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Monday, January 2
Piper Laurie: Learning to Live Out Loud
Kudos to actress Piper Laurie for writing a rich and intimate memoir called Learning to Live Out Loud, published by Crown Archetype. I just finished it in my comfy chair and simply walked over here to the computer and began typing. Let’s nail this while the iron’s hot. It took me two days to read it. I am always a little moved by the irony of taking so little time to read a book when contrasted with how long it takes to write it. She started making movies around the time I discovered them and I had a bit of a crush on her. I see it hasn’t changed.
It was an easy, breezy read… clear, fun and newsy and one of those great rides through the decades. It should delight fans of actors from the 50s. She will be 80 this year and she started her bumpy Hollywood journey when she was just a teenager. The acting profession is something she knows very well.
Born Rosetta Jacobs in Detroit, she moved early on to Los Angeles with her parents and an older sister. It was her sister’s asthma and the family’s persistence in finding a cure or at least some relief that marked a serious consequence in Laurie’s life. A sanitarium was found in the San Fernando Valley where the sister would go to live and be looked after and it was decided that 5-year old Rosetta would stay institutionalized with her sister even though Rosetta was perfectly healthy.
While there she experienced no love or touching or holding and it was rare to see her parents during her three-year stay. Laurie stresses that she was always enormously shy with an inability to express herself. Through her entire childhood and into early adulthood she had an impossible time laughing. The big, hearty, belly laughs, tears-in-the-eyes kind of laugh is something she knew nothing about. The first time she had to do that in a film, she struggled to find the way.
She wanted to be an actress when she was a little girl and came to realize that she could lose herself, lose her shyness, her inhibitions, if she could inhabit the skin of someone not her. It was not difficult for her to be hired as a young contract player at Universal Studios (or Universal-International as it was then known); what was difficult was liking it.
She has never made any bones about the pain of the years she spent at the studio. Despite rubbing elbows with fellow contractees Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson and George Nader and making films with some of them, she detested the parts she was given. She was little more than decorative, although that she certainly was with her red hair, flashing eyes and beautiful face and for an added allure, a tempestuous nature. In real life she wanted to peel off the heavy makeup and rip off the harem costumes and scream out that she was an actress, not just the girl. She begged to be loaned out to other studios that she felt produced better work. She longed to be taken seriously as an artist.
Her only happy circumstance in her film roles at Universal was when they signed her to costar with handsome Tyrone Power in one of my very favorite movies of the time, Mississippi Gambler. While the film held some initial promise for her, it too became just another potboiler that she had little interest in making.
Ultimately she got very discouraged and determined that she would no longer do the kinds of films she was offered. But that was about to change.
If I had a criticism of this work it would be that, like many actors who write their stories, she doesn't mention some of her films. She has done a great deal of television and the book would be doubled in size if she mentioned everything she did in this medium, but fans of acting authors want to hear at least a little something about every film. The omission is obviously done intentionally and why? I conclude that it must be because of something horrible which makes me want to know it more. I also know there must be a little something to say, even in some off-handed way. Mention all the films.
She picks it up with an assignment at MGM, Until They Sail. I quite liked it and what’s not to like when Jean Simmons (who became her good pal), Joan Fontaine, Sandra Dee in her first role, and in an early role, Paul Newman, are also aboard. In it she was not Newman’s girlfriend but she was in her next assignment, The Hustler. Laurie was nominated for an Oscar, finally recognized as a serious actress, and the career she wanted was indeed sailing.
She makes the point that she wasn’t ever going to do any work again that she didn’t want to do. She was determined to do things her way.
She was Oscar-nominated for two more films. The first, undeniably the one she will be most remembered for, is Carrie. Always considered to be among the very best horror films, Laurie was electrifying as the crazed mother. And then another Oscar nomination as another difficult mother in Children of a Lesser God. Laurie, of course, discusses these films with a lot more detail. The same attention is paid to two more and they are my two favorite Piper Laurie films. The first is Tim about a young, mentally-challenged, Australian landscaper who falls in love with a lovely older woman. I think her acting skills were at their zenith in The Grass Harp, the little film with the all-star cast, where her ditsy Dolly so impressed me that I can close my eyes now and still see and hear her.
I also quite enjoyed her in Rich in Love, which she mentions only to say that co-star Albert Finney had long been a fan, and she doesn’t mention at all another film I quite liked, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. I mean with the likes of Robert Duvall, Richard Harris and Shirley MacLaine along, you’d think there would be some juicy stories to share.
I would really have enjoyed reading more about two television projects. I loved the miniseries Tender Is the Night but it was only mentioned in passing and surely there could have been a lot more to say about the immensely popular The Thorn Birds other than the fact that she worked with Jean Simmons again. Think of the disappointed TTB fans who bought this book to get some skinny on the filming of their favorite miniseries.
One of the things I liked so much were the glimpses into the craft of acting. She revealed some of the processes, both in general and as she has honed it, and they were illuminating and great fun to read. She was also candid about her actor pals, some of whom she knew intimately, not caring for or trusting of a few but generally kind to all. For those looking for a bitchy tell-all, this is not it. But I felt a great truth throughout the 341 pages.
I also sense she has learned a great deal about life because she has paid good attention. She knew what was best for her. She has soldiered on. And she’s still here.
NEXT POST: Review of The Artist