Friday, June 5

Maureen Stapleton

She was a scattershot of emotions.  It's why she vomited before most stage performances and hit the vodka sitting on her vanity table in her dressing room as soon as the curtain came down.  After a lifetime on the stage, she never conquered the thought that somebody was going to kill her after the curtain went up.  She spent nearly two decades in therapy wrestling with those emotions and she clearly used them to become one of America's finest actresses.

From the beginning all Maureen Stapleton ever wanted to be was an actress and she thought it would happen.  She knew she was no glamorpuss but she felt happiest when she could inhabit a character and get away from herself.  She was candid about offering that her childhood growing up in Troy, NY, was not a happy one.  Her Irish father, a major alcoholic, seemed to thrive on demeaning her.  She was always chunky and he would bellow that she would never amount to anything.  That sentence speaks volumes about the bulldog spirit that would engulf her. 

Understandably, she couldn't wait to get out of the house and at 18  made a mad dash for The Big Apple.  After studying acting with the respected Herbert Berghof, she became good enough to be signed on at the Actors Studio.  She became great pals with Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, both of whom she thought were wonderful actors.

Through networking Tennessee Williams heard of her and signed her on to play Serafina in The Rose Tattoo.  At 24, she won a Tony for the role, becoming a lifelong friend of Eli Wallach who played her husband.  Although none of Stapleton's doing, she became linked with Anna Magnani when the Italian powerhouse declined starring in Williams' play because she didn't think her English was good enough for an American audience.  But Magnani won the movie version and an Oscar as well.  Several years later, Magnani declined to do Williams' Orpheus Descending on Broadway, and Stapleton got that role, too.  And when the movie version came about, now called The Fugitive Kind (1960), Magnani played the role and Stapleton played a minor role.  It is best forgotten... a horrible movie.

She appeared in one Broadway play after another for most of her adult life.  Like her fellow Actors Studio member and future Interiors costar, Geraldine Page, Stapleton was mainly a Broadway actress, not a movie actress.  Her bosses and the public alike saw in her an irresistible combination of vulnerability and volatility and a great honesty.  I always thought of her as a great actress, yes, but more so as someone I personally knew.  She seemed like a friend or neighbor or family member.

It was inevitable, of course, that someone with her skills would attract the attention of Hollywood and that happened when she  signed to appear in Lonelyhearts (1958).  She brings a strung-out sense of collapse to her role of a married woman with an unfulfilling sex life, pouring her troubles out to a writer, Montgomery Clift, of a lonelyhearts column.  She became one of only a handful of actors to earn an Oscar nomination for her first role.  She's in an even smaller category receiving Oscar, Tony and Emmy nominations in the same year.

She said at the time that movie-making scared her, claiming she wouldn't be able to learn her lines.  Imagine, she had no issues with memorizing an entire script and then appear in person on the stage but she was terrified of memorizing small passages for a film when it can be done over and over if not quite right. 

Film-making brought out all her insecurities, as well, particularly her physical ones.  She was already engaged in two lifetime habits, some serious smoking and even more serious drinking.  She also suffered great paranoia... people were talking about her, judging her... she had no talent... she couldn't find a good man... she was a poor mother and let's not forget, someone could kill her while acting on the stage.  She was positive she would be killed in a plane or an elevator so she avoided both.

Audiences didn't scramble to a thoughtful piece like Lonelyhearts but they did to the self-indulgent Bye Bye Birdie (1963).  It was a piece of fluff about idols and fans and Stapleton played Dick Van Dyke's mother, even though she was a mere few months older.  She was on the Hollywood map whether she liked it or not.  Continuing to work on the stage, she also did a lot of television.  It would be six years before she made another popular-with-the-public movie and this one eclipsed the former.  She was part of the starry cast of Airport (1970).  Everyone in the world saw it but few would admit it.  She played the oh-so-distraught wife of Van Heflin, the bomber who took down Jacqueline Bisset and made the rest of us nervous.  Will they clear that snowy runway and allow the disabled aircraft to land?  Oh shut up...!

In 1971 Neil Simon wrote a play expressly for Stapleton, The Gingerbread Lady, and she won another Tony. 

Also in 1971 she earned her second Oscar nomination for a wife role in Plaza Suite.  Neil Simon was a big fan.  Even though I tend to think of her as a dramatic actress, there is no doubt she had a great facility for comedy.  She could be a cut-up in real life, too.  Plaza Suite was three-segment relationship comedy with Walter Matthau in each.  Lee Grant and Barbara Harris joined Stapleton in playing each wife.  She and Matthau were trying, perhaps in vain, to make it to their 20th anniversary.

In the mid-70s she was outstanding in two TV movies... Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite Laurence Olivier, no less.  For my tastes, these are two of her most memorable performances.

Her third Oscar nomination came for 1978's Interiors, directed by Woody Allen.  The craftsmanship that I attach to this film is widespread but it is so hard to watch.  It is a family film but in no way a sunny, Disney sort of thing.  This is Grim City.  The way that they all exasperatingly deal with one another is my kinda interpersonal drama.  A rich man's ex-wife has committed suicide and his three grown daughters and their men are having a hard time adjusting to that fact and with one another on other issues.  The only spark of jubilation comes from Stapleton as the too-soon new wife whose dresses in fiery red.  I noticed with this film how her speech and manner seemed rushed... like she was always in a hurry to get to the next thing... and then I realized she did that a lot and I came to find it to be part of her immense charm as an actress.

It seems 1981 was a good year for her.  There was much press about Elizabeth Taylor looking for some tried and true play in which she could shine and shake off those movie queen shackles and she finally chose The Little Foxes.  Someone wisely engaged Stapleton to play Birdie, a part she absolutely owned.  I was thrilled to be able to see it although I confess my great anticipation was seeing the violet-eyed one.  The two actresses became fast friends because they both spoke the same language.  Both were tough broads who loved their sauce and cursed like motorcycle mamas riding on the back of a big hog.

Another job for her in 1981, one of my favorite Stapleton roles, was as Lauren Bacall's secretary, Belle, in the thriller The Fan.  It's rarely mentioned on her resumé and I don't get it.  I don't dismiss that it's in the thriller genre but I think it is well done and certainly holds one's attention.  It is graphic. The title character is obsessed with a Broadway actress and when she doesn't much acknowledge him, he turns on her and those in her orbit.  Bacall, like Taylor, was another one of those broads.  Booze, Broadway and battling through life kept them as bosom buddies.

That same year she took a freighter to London for the filming of Reds, Warren Beatty's epic ode to John Reid and communism.  She played the fiery, Lithuanian anarchist, Emma Goldman, and in her fourth attempt at an Oscar finally won it.   In her acceptance speech at the Oscar ceremony, she thanked everyone I've ever met in my life.  In accepting the award for the same role from the New York Film Critics, she said the only reason I ever went into show biz is because I wanted to f--- (actor) Joel McCrea (whom she was crazy about but hadn't met). 

In 1985 she made Cocoon, Ron Howard's sci-fi romp about old folks getting youthful vigor when they swim in a pool with alien cocoons.  It was immensely popular.  I think it was the last thing I saw her in.  She was still to make a number of more movies and I may stick my foot in my mouth when I say none were of any special merit or note.

Maureen Stapleton was married unsuccessfully twice.  She had two children during her first marriage.  She also claimed she enjoyed lots of affairs (I'm not sure whether that was during a marriage or not... I mean, I wasn't there) and had one long-standing affair with Broadway director George Abbott, whom she left after discovering he was having an affair.  She was 53 and he was 91.  (Hey, I'll have some of whatever he had.)

She died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2006 at her home in Lenox, Massachusetts.  She was 80.

She was well-liked among her peers and unquestionably brought something special to acting.  When asked about acting over the years, she has said I do a job, I get paid, I go home.  She also said as far as I'm concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.  And did she once say, when asked how it felt to be recognized as one of the greatest actresses in the world, that I'd rather be acknowledged as one of the world's best lays?  Of course, she did.

How's this, Carlo?

Next posting:
Movie Review



  1. I could hav never imagined she had such a sad life. Maybe that's what made her so great. I envy you for the chance you had to see so many movies that for some reasons I missed. I agree with you about The Fugitive Kind and I do believe that her TV performance of The Rose Tattoo was much better than that of Magnani ( I love Magnani) who, in my opinion, " overdid " her acting. Anyway thanks a lot for your magnificent gift. May I consider You a very dear friend of mine? Thanks again.

  2. Great character actress, most don't even remember her even though she hasn't been gone that long. My favorite of her performances are in Interiors, of course, Reds, and believe it or not, her scene-stealing turn in the 1981 Lauren Bacall horror film The Fan. Maureen was Brando's favorite actress and one of his closest friends.

  3. To think that someone else would put "The Fan" up there as a favorite Stapleton performance is unexpectedly wonderful to hear. And yes, of course, "Interiors."