Friday, January 9

Barbara Hershey

We're not that far apart in age.  Barbara Hershey once represented for me a lifestyle that I wished I had been more involved in but never could... a flower child, a hippie.  Convention was never my thing and I always admired rebels, people bold enough to say no thanks, I'll do it my way.  But there was more... she was a good actress, an authentic one, often pulling back layer after layer of complex characters.  She is able to embroider together sensuality, sincerity and a degree of omniscience and usually with a ready smile.  Her sense of self seems so entrenched that she could never betray it in her work.

I first came across her in a TV series I loved called The Monroes (1966).  Starring alongside Michael Anderson, Jr., they were a part of an orphaned brood trying to survive in the Old West.  Soon she had her first movie role in With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), also the last movie Doris Day made.  It was so gooey and nauseating that I am surprised it didn't end Hershey's movie career along with Day's.  To her credit, I don't think she ever made another one like it.

Born in Hollywood to a Jewish father and Irish mother, she wanted to act from early childhood.  Although very shy, like a lot of shy actors, she found it easier to fly when inhabiting the skin of another person, real or fictional.  Her high school drama coach helped her find an agent and she was on her way because that talent was apparent from the very beginning.

But it was all nearly derailed the year after Eggroll when she worked in the Glenn Ford western, Heaven with a Gun.  Another costar was David Carradine, he of substance abuses, instability, martial arts, free thinking, kinkiness, lawlessness and the famous acting dynasty.  She would be with him for a half dozen years and they more or less scandalized polite Hollywood society.  They had a son they named Free (he later changed it to Tom) and appeared together in Martin Scorsese's first great success, Boxcar Bertha (1972), about a lawless pair during the Depression.  Her flower child ways caused Hollywood to not take her acting chops very seriously. 

In 1969 she appeared with Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison in Last Summer, about three teens adrift on Fire Island.  Hershey is the manipulative one and leads the other two into violent acts with an innocent teenage girl.  In it Hershey had a scene with a seagull, which accidentally was killed and she was apparently so upset that she changed her professional name to Barbara Seagull.  The homage to the bird did little for her professional standing.

At the beginning of the 70s, she made two popular films with the youth crowd... The Baby Maker (about surrogate motherhood) and The Pursuit of Happiness (as Michael Sarrazin's girlfriend; he is sent to prison for killing a pedestrian).  If the older folks had more or less given up on her, my crowd hung in there and we were more than rewarded for our efforts.

She worked steadily throughout the 70s, mainly as Barbara Seagull, and did a fair amount of television as well.  Since this blog is about movies, I don't go into much on television projects but I will say that this woman did some brilliant TV work.

Hershey with David Carradine

By the 1980s and into her 30s, her flower power and Carradine well behind her, she settled into some impressive work and films, perhaps the best of all her many decades in the acting business.  Bet there's a favorite Hershey film of yours in this bunch.  One of mine is 1980s The Stunt Man, a totally out-there look at behind-the-scenes movie-making with Peter O'Toole and Steve Railsback.  She didn't have as much to do as they did but they were lucky to have her. 

She was Chuck Yeager's wife, Glennis, in The Right Stuff (1983) about the Mercury 7 astronaut, and the mysterious glamourpuss who shoots Robert Redford in The Natural.  One of my favorite Hershey performances was in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and she followed it up playing Gene Hackman's galpal in the popular basketball, coming-of-age story Hoosiers, both 1986.  She certainly added acting prestige to director Barry Levinson's Tin Man and won a Cannes Film Festival award for her portrayal of a bayou woman in Shy People, both 1987.

We're not done yet with the 1980s.  Hershey was again honored by Cannes for her role in A World Apart (1988) an excellent apartheid drama concerning a mother and her daughter.  That same year she worked for Scorsese again, this time as Mary Magdalene in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, my favorite religious-themed movie, and she scored a bulls eye with me. 

I don't go as gaga as some of my lady friends over Beaches (1988) but it provided a certain enjoyment if only that I got to see Hershey act again.  The story of female friendship over the years was a boon to Hershey's career and also Bette Midler's.  Hershey worked a great deal with other name actresses and most generously so.  She never hogged the screen.  She could be glamorous (as she is in this part) but she often luxuriated in character roles and never seemed to mind having her female costars give showier performances.

Unfortunately, she had another Barbara Seagull moment while making Beaches.  Much was made over her collagen-injected lips, perhaps too much although there was Erma Bombeck's famous line:  She looked like she stopped off at a gas station and someone said, "Your lips are down 30 pounds.  Better let me hit 'em with some air."

Some might say she made a mistake in turning down Glenn Close's role in Fatal Attraction (1987). 

In the 90s, no longer always the leading lady, Hershey turned often to supporting roles and often in offbeat, sometimes independent films.  Since I like many of those types of films, I saw most of her work in this decade.  It included Paris Trout (1991) as the wife of Dennis Hopper's southern bigot, as Michael Douglas' ex-wife in Falling Down, as the mysterious mother in Swing Kids and as Debra Winger's tough aunt in A Dangerous Woman, all 1993. 

Hershey costarred with Tom Berenger in the unusual but fascinating 1995 western The Last of the Dogmen.  She was nominated for a supporting Oscar for her work in director Jane Campion's 1996 Portrait of a Lady, as one of a pair of scoundrels (with John Malkovich) out to manipulate the heroine, Nicole Kidman.  She garnered praise for her work as Kris Kristofferson's bohemian wife in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998).

In this millennium I have seen her in just a few things but the most impressive was her searing portrait as Natalie Portman's obsessive mother in 2010s Black Swan.  It proves the ol' girl still has it.  I'm afraid of being lazy and complacent, she once said.  Perhaps that explains her extensive work record.  I think she is underrated in the sense that she has never generated the press that some less talented actresses have.  

In some ways, her story could be considered a tale of survival.  It's been a long, long time since The Monroes.  Despite the fact that she's said she never did drugs or much alcohol, her reputation did suffer some through the Carradine period.  But she prevailed.  I would like to say it's due to a combination of Hollywood's short attention span and Hershey's exemplary acting. 

She might have been better included in my future piece on the 1980s but not only could I not wait to write about this amazing actress but she started in the decade I'm currently writing about (the 60s) and has succeeded when so many of that time have not.

It's been an honor, Barbara Hershey.

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