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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson — Part IV

EW: To have my career as I had it, I had to protect myself. I had to be positive. And even though I never became a star name, I still knew that I was pretty good, and that I had to take care of that, and that I didn’t want to slump down into the area of negativity.

But what happened to me with Dustin Hoffman, because we had had such fun together, was rough. We had done an absurdist play called Eh? And then of course we did The Graduate. Many years later, when I was appearing in 1983 in You Can’t Take it With You at the Plymouth Theater with Jason Robards, who was a great friend, Dustin came backstage to see Jason. It turned out that he was about to do Death of a Salesman, and he wanted to talk to Jason. When I heard that he was in Jason’s dressing room, I went on in, nervy me, and Dustin was there with his wife. But he sat over in the corner and said three times, in this flat voice, “It’s Elizabeth.… It’s Elizabeth… It’s Elizabeth.” Never came over and hugged me or anything. It’s interesting.

BK: Let’s talk a bit about the most recent Broadway play you did, the 1999 revival of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings. This is a comedy about a group of actresses living together in a retirement home, where some of them prove to be just as temperamental and competitive as they did onstage. Was the director, Michael Langham, tough on you?

EW: No, not really. But we had been in rehearsal for a week-and-a-half, and we were reading the play again, as a group. And Barney Hughes was rain something, and Langham said, “Could you make that a little more interesting?” And I thought, “Aw, shit! How dare he talk to Barney Hughes like that?” And things had been piling up, so I went home and called my agent and said to get me out of the play. The next day, he called and said that Langham had said, “She can’t quit—she can’t leave.” I went back, and when I did, Langham never said a thing. He put funny little presents in front of where I sat, and he moved on and never said anything to me—bad or good—again.

BK: Rosemary Harris got the reviews, which I know didn’t make Lauren Bacall happy.

EW: Langham was rough on Betty Bacall. She didn’t want to wear the costumes that were assigned to us. It started with that. Everyone else wore the clothes that the designer designed, but Betty said no, and wore her own modern things. That was the one statement she was allowed to make. Rosemary Harris is a complicated woman. I have to be honest with you, Brian. I’ve worked with her several times, and I was very fond of her husband, Ellis Rabb. But there’s something between Rosemary and me that never quite clicked.

BK: I have the feeling that you have been very smart about money in your career.

EW: My first apartment I found in 1950. It was a fourth-floor walk-up on East Thirty-fourth. My sister Mary was there until recently. Later, I bought a duplex at 2 West Sixty-Seventh. I bought it for $28,000, and I sold it for $400,000! And then I went out to California to find work, and I found 345 East Fifty-Seventh Street, which is where I have an apartment now, and I think I paid around $28,000 for that, in 1976, when I was in The Threepenny Opera.

BK: Early on, what about some of the things that captured your imagination when you first came to New York?

EW: I had a friend, Frank Gregory, whom I met in 1942, when I was working at the Barter Theater [in Virginia]. He took me by the hand and we went to the Museum of Modern Art. We used to go all the time and see the old movies, with Duse and Bernhardt. And I have always liked the Frick. I would always go to the theater. So many interesting plays, and they were reasonable. Back then, you could see almost anything for $2 or $3. I took the subway or buses. I loved it. I love New York.

BK: Did Tennessee Williams’ plays never come up as a possibility for you? I was thinking particularly of Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke or Hannah Jelkes in Night of the Iguana.

EW: No. Never came up. I would have loved to have done one of Tennessee Williams’ plays. But I think that was because, for whatever reason, I didn’t grab Elia Kazan. I wasn’t his type. Apparently, he had an affair with Julie Harris on East of Eden. And he had a fling with Kim Hunter. But I missed out on parts, I think, because I didn’t turn him on.

BK: Do you think the Motion Picture Academy should have denied him the special Oscar he received because of his treachery during the McCarthy era?

EW: No. I think it was terrible, what he did. But I don’t think it should have affected his work.

BK: Speaking of Summer and Smoke, you never worked with Geraldine Page, did you?

EW: No I remember seeing her in the revival of Summer and Smoke at the Downtown Circle. I went with Fritz Weaver. I’ll never forget it. She was a great actress. There was a production of the play done by Margo Jones in Texas. And then Gerry Page did it at the Circle. Wow. She came back and sat in my dressing room when I was in Salonika [a 1985 play by Louise Page] at the Public Theater. She said, “I don’t understand why you and I have never worked together.” I’ve never forgotten that.

BK: I was lucky. I saw her many times—in Agnes of God, Lie of the Mind. But the best was at her own company, the Mirror Rep, in The Madwoman of Chaillot. She dies not long after that, I guess. I couldn’t believe she was gone. She seemed to have so much vitality left in her.

EW: She went much too soon.

BK: Did you ever see Laurette Taylor?

EW: Unfortunately, I did not. I did see a woman named Pauline Lord. She was underestimated, but I admired her enormously. There was something so internal about her. Sandy Meisner talked a lot about Laurette Taylor, but he talked a lot about Pauline Lord, too. God knows when I saw Maureen Stapleton, I thought she was amazing. But my idol, in every way, was Kim Stanley.

BK: Is there an actress whose reputation has mystified you a bit?

EW: I probably shouldn’t say this right now—but I’m going to say it anyway. I’ve known Marian Seldes forever, and I like her. But I’m fascinated… that she is getting so much attention. I do like her.

BK: I liked her much more than I liked Angela Lansbury in that latest Terrence McNally play.

EW: Deuce?

BK: Yes. It’s not a good play. In fact, it’s hardly a play at all. But it does have something rather potent to say about the people in the past who excelled vs. the people who are doing it today.

Liz, your career really is singular. There aren’t too many people who can say that they appeared as Lady Bracknell and in Uncle Vanya, and also with Veronica Lake in John Van Druten’s Voice of the Turtle!

EW: You’re amazing, Brian. I did do that summer tour with Veronica Lake. She wasn’t a great stage actress, but she was a great lady, and my God, did she draw an audience. She did not end up well. She ended up as a waitress someplace. We called her “Ronnie.” Dear Ronnie.

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