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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson – Part I - Follow Kellow

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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson – Part I

The other day, I wasn’t at my best and I began thinking about what could happen in that moment that would make me feel better. The first thing that sprang to mind was a good sit-down chat with Liz. By Liz, I mean the gifted actress Elizabeth Wilson, who was a close friend of both my husband Scott’s and mine. In 2007 and 2008, I spent many hours at Liz’s apartment on East Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, and at her condo in Branford, Connecticut, recording a lengthy oral history of her brilliant and varied career on stage, screen and television. Her revelations were consistently surprising, funny, and uncommonly honest.

From the time I came to New York in 1982, Liz was one of the best reasons for going to the theater. I saw her quite often, in You Can’t Take It With You, Ah, WIlderness, Salonika, in the TV version of Vivian Matalon’s brilliant 1979 Broadway revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven. And of course, I saw her constantly on television and onscreen—as Dustin Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate, as the brown-nosing office snitch Roz in Nine to Five. She was fond of saying,”Well, I was never a staaaar,” but to all of us who loved her, that’s actually what she was. I will never forget her talking to me about what turned out to be her final role, as Sara Delano Roosevelt in 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray. I complimented her on her big scene, in which Sara storms into the library and catches her son drinking secretly. She was filmed from behind as she burst through the French doors, and the scene was a knockout. “Oh, we had to shoot that about sixteen times,” she said. “But it wasn’t Lizzie’s fault, Brian! Lizzie knew her lines!” She died on May 9, 2015.

All of her friends miss her deeply, so I decided that posting some excerpts from our talks on followkellow.com might be the next best thing to being in the room with her. Here are some bits, of Liz discussing various facets of her career:

BK: You said last week that you have always been a very sexual person. But those weren’t really the roles you were usually given.

EW: No. And I was very sexual. When I was growing up, my mother picked up on all of this and she called me into the bathroom when I was around sixteen and said, “Elizabeth, I want you to remain a virgin until you are twenty-five.” Thank God she made that rule, because the first job I had when I graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1944 was with the USO. It was 1945. The war was on, and I think this was the most exciting year of my life. We did a play called What a Life! It was Henry Aldrich, and I was the mother. They sent four companies, two to the South Pacific and two to Europe. It took us a month to cross the Pacific, because of all the submarines. I had two beaus on the boat. We landed in Helandia, New Guinea, and all I’m saying is that I just ended up with all these guys. But I couldn’t go any further—and thank God Mother had told me that. I had a beau on every island! We were in Helandia and then we were in FInchaven, which is near Australia. And then these two gorgeous islands, Biak and Moratai. We moved up to the Philippine Islands. We were in Japan, and in those days, they didn’t tell us about these things—and honey, I walked around Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Crazy. I even sent stuff back to my home in Grand Rapids. In Hiroshima, the bomb was dropped over a schoolhouse. And I found these incredibly interesting documents and books that had been burned on the side by the atomic bomb. I took some of them back to the museum in Grand Rapids. But I didn’t have gloves on or anything. Crazy.

The only town that was standing was Kyoto, which was the shrine city.

BK: Did the Japanese come to any of your performances?

EW: I don’t remember them ever coming. Sometimes we would have an audience of thirty. The war was still going on in Okinawa. At one performance we gave, there were soldiers marching back and forth between the audience and the stage—with guns.

But back to your question about sexuality. I don’t think I was able, or wanted to, show that side of me. I never really felt comfortable playing, if you will, myself. I always wanted to have the costume, the equipment, of the character so that I could get into it. That’s why I loved character parts. I had many friends who played themselves onstage, and I found that difficult. Looking back—I think most of the characters I played were women who never married. I also played a lot of lesbians. It’s so interesting, Brian. Roz, the woman I played in Nine to Five, was a lesbian, if you will.

BK: But you played Aaronetta in Morning’s at Seven. And Arry is an unmarried lady and very sexually driven.

EW: Ohs, yes! A perfect part for me. This is a woman who has an affair with her sister’s husband, but she doesn’t really commit herself. She can still live with the family and find the husband attractive, and he can find her attractive. And the rest of the sisters forgive her, because they knew she’s a little off-center.

BK: Let’s go back a bit. After your experience overseas, you acted regularly at the Barter Theater in Virginia, and later you got a wonderful opportunity on Broadway, in a play that turned out to be hugely important at the time: William Inge’s Picnic. Did the overall scheme of the play—the atmosphere, the rhythm—pull itself together pretty easily?

EW: I think so. By the time we came into New York, we had been out of town a long time. There had been a lot of changes. I think it was in very good shape.

BK: Obviously, I never saw the original production. But I’ve always been a bit puzzled that Joshua Logan, the director, cast Ralph Meeker as Hal Carter, the man who swaggers into town and immediately sets every woman on fire. I guess he must have had sex appeal.

EW: Not to me! What is that thing that dancers wear? A cock—

BK (Laughs): Codpiece.

EW: (Laughs) Cod. Not cock. Well, Josh Logan wanted him to be more endowed, so he made him wear that. I didn’t really know Ralph, but I guess he was pretty good in that role. And Paul Newman played the rich young man from the fine family. Hecky—EIleen Heckart—played the schoolteacher, Rosemary, and Hecky struck home and made a huge hit. And the younger sister in the Owens family was played by Kim Stanley. She was just about the best actress I ever saw in my life.

BK: But she was a little mature for the role. How did she pull off playing a fourteen-year-old girl?

EW: I’ll tell you. Josh was so clever. Josh said to Kim, “In the beginning of the play, keep your back to the audience. Don’t let them see you for a while.” And by the time she turned around, you believed her.

Poor Bill Inge. Writers.… I don’t know whether we actors ever really get to know writers, because they … live in their heads, somehow. But you know what Josh Logan did with Picnic: he insisted on changing the ending. In the original ending, Madge stays in town. She doesn’t go away with Hal. And Josh insisted on changing the ending, and Bill Inge walked right up the aisle of that theater and left, and we never saw him again.

BK: How did you, as a company, respond to the change to a more commercial, happier ending?

EW: You know something? I don’t remember. I think we were shocked that Bill had left us. The only real conversation I ever had with Bill Inge was long after Picnic. There was a restaurant where we all used to go, on Eighth Avenue. And there was a movie Bill had written. I can’t remember the name of it.

BK: Splendor in the Grass?

EW: There you go, man! And Bill Inge said, “There is a part in it I want you to have.” But Elia Kazan (the film’s director) didn’t like me. I missed a lot of good things because I wasn’t Kazan’s type. I don’t think he found me sexy enough.

BK: But Mike Nichols used you repeatedly, with great success, both on stage and on film. Was he in any way autocratic as a director? Did he dictate gestures and speech patterns to the actors?

EW: Not at all. You barely know he’s there. I think Mike is maybe the most complicated person I know. I think his great gift is finding the right person for the role. He’s the best casting person. He had seen me in things and put me in The Graduate, as Dustin’s mother.

BK: I’ve heard so many insulting stories about talented, established actors having to turn themselves inside out in a reading for a director. Vivian Matalon told me about some of the things that Teresa Wright, for one, was put through.

EW: It’s very demeaning sometimes, having to read. I haven’t auditioned for anything for a long time. But even when I was at the peak of my so-called career, and I would be called in to read for something, I think most of the people just wanted to see me. I think I rarely got a part as a result of a reading. The main thing is they want to see the person.

BK: Back to Mike Nichols. You played in his famous production of The Little Foxes on Broadway back in 1967.

EW: I was standing by for Annie Bancroft, as Regina. Eventually, Maggie Leighton replaced Anne Bancroft. I was supposed to play Birdie, but he cast Felicia Montealegre, Leonard Bernstein’s wife. She could not have been a nicer woman, but she wasn’t right for Birdie. But Mike had to play his cards, for God’s sake. He was part of that Bernstein/Phyllis Newman gang.

I had just finished The Graduate, and I wanted to continue with Mike, so he let me stand by for Annie and Maggie Leighton. And before we opened, Annie, when she had her period, was out. They called me and said, “Liz, you have to go on tomorrow.” I went into the theater at Lincoln Center the next day and Lillian Hellman was sitting behind Mike. And Lillian Hellman pointed at me and said, “I don’t want her!” I collapsed and left the stage. It was one of the darkest moments of my life. I went to Mike and said, “What am I going to do?” And he said, “Fuck her. Just fuck her.” I went on, and and she came back after the matinee and she said, “You’re doing the evening performance, and then after that, she came back and said, “You’re very good. I’m sorry.” I got to know her, and she invited me to her house. She was a tough lady. But Mike was very protective of me. I’ve never forgotten that.

I never really knew Annie Bancroft. I worked with her twice. When we were filming The Graduate, I said, “I wish I could have someone drive me to the studio in the morning. Someone said, “Well, Annie has a car. Le’s ask her.” She said, “No—I don’t want anybody in the car with me. I want to think about what I’m doing as I’m going to work.”

BK: I can understand that.

EW: Yes. I thought she was right. She wanted to sit and concentrate. She was a complicated person. But a talented woman.

BK: What about the classical roles you played? What sort of training did you have for them?

EW: I hadn’t done much Chekhov or Shaw… I just kind of plunged in and did them. I did three Shakespearean productions: Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well in Central Park, A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, and then Much Ado About Nothing in a wonderful production at a big amphitheater in upstate New York. All comedies. I never did any serious Shakespeare. But my God, Shakespearean comedy is wonderful.

One of my favorite experiences with a classic was Mike NIchols’ production of Uncle Vanya, in New York. I played Sonia. Nicol Williamson, Barney Hughes, Julie Christie, Lillian Gish, Cathleen Nesbitt—who was a dream.

BK: You talked about Nichols, and the freedom he gave you as an actress. What about a director who micro-managed you?

EW: Richard Foreman. He directed The Threepenny Opera. I played Mrs. Peachum. He is famous for that way of working. And in the beginning, I was thrown by it, because if was so different from what I had learned at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He would say “Take three steps and move you head this way. No, no quite so far.” But somehow, he gave us a certain freedom. For Kurt Weill, it seemed to work.

BK: Back to Uncle Vanya. How did you like working with Lillian Gish, who played the Nurse?

EW: It was so interesting to have both Cathleen Nesbitt and Lillian Gish in the cast. They were about the same age, and they had led such different lives. I became very fond, in different ways, of both of them. The stars were in the upstairs dressing area of CIrcle-in-the-Square. I felt very connected to Cathleen Nesbitt. Lillian—I don’t know … First of all, I didn’t think she was that good in the part of the Nurse. But she was incredibly secure. I can even remember the way they closed their dressing room doors; Nesbitt closed it gently. Not Lillian. I would hear her march down the hall, almost angrily. And once, I was in a taxi with her, and a cab in front of us got in our way and Lillian stuck her head out of the window and said to the driver of the other cab, “THIS IS MY TOWN, TOO!” This is my town, too? I’ve never forgotten that.

BK: But that was nothing compared with what you endured appearing with Elaine Stritch in Gerald Gutierrez’s 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance.

EW: I don’t ever remember one person in a play causing such problems for the other actors. Rosemary Harris is such a fine actress. And my good friend George Grizzard was in it, and Mary Beth Hurt. And Stritch needs to dominate. When the rest of us were working, having our scenes, she would be on the floor, moving around, tearing papers, coughing, or doing something to divert attention (away from the rest of us). And there was nothing Gerry Gutierrez could do. It ended up being directed, really, by Edward Albee. The play was produced by Lincoln Center Theater, and Stritch and I shared a limousine, because I live on East Fifty-seventh, and she was at the Regency. The driver would start out and stop at the light, and Stritch would say, “YOU COULD MAKE THE LIGHT IF YOU WANTED TO—GODDAMMIT—YOU COULD MAKE THE LIGHT!” And then he would get nervous and he wouldn’t make it, and she would say, “OH, GODDAMMIT! MAKE THE LIGHT!” This would go on and on, and the guy would collapse on his wheel by the time she got out to go to her apartment suite. I said to people that we hardly ever got the same drive twice!

Further excerpts from my conversations with Liz will follow in the months ahead.

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  1. I’ve loved Edward Albee’s plays since I saw the film of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF in high school. I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided at the last minute to get a ticket for the 1996 revival of A DELICATE BALANCE. A friend had been raving about it so much. I had to see it. I went alone and was stunned by the amount of talent that was in that production–most of all Elaine Stritch. But through the years, Strich’s unprofessional behavior to her colleagues became so obvious. I remember watching the backstage film documentary of the making of FOLLIES at Lincoln Center that starred among others, Stritch, Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Lee Remick, Mandy Patinkin, etc. Stritch upstaged everyone with her bratty, “look at me” behavior. I developed such a disgust towards her that I couldn’t get passed and no longer went to see her in anything. That kind of passive-aggressive behavior showed how insecure she was. Cook admired her and in her memoirs never said anything unkind about her. Some people admired her brazen and pathetic behavior. I couldn’t overlook it.

    But back to Elizabeth Wilson. I didn’t see her stage work very much. But she was always a fine actress on film, and when I saw her, on stage. I hope to read more of your interviews with her. She is certainly a generous and astute colleague.

  2. More, please — and be quick about it !!

  3. What AMAZING stories she had! It sure as hell wasn’t all pretty. She was very forthright. Sounds like she was one helluva dame.

  4. Indeed she was. I think about her every day. More to come!

  5. BK — This brought back memories of that afternoon I drove you to Branford and you introduced me to Elizabeth. What joy it was watching and listening to the two of you talk and laugh and dish and remember. How I wish I had a tape of that afternoon–I’d transcribe it, cast it, and put it on the stage.

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