Thursday, July 15, 2010

Leaning Towards Eileen

Not too long ago, I did a post on three actresses (Louise Latham, Joyce Van Patten and Diana Muldaur) who were ladies I initially either disliked or tended to avoid, but who later became favorites of mine. I mentioned then that there was one other flip-flopper that was so dramatic I would devote one post entirely to her, so here it is! The lady in question is the much-honored and respected stage, film and TV actress, Miss Eileen Heckart.

To provide a little back-story, anyone who knows me knows that The Poseidon Adventure is a film that changed my life. Viewing it on TV as a child, it was the first motion picture I can ever remember making me cry (most kids blubber over Bambi or Dumbo, of course I had to be different!) I was so invested in it, at the tender age of 8, and so disturbed by the unfairness of the events of the movie that I became forever fascinated by it.

When I got older, I read that Shelley Winters had won The Golden Globe for her role of Belle Rosen and had been nominated for an Oscar as well, but had somehow LOST! It was inconceivable to my pea brain that anyone could have given a better performance than her and I developed an unnatural and unfounded resentment towards the person who took home the statuette, Heckart for Butterflies Are Free. I never wanted to see that movie and never wanted to watch Heckart in anything.

I’m a fairly dramatic person now (shut up!), but in my teens and early 20s I was ridiculous. I also held these irrational grudges against other performers who won Oscars over my favorites (as if it was their fault!) such as Cher (who won over Glenn Close for Fatal Attraction) and Jodie Foster (who won over Close for Dangerous Liaisons.) All I can say is that I had a very cut and dried attitude, for some reason, that my choice had to be the only choice. I like to think I’ve progressed a little since then! (Probably damn little! LOL)

Miss Heckart was born Anna Eileen Heckart in Columbus, OH in 1919. The child of an alcoholic mother, separated from her father and eventually married to five different men, Eileen suffered an uneven, sometimes nightmarish existence. When she wasn’t being shuttled off to a grandmother who was physically abusive, she and her mother would spend weekend days at the local movie theaters, usually taking in two double features per day (a total of eight films in two days!) Joan Crawford was her favorite movie star. This escape nurtured her already fertile imagination.

Not allowing her hapless upbringing to dissuade her from making a success of herself, she was graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in English in 1942. Acting, however, was what she had her heart set on. A Girl Scout Camp skit when she was 8 years old had lit the fire in her. Having done some theatre while at OSU, she proceeded to New York City following graduation and worked in Off-Broadway as an understudy when not playing in parts of her own.

Married in 1943 to a man named Jack Yankee, she continued to eke out a living in theatre while he was in the Navy during WWII. (Their successful marriage would last until his death 53 years later!) By 1945, she had established herself as a solid performer and eventually worked on The Voice of the Turtle, a hit play, as an understudy, and even as an assistant stage manager, until becoming a replacement cast member. She learned a valuable lesson in humanity from the role’s predecessor Audrey Christie who kindly arranged to “have a toothache” one day so that Heckart could go on. In a matter of paying it forward, Heckart, throughout her incredibly lengthy and successful career, generally made it a habit to miss a performance at least once in order to let an understudy have their turn at bat.

Heckart went on to perform in more than twenty Broadway shows, the last one being The Cemetery Club in 1990. Though nominated several times for a Tony Award, she (amazingly enough) never won one and was finally granted an Honorary Tony in 2000 (and even then she was still working hard Off-Broadway, and earning Drama Desk and Obie awards for her trouble, as an Alzheimer’s patient in a play called The Waverly Gallery.)

As the 50s dawned and television came into vogue, Heckart became a valuable player in the many, many anthology series that dominated the airwaves at the time. Performing roles in dramatic playlets that were done live, all the while hoping to hit her marks, not tumble over cables and find her lighting, she, like so many other pioneers of the time, got a trial by fire. She was a frequent performer on Suspense and The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. On the latter series, she had the good fortune to play in The Trip to Bountiful in 1953 opposite Lillian Gish.

In 1956, she made her film debut in Miracle in the Rain, a sentimental weepie about a doomed WWII love affair between Van Johnson and Jane Wyman. Heckart essayed the role of Wyman’s coworker and friend and was the epitome of a supporting player, making Wyman seem better through her own commitment and conviction. Heckart being a woman with an unusual (some have described it as horsey!) face, she would find herself often playing sidekicks, friends, professionals and other character roles rather than leading parts.

Next up for her was a role as Paul Newman’s mother in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the story of boxer Rocky Graziano. Newman inherited the career-building role after James Dean’s untimely death and was only six years younger than the actress playing his mom! The two had previously worked together in the Broadway production of Picnic, in which she originated the role of lonely schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney.

Great things were around the corner for Heckart, though there would also be some disappointments. She had developed a rewarding collaboration with playwright William Inge (of Picnic, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs fame.) When Bus Stop was made into a film with Marilyn Monroe, a role not in the play was created just for her. Vera, a waitress who befriended Monroe, offered her the chance to appear in color and work in an ensemble with some very good actors. She was alternately fond of and disappointed in Monroe, however. Though she was capable of great things in front of the camera and was an expert in handling fans, she was often unprepared and could be exasperating to work with.
The greater opportunity came in her fourth film of 1956 when she was allowed to reprise her Broadway role in the film version of The Bad Seed. Here, she played the unfortunately named Hortense Daigle, a desperate, crushed woman whose bright, caring, young son has been brutally murdered, possibly by the outwardly darling-inwardly nasty little Patty McCormick.

If a person is going to be relegated to supporting roles, she could do far worse than this tour-de-force part in which the bereaved, depressed, despondent Mrs. Daigle confronts her son’s alleged attacker along with her sophisticated, disbelieving and more conventionally attractive mother, played by Nancy Kelly. The smallish role offered a wide spectrum of emotions and reactions and she rose to the occasion skillfully.

Heckart had made a great splash with the part on stage, but eventually had to leave the show because the dark cloud of depression and horror was getting to her and she had begun to visualize her own two-year old son’s face during the dialogue. For the film, she only had to reprise the material enough times to capture it on celluloid. An Oscar nomination came her way for her arresting performance, though she was nominated alongside McCormick and the votes may have been split, allowing (my beloved) Dorothy Malone to take home the statuette for Written on the Wind. Heckart did win the Golden Globe that year, however. When she sent a congratulatory telegram to Malone, Malone responded with a massive tub of begonias in appreciation of Heckart's sportsmanship.

Her next film came in 1958, in which she played the friendly, lively, fun, but pragmatic neighbor of a dejected Shirley Booth in Hot Spell. Booth’s character was married to a loutish Anthony Quinn and had three children with varying issues. One key scene had Heckart encouraging Booth to learn how to relax by drinking and smoking! Though this wasn’t a William Inge product, it seemed like one to many viewers and Eileen’s association with his work didn’t diminish this.

She had two disappointments when it came to film versions of Inge’s plays. Picnic, which had been a great success for her was filmed with the far more known commodity of Rosalind Russell in the spinster role of Rosemary. Russell cheated herself out of an Oscar nomination and possible win when she refused to allow herself to be counted as a supporting player (she had “prestige billing” in the credits, coming after the leads.) (Heckart is shown here with Ralph Meeker in the stage version.) Then when The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was made, Eileen was pregnant with one of her three sons and unable to take on the role, so it went to Eve Arden.

In 1960, George Cukor used her in his western Heller in Pink Tights. An unusual (to say the least) approach, it focused on an acting troupe featuring a blonde Sophia Loren along with Anthony Quinn and Margaret O’Brian. Cukor felt that all western films lacked color and was determined to infuse as much as he could into this one, the result being a film that as many people loathe as like it. In any case, Heckart managed to steal a few scenes in her small part.

Now balancing stage work with TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Play of the Week and Dr. Kildare, among others, she would occasionally land a film role as a pal of the star. Debbie Reynolds played an overworked and exhausted actress in My Six Loves who drags Eileen to the country to help her rest only to find half a dozen young tots in residence!

Popular TV series like Ben Casey, The Defenders, The Fugitive and Gunsmoke gave audiences a chance to see her shine. In the latter during one episode, she played a woman short on funds who takes a job as an older saloon “girl” at Miss Kitty’s only to create a stir in Dodge City. Forever possessing a throaty voice gained from a childhood bout with whooping cough and a glint in her eye that indicated that she was once step ahead of you, she could always be counted on to deliver knowing, expert performances.

1967’s Up the Down Staircase documented the highs and lows of a Bronx schoolteacher played by quirky Sandy Dennis. Heckart was on hand as a fellow teacher whose cheerful attitude attempts to disguise the fact that she has some potentially inappropriate feelings for one of her students. A sort of bookend of To Sir With Love, it was filmed in a real (and gritty, possibly dangerous) city school. The following year, she had a supporting part in the serial-strangler film No Way to Treat a Lady as investigator George Segal’s smothering Jewish mom.

Heckart had been playing in Butterflies Are Free on Broadway and in London’s West End in yet another plum role. The romantic comedy about a young, sheltered blind man and his wacky, free-thinking neighbor had been a hit and was affording great opportunities for actresses of a certain age to show up in Act II as the boy’s controlling mother. Heckart’s cast included Kier Dullea as the son and Blythe Danner as the neighbor. (A later cast put Gloria Swanson in as the mother along with Pamela Bellwood as the neighbor and I personally would like to know how Bellwood was able to project her whisper of a voice on a theatre stage!)

The 1972 film adaptation starred Edward Albert and Goldie Hawn. Following the stage outline rather closely, it stuck mainly to the apartment set, but sometimes opened up to local shops and restaurants in an attempt to avoid claustrophobia. Albert’s newfound independence and blossoming sex life is put in severe jeopardy when Mama Heckart drops in around the halfway point. Her forced grin temporarily sheathed a set of protective fangs.
This is the role for which she won the Oscar and one that I avoided watching for a long time. I really had to admit upon viewing it that she was nothing short of marvelous. It’s an actress-proof part in which anyone with a modicum of talent can stroll in and drop the snarky lines like firebombs, winning over the viewer (to a point), but she really radiated a secure, multifaceted grip on the role and brought a terrific dimension to the part. I had no choice but to acknowledge that she was wonderful. Shelley had to have been taken aback at the Oscars that year because she’d already taken home the Globe. Heckart hadn’t even been nominated for one of those!! It was a particularly weak year for that category, so she must have felt like a lock.

In any case, Winters already had two statuettes to her credit (which also may have worked against her) and Heckart had demonstrated that she was the definition of a good supporting actress and had been doing so for more than fifteen years.

That same year, she played a crusty, ill-tempered housekeeper in a TV thriller called The Victim. Elizabeth Montgomery starred as her employer who is terrorized by a mad killer during a storm and power outage. I will ask it again, as I seem to every other day, why can we never get to see these things?!

In 1974, she played Gene Hackman’s uneducated and put-upon mother in the film Zandy’s Bride. She was only eleven years his senior. Two years later, she had a cameo in the horror flick Burnt Offerings, as Burgess Meredith’s sister, the two being co-owners of a large, creepy house being rented by Oliver Reed and Karen Black. Bette Davis, a friend of Heckart’s was in the film as well, but they shared no scenes. Heckart once tried to quit smoking and lasted only until she met the fire-breathing Davis for dinner one night.

Around this time, Heckart made several guest appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Mary’s successful and outspoken Aunt Flo. A few years later, she would be the sole character from TMTMS, other than the title one played by Ed Asner, to reappear on Lou Grant. She also portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt in Backstairs at the White House and in F.D.R.: The Last Year. These two characters alone netted her a total of four Emmy nominations between them. Oddly enough, she also played Aunt Lillian on the Moore Show spin-off Rhoda!

A couple of short-lived regular series came her way in the mid-80s. First was a medical drama called Trauma Center in which she played a capable nurse. Then there was the ghastly Partners in Crime, a private eye show starring Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson, made on the cheap and with terrible scripts. Heckart, despite considerable success in the medium, never really cared for television. She had sawdust in her veins and preferred the stage, feeling TV was all about instant acting and close-ups. It was primarily a money-generating medium for her.

Clint Eastwood used her as the bartender of a place frequented by marines in Heartbreak Ridge in 1986. She even appeared on the daytime soap One Life to Live long enough to score another Emmy nod. When Mary Tyler Moore made one of her frequent (and always unsuccessful) tries for another series, Annie McGuire, she enlisted Heckart for a supporting part, but the show was done within ten episodes.

By now a lovably acidic addition to any TV show or movie, she was placed as the matriarch of another sitcom, The 5 Mrs. Buchanans, a show about four sisters-in-law who can never get out from under the thumb of their cranky, domineering mother-in-law. The show almost became a hit, lasting seventeen episodes, but ultimately failed to gather enough viewers. For my money, the cast was too disjointed in ages and types for it to really click.

From here, she played Diane Keaton’s mom in the very successful The First Wives Club and had limited runs on the series Murder One and Cybill (here portraying the mother of Christine Baranski’s character.)

Succumbing to lung cancer on the last day of 2001, Heckart left behind a staggering body of theatre work and a lot of interesting TV and film portrayals as well. Unfortunately for her, she lived to see and work in an era when theatre audiences began to chatter during performances and (for the love of God) bring cell phones inside and this disappointed her. She also noted the prohibitive ticket prices of professional theatre. However, she maintained that everything runs in cycles and that, perhaps, things wouldn’t be this way forever.

A lesser-known book (that I discovered only when researching this post!) about her life and career, written by one of her sons, is called Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up with Eileen Heckart. No less harsh an observer than Marlene Dietrich wrote about her in 1962, “If she were acting in Europe, she would be Queen of the Boards. In America, the typcasting barbarism deprives the world of her true talents.” I’m so glad I allowed myself to grow out of a petty snit about Eileen Heckart and let myself enjoy the many great things she did during her considerable career. Her particular brand of gravelly, gleaming, glinting grump is in short supply these days.

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