains unknown. Together they had three children, Jim, Marc and Lloyd. They divorced about ten years later.
Los Angeles Times reporter Valerie J. Nelson said that after the divorce “Johnson took acting lessons as a sort of therapy,” but never had any visions of becoming a professional actress. She soon remarried but that union also dissolved after ten years.
Now known as Johnson, she became a successful entrepreneur, opening a dress shop called Besedka in Woodland Hills and eventually another Besedka in North Hollywood. According to the NewYork Times, she practiced yoga for much of her life. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a period and managed a condominium in San Francisco, but eventually came back to L.A. Like so many seniors, in her later years she developed knee problems and worked out regularly as a form of physical therapy.
You’ve heard the story of how the actress Lana Turner was “discovered” while sipping a soda at a drug store on Hollywood Boulevard? If you’re too young to have heard that tale and in fact if you have no clue who Lana Turner was, trust me, that’s how it happened. Ms. Turner, who was born in Wallace, Idaho, was a student at Hollywood High when an entertainment journalist named Wilkerson spotted her. She went on to have a wildly successful movie career.
Ms. Johnson, who had long since adopted the first name of Besedka, was also discovered, not at a soda fountain but working out at a North Hollywood YWCA. When she was 85.
No kidding! 85!
In 2011, the producers of the independent film Starlet were two weeks away from beginning shooting and still had not found an older actress to play Sadie opposite 21-year-old Dree Hemingway, the daughter of Mariel Hemingway. In what can best be described as serendipity, Shih-Ching Tsou, an executive on Starlet, was working out at the same time as Besedka Johnson.
“When I saw her at the gym, I was stunned,” Ms. Tsou recalled in an interview with the New York Times. “I thought, ‘This lady is who we are looking for.’ ”
Ms. Tsou asked Ms. Johnson if she would be interested in playing the role. She was flattered but skeptical, so she told her son Jim who is in the film industry. “Mom!” he said to her incredulously. “Do you know how many waiters and waitresses have slaved throughout their lives for the chance to get to do what you’re doing? Do it!”
So she did.
The film is about a growing and not always harmonious relationship between 21-year-old Jane (Hemingway) and 85-year-old Sadie (Johnson) after Jane discovers a hidden stash of money inside an object at Sadie’s yard sale.
The reviews were very good.
“The relationship,” said Entertainment Weekly, “unfolds with a matter-of-fact integrity that accepts all personal quirks, weaknesses, and sorrows as human and worthy of love.”
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, a notoriously tough critic, wrote, “A model, Ms. Hemingway… has appeared in only a few films and is a spectacular find, as is Ms. Johnson, a longtime Angeleno making a true, piercing screen debut.”
Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars and wrote of Ms. Hemingway and Ms. Johnson, “These two women, so very different, are the film’s heart and soul, inviting us to decide for ourselves what’s beneath their seemingly obvious facades.”
Besedka Johnson reportedly was an extremely nice person who was sensitive to the feelings of others, but the character of Sadie required that from time to time she be mean and antagonistic. Starlet director Sean Baker told the L.A. Times that after a scene required her to be particularly abrasive to Hemingway, Johnson “would turn to Dree and apologize for the way she was acting. It was so sweet.”
By all accounts Besedka Johnson thoroughly enjoyed her relatively brief moment in the sun, speaking at showings of Starlet and traveling to film festivals in Mill Valley, Austin, Texas, and elsewhere. After the movie’s critical success, several directors approached Ms. Johnson with offers of other roles but unfortunately she fell ill from an infection.
She was hospitalized in the spring of 2013. Her belated career abruptly ended when she died of pneumonia at Glendale Memorial Hospital in April.
After her death, director Sean Baker told NBC News. “My only wish is that she [had been] discovered years ago and we would have decades of film and television that had captured her incredible talent.”
She was survived by her three sons and by thousands of ardent fans who three years ago at this time had never heard of Besedka Johnson. She lives on, however, in Starlet, which is almost sure to become a cult classic.