Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Candidate for "Saint"hood

The name Eva Marie Saint conjures up a variety of images for different people. Is she the petite blonde thing who stood by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront? Is she the cool, seductive Eve Kendall from North by Northwest? Or is she the caring, weary wife in a collection of sentimental TV-movies? She is all this and more, making an impression on the minds of TV viewers and moviegoers over the course of a nearly sixty-five year career. Despite this, she has also sort of flown under the radar with regards to her private life, always seeming to be there, but never in a controversial or negative way. Having seen her at last year's Oscar ceremony, chicly attired in a smart white suit and helping to present an award, you may be surprised to know that she is getting close to ninety years old! All that clean-living has paid off. She might not have taken a lot of chances in her personal life, but in her acting she could be quite versatile and explorative. Mostly, though, she was just a welcome presence in any project. Let's take a look now at the career of Miss Eva Marie Saint.

Born just that on Independence Day of 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, she was named after her own mother, also Eva Marie Saint. Her father's name was John Saint. By the time of her schooling, the family lived in Delmar, New York where the petite, blonde Saint developed an interest in performing. After high school graduation, she went away to Bowling Green University in Ohio, where she majored in acting. The midwestern life she experienced there would come in handy with many of her later roles. Always a conscientious person with a desire to become involved, she also served as the student government secretary while there.

Upon graduation from BGU, she departed to New York City, The Big Apple, where she sought parts on stage and trained as a Method actress while also working at the NBC studios as a page. Television had been around in commercial form for several years, but was still in its infancy when she was at the studio in 1946. She began working in various aspects of television, be it in network specials or even advertising, where she occasionally sang jingles with other young ladies. She figured in two Life magazine articles regarding TV, one in 1947 and another in 1949.

When Milton Berle took over permanent hosting duties of Texaco Star Theatre late in 1948, that show's popularity helped promote the sales of televisions. By 1949, Saint was regularly performing on live TV, whether on dramatic anthologies like Actor's Studio or creepy teleplays featured on Suspense or Lights Out. As the '50s dawned, television became more and more a part of American's lives, with I Love Lucy premiering in 1951 and becoming a smash success. Most film actors under contract to a studio were forbidden to do TV, thus it became the domain of many stage actors and also a coterie of other performers adept at handling the rigorous demands of the often-live presentations. A lithe, elegant girl, her services were often called upon.

While working in television, she met a young director named Jeffrey Hayden with whom she hit it off marvelously. The two began dating and eventually wed in 1951. In complete contrast with most show business marriages, they remained successful, devoted and very happy together. They are a couple to this day, more than six decades later, and often appear in public with one another at industry functions.

Some of the other people she worked alongside in these early days include Rod Steiger, Kim Hunter, Tom Ewell, Ruth Chatterton, Jack Palance, John Kerr, Ruth Warrick, Ralph Meeker and an eleven year-old Brandon De Wilde. 1953 was, in particular, a banner year for not only did she appear in a plethora of TV programs, but one in particular led to a stint on Broadway. Unlike later, when a hit Broadway play or musical might be adapted for a TV special, the production of A Trip to Bountiful which she did on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, served as the launching point of a run of the play on The Great White Way. What's more, she was in the exceptional company of Miss Lillian Gish in the lead role and Eileen Heckart as costar. She and Gish proceeded to the Broadway production while Heckart's role wound up being played by Jo Van Fleet due to Heckart's commitment to Picnic, which was still running strong. Van Fleet won a Tony Award in the part. (Another appearance on Philco-Goodyear netted her an Emmy nomination, but she lost to Judith Anderson in Macbeth.)

After the show closed, Saint continued to work in many television roles, but also auditioned for the great director Elia Kazan who was preparing a gritty film called On the Waterfront. The story concerned a dock worker whose actions unwittingly lead to a murder, causing him to question his loyalty to the coworkers and associates who committed it. The part of the victim's sister, angry, confused and desperate, called for an actress who possessed a range of emotions and yet could convincingly convey delicacy and urban realism. Saint narrowly beat out Elizabeth Montgomery (later to be famous for Bewitched) for the role, thanks to the slightly more refined persona of the other actress. (Montgomery would make her debut the following year in Otto Preminger's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.)

The star of On the Waterfront was no less than Marlon Brando and Kazan corralled a stunning performance out of him. There was also the presence of three other greats (Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger) among the rest of the utterly solid cast. All five of the aforementioned were nominated for Academy Awards that season. The film's producer had opted to enter Saint into the Supporting Actress category in order to avoid pitting the film newcomer against the juggernaut that was Judy Garland in A Star is Born. The plan worked and on the big night, Saint's name was called (as was Brando's.) The three other Waterfront gentlemen, all nominated in the Supporting Actor category, saw Edmond O'Brien take the statuette for The Barefoot Contessa. As it turned out, Garland didn't win Best Actress after all, Grace Kelly having slipped in to win for The Country Girl in an upset.

The night of the ceremony, the ebullient Saint was quite pregnant with her and Jeffrey's first child. She remarked at the podium that she might give birth right then and there! In fact, a mere two days later, Darrell Hayden was born. Brando also won the BAFTA that year and Miss Saint was nominated as Most Promising Newcomer. The award went instead to David Kossoff, who did maintain a long career of character parts, but certainly never attained the same level of stardom as Saint.

Following the birth of her son, Saint worked less frequently on TV, but did make some memorable appearances here and there. One was in a musical adaptation of the Thornton Wilder play Our Town as part of the series Producer's Showcase. Here, she portrayed Emily to Paul Newman's George, all narrated by Frank Sinatra! (This is the source of his hit song “Love and Marriage,” later to used in the credits for that lovely TV show Married with Children...) Again, she was Emmy-nominated, but the award went to Mary Martin in Peter Pan.
Her work in the medium of TV had earned her the nickname “The Helen Hayes of Television,” but once she returned to film-making in 1956, she wouldn't perform there again, but for two brief exceptions, for close to two decades! Her return to the cinema could not have been more far removed from the dour and downbeat On the Waterfront. She was instead playing the love interest of Bob Hope in 1956's That Certain Feeling! Based on a Broadway comedy called King of Hearts, she was a divorcee who has renamed and refashioned herself apart from her former life as the wife of Hope, a cartoonist. She now serves as secretary to more famous comic strip artist George Sanders and is preparing to marry him. When Sanders' famous strip begins to flounder somewhat, she helps arrange for Hope to come and give it a lift, only this arouses some of her old feelings for Hope.
The play had starred Jackie Cooper in Hope's role and Cloris Leachman in Saint's, thus this was quite a departure from the more anchored and down-to-earth roles she had been playing beforehand. It was back to that arena in 1957 when she starred in another stage-to-screen adaptation, this time A Hatful of Rain. In it, she played the pregnant wife of a Korean War veteran who, thanks to injuries suffered there, has become a morphine addict. Things get even stickier when the husband's brother and father movie into the couple's apartment, bringing various issues and emotions with them.

Ben Gazzara and Shelley Winters had originated the roles of the man and wife on Broadway, but here it was Don Murray and Miss Saint. Tony Franciosa reprised his Tony-nominated role of the brother and Lloyd Nolan (shown here with Murray and Saint) replaced Frank Silvera as the dad. Frank Sinatra's rather blistering The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955 had paved the way for more realistic and frank depictions of drug use on the screen, allowing A Hatful of Rain to be made with a lot of its original content intact. Saint and Franciosa gleaned the lion's share of the award attention for it, with both of them nominated for Golden Globes (losing to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve and Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai.) She also got a BAFTA nomination (losing to Simone Signoret for The Crucible) while he was Oscar nominated (losing to Guinness again.)

Her next project was a rather momentous one in several ways. For starters, it was the final important movie to be made at MGM under then-chief Dore Schary's reign and he wanted to go out with a bang. In fact, after all was said and done, it was the most expensive film ever made up to that time! It also became notorious because the leading man was severely injured in a car crash during filming and audience members ghoulishly tried to spot the scenes which were filmed before and after the disfiguring accident. The widescreen, vividly-colored extravaganza was called Raintree County.

The stars were Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, with Saint at their side. Taking place before, during and after the American Civil War, it concerned Taylor winning Montgomery away from Saint (an almost negative opposite of Taylor in nearly every way) only to later suffer emotional turmoil that paves the way for Saint to reclaim him as her own. This scenario between the two ladies would be repeated again less than a decade later.

After interiors had been shot in California, the whole company transported to Danville, Kentucky for a wealth of location shots. It was in between these two filming schedules that Clift had a near-death car accident on the way home from Taylor's house and suffered scarring and paralysis in his face (and this was only after Taylor had personally saved him from suffocation by reaching into his blood-soaked mouth and pulling some teeth out of his throat with her fingers!) Also in the cast were Rod Taylor, Agnes Moorehead and Lee Marvin. After the film's completion, Saint became pregnant again.

Jeffrey's and her second child, daughter Laurette, was born in July of 1958. Saint had played a variety of types on the big and small screen, with perhaps a penchant for emotionally strained wives, but occasionally broke free in order to play someone with more elegance or a lighter countenance. Someone had his eye on her, though, and decided that she could take her potential for glamour and sophistication to an entirely new level. The man was Alfred Hitchcock and now without his favorite icy hot blonde, Grace Kelly, he felt that with a few tweaks here and there he could make good use out of Saint. He did.
North by Northwest was conceived as the “Ultimate Hitchcock Film” by scriptwriter Ernest Lehman. All of the director's trademarks would be present in one sweeping adventure that pitted leading man Cary Grant against the authorities as well as a passel of enemy spies, led by James Mason and his right-hand man Martin Landau. Grant would be mistakenly accused of murder and chased across the continent until he reached Mount Rushmore where a nail-biting finale had him crawling across the faces of the past U.S. Presidents.
Along for most of the ride was Eva Marie Saint, chosen by Hitchcock over the studio's choice of Cyd Charisse, and made over the way he wanted. He had her long hair cut into a chic new style, had it colored from the pale platinum she usually sported to a softer champagne hue and personally selected all of her wardrobe items from Bergdorf Goodman department store. (At MGM for the first and only time, his frequent collaborator, costumer Edith Head, was not a part of this production.) The result was an all-new, more sophisticated Eva Marie Saint. The director told her he wanted no more of her "sink-to-sink" acting performances, citing that audiences wanted escape rather than reality, but she made no such assurances to him.

I've written about it here long ago, but Hitch and I share a fascination with the gussying up of actresses who are then systematically distressed. It's one of the reasons I am so “1970s disaster movie”-obsessed (and part of why I couldn't give a shit less about most of the 1990s disaster flicks that were part of that brief resurgence. Most of the participants in them looked as if they were on their way home from Kroger.) It started for Hitchcock about the time of Madeline Carroll in The 39 Steps and had its zenith in The Birds, in which Tippi Hedren went from a fur, glove and scarf-clad goddess to a completely tattered mess by the end of the movie. Miss Saint goes through a version of this in Northwest, about to board a plane in a smart suit with a wrap and gloves only to wind up bedraggled and torn on the mountainside.

Her character was one of cool, seductive mystery, a classic Hitchcock blonde whose loyalties and actions weren't always entirely clear at first. So sultry (for that time) was the dialogue that one of her lines had to be re-dubbed from “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love...” Unlike a lot of films in which my favorite part comes rather early and then there's the rest of the movie to get through, this one has that fun chase sequence at the climax (I can still hear Eva screaming, “I can't make it!”) and then a quick-cut surprise ending, complete with cheeky phallic imagery. The film was a hit, earning back more than three times its cost, and is heralded now as a classic example of suspense and mystery.

Saint next went to work for another director of strong personality, Otto Preminger. This film, one of epic scope, subject matter and length, would also reunite her with one of her old early television costars, Mr. Paul Newman. The movie was Exodus, all about the founding of Israel and the momentous battle for the sacred piece of land between those who wanted it. Newman played an Israeli nationalist while Saint played a widowed American nurse whose interest in a young female refugee causes her to become caught up in the action.

The cast included the distinguished scene-stealer Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb (another old costar, from On the Waterfront), Jill Haworth, Alexandra Stewart (shown here with Newman and Saint) and a trio of hunks: Sal Mineo, John Derek and George Maharis. (Upon a recent viewing, I couldn't help but be tickled when Newman, in describing the layout of a prison he intends to break, mentions a nearby Turkish bathhouse and Maharis beams happily, exclaiming with great fervor, “I know it!”) Saint gives a somewhat detached performance for a lot of the movie, perhaps in line with her dejected character's mind set, but not always scintillating to behold. Thankfully, there are several instances where she comes alive. The film is set in 1948, but her Rudi Gernreich costumes are strictly 1960, the year of the movie's release.

She was top-billed in her next film, 1962's All Fall Down, directed by John Frankenheimer. It was a family drama in which she played a single woman who falls for a brash, no-good, younger man played by Warren Beatty. His parents are played by Karl Malden (of On the Waterfront, of course) and Angela Lansbury. Beatty's little brother is portrayed by yet another former costar of Saint's Brandon De Wilde, by now about twenty.

With Malden's character drunk much of the time and Lansbury's smothering and obsessive, the family is dysfunctional to say the least. De Wilde, who has his own level of affection for Saint, must watch as Beatty's roller coaster romance with her does her in. In real life, Beatty (whose third movie this was) drove most of the company crazy with his mannered posturing and forced, imitative performance. Allegedly, the crew deliberately left him in a Key West jail cell for the night after location filming in order to get him back for the frustrations he had caused them! In any case, the film was not a success upon release, but has gained a better following in more recent years.

In 1964, Saint made two television acting appearances for the first time in years. One was as a favor to the series' host. She filmed on episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, an anthology series, understandably one that leaned towards gently comedic stories versus high drama. The other was an all-star special called Carol for Another Christmas. This all-star event was an updating (by Rod Serling) of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, set in the business world with an eye to promoting the United Nations. She played a WAVE (a U.S. Navy nurse) attending to young girls harmed in the bombing of Hiroshima. The cast included Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw and many others.

Continuing her association with solid directors, she went to work in 1965 for George Seaton in 36 Hours. James Garner starred as a U.S. Army major during WWII who is kidnapped and placed into an elaborate scheme in which he is made to believe that it is years later and the war is over. This is to coerce him into revealing secrets about the impending D-Day invasion. Saint played his nurse and, ostensibly his wife, who is in on the scheme against her will, having been emotionally destroyed by a stint in a concentration camp. Her costar from Raintree County, Rod Taylor, was on board as well as a chief member of the enemy camp. As a German partially raised in America, his character is able to convince Garner that what he's experiencing is real.

That same year, she worked for Vincente Minnelli in the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor romance The Sandpiper. As had been the case in their real lives, the romance between Burton and Taylor in this film centered on adultery, for Burton's character (an Episcopal minister!) was already married to Miss Saint. Just was Taylor had been able to snatch away her man in Raintree County, she did so here as well, but, just as in the earlier film, there was no guarantee that he would be hers forever. Directed with Minnelli's usual attention to color (and set amid the staggering scenery of Big Sur), it was another hit.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming was her next movie in 1966. The bombastic Cold War comedy had Soviet submarine captain Alan Arkin landing on a New England island where Carl Reiner and Saint live with their children and other neighbors. The cast also included Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford and John Phillip Law. The loud farce was not intended to add to tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., but rather to break down some of the tension, which it did to some extent. The great Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk was allegedly moved to tears by the finale of the film. The movie rode a wave of Cold War interest, becoming a big hit and even snagging Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Arkin), Editing and Writing. (The winners were, in order, A Man for All Seasons, Paul Scofield for the same, Robert Bolt for the same and Grand Prix.)

Speaking of Grand Prix, that was Saint's other movie of 1966, directed again by John Frankenheimer. The race car drama centered on four drivers and their off-the-track trials. James Garner starred, but this time Saint didn't play his love interest. She was instead the lover of Frenchman Yves Montand, a married, aging driver on the circuit. Her character was a fashion magazine editor, touring along with the racers. The key element, though, was the driving, which Frankenheimer filmed with a reality and immediacy that was altogether new from the way such things had previously been handled in the movies. The film won Oscars for its Sound and Sound Effects in addition to the aforementioned one for Editing.)

In 1968, director Robert Mulligan re-teamed with his To Kill a Mockingbird star Gregory Peck for The Stalking Moon, a western about the rescue of a white woman and her half-breed son from Apache Indians. Unfortunately, the boy's father, an Apache warrior, isn't willing to give them up, thus a lot of killing ensues. Saint played, of course, the newly-freed woman. The warrior is hardly seen at all until the finale, but leaves a trail of bloodshed as he zeroes in on the trio, with tension building all along.

Next, in 1970, Saint played the wife of artist and ad executive George Segal in Loving, a trim film which has her suffering through Segal's business manipulations and a romantic dalliance with another woman. By now on an every-other-year sort of routine with movie-making (and nearing fifty years of age), she next worked in 1972's Cancel My Reservation, a negligible Bob Hope movie, but one done surely out of loyalty to her longtime friend. He played a stressed-out TV host who takes a vacation to Arizona and is accused of murder, with Saint playing his wife and other cast members including Ralph Bellamy, Forrest Tucker, Keenan Wynn and Anne Archer, (pictured here) then at the dawn of her career. The ill-conceived flop of a movie ended up "cancelling" Hope's further starring roles in the cinema and also sent Saint back to the small screen for more than a dozen years!

Saint returned briefly to the Broadway stage in late 1972 with The Lincoln Mask, playing Mary Todd Lincoln to Fred Gwynne's Abe. Beginning in 1974, Saint became a frequent television performer again, most often in made-for-TV movies and miniseries. She was The First Woman President in 1974, then took part in a western series pilot The McCahans, playing the matriarch of a frontier family, which in turn spawned a three-part miniseries titled How the West Was Won. (This was a rather rare occasion in which she worked on one of husband Hayden's many projects.) That miniseries inspired a resultant series by the same name, but she didn't appear in that, her character having died. She was nominated, however, for an Emmy for her work in the miniseries, but the statuette went to Patty Duke for Captains and the Kings. She's shown here with the star of all three incarnations of the program, James Arness.

1978 brought a special called Taxi!!! (not to be confused with the sitcom Taxi) in which she and Martin Sheen costarred together (and alone.) Sort of a "Cabbing Miss Daisy." LOL Yet again she was Emmy nominated (as was Sheen), but she lost to Joanne Woodward for See How She Runs (and Sheen's category was won by Fred Astaire in A Family Upside Down.) It seemed as if 'The Helen Hayes of Television” was never going to receive the medium's highest honor!

Plenty more work was to come, though. Some of it was tripe (like The Curse of King Tut's Tomb), while others were more memorable such as A Christmas to Remember (with Jason Robards and Joanne Woodward), When Hell Was in Session (with Hal Holbrook as her POW husband) or The Best Little Girl in the World, a 1981 movie examining anorexia, with Charles Durning and an impressive Jennifer Jason Leigh. She also played Melissa Gibert's mother in that Splendor in the Grass remake and was part of the all-star line up of Malibu, a soapy miniseries with a tidal wave of names including James Coburn, Susan Dey, Chad Everett, George Hamilton, Anthony Newley, Kim Novak, Troy Donahue and others (DVD please!)

1986 proved to be a rather pivotal year in that not only did she play George C. Scott's wife in The Last Days of Patton, begin a recurring part as Cybill Shepherd's mother on Moonlighting and star in the miniseries A Year in the Life opposite Richard Kiley, but she also returned to the big screen. Kiley had played her husband years before in The McCahans and How the West Was Won and the interest in A Year in the Life led to a regular series (but, again, her character had died, so she was not a part of its brief run.)
Her hiatus from the cinema was broken when she signed on to play Jackie Gleason's put-upon wife in the Garry Marshall film Nothing in Common. In it, she and Gleason were the parents of (then still up and coming) Tom Hanks, who played an advertising executive whose success happens to coincide with the break-up of his parents' long marriage. Things get even more complicated when Gleason lands in the hospital.

She went on to make a total of six appearances on Moonlighting, worked in the nostalgic telefilms Breaking Home Ties and I'll Be Home for Christmas and joined Burt Lancaster in 1990's Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (about Leon Klinghofer, a wheelchair-bound passenger of a cruise ship who was killed by terrorists. This was the second round for this story, coming a year after The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which had featured Karl Malden and Lee Grant as the Klinghofers!)

1990 was also the year of People Like Us, a glitzy, two-part miniseries that had Connie Sellecca entering the world of the very rich, a place where Saint basically ruled the roost. Ben Gazzara, Dennis Farina, Gary Frank, Teri Polo and Jean Simmons were amongst the cast. Saint played a royal bitch who showed absolutely no compassion or sympathy towards her son Frank, a young man with AIDS. Her terrific performance FINALLY won her an Emmy, close to four decades after her first nomination. Sadly, this, like 95% of all vintage TV movies and miniseries, is lost in a swirl of nothingness while we continue to endure reruns of other ghastly programs.

From this point, her career consisted of supporting appearances in things like Palomino (based on a Danielle Steel novel, but at least allowing her to reunite with Rod Taylor once more), Kiss of a Killer (a Lifetime movie in which she played the overbearing, damaging mother of Annette O'Toole), My Antonia (a rural drama with Jason Robards and Neil Patrick Harris) and the 1996 TV-miniseries Titanic, in which she played a haughty first class passenger opposite a then-practically unknown Catherine Zeta Jones.
In 1997, she got to work with Richard Kiley once more in Time to Say Goodbye?, a film examining an Alzheimer's patients wish to die rather than deteriorate from the disease. (Sadly, Kiley would be gone in real life within two years from a bone marrow disease.) As Miss Saint entered her mid-seventies, the movies began calling again (perhaps because even though she may have have the occasional tidbit of work done, she was one of the few actresses of her generation – and younger - to not saw up her face in an attempt to look young?) She played Kim Basinger's mother in the 2000 flop I Dreamed of Africa, portrayed one of several townspeople affected by a good-natured dog in 2005's Because of Winn-Dixie, played Sam Shepard's concerned mom in Don't Come Knocking (also 2005, see above center with Tim Roth) and then enacted the role of Martha "Ma" Kent, the woman who discovered a child from another planet and raised him as her own only to watch him become a superhero in Superman Returns (2006.) Thanks to the “magic” of computerized imagery, her old costar from On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando, appeared in the film as well (not receiving anywhere near the famous fee he was granted for Superman in 1978, as this time he was deceased!!)

In 2011, at the age of eighty-six, she looked positively dazzling as she helped present Penelope Cruz the Oscar for best Supporting Actress along with Tilda Swinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelica Huston and Goldie Hawn. (I must say I truly love this method of presenting the acting honors and hope it continues!) Dressed in a lovely white suit, she was on the arm of her husband of six decades upon arrival, the two of them obviously still loving each other's company in public or in private.

Eva Marie Saint has worked with many of the greatest actors and directors ever and yet has a surprisingly sparse cinematic resume. She had a good batting average, the few duds excepted. It's so hard to believe that she is pushing ninety when she continues to look so healthy. Still working, she is providing the voice of a character in The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, though I'd love to see her work on still one more great film. We love and adore Miss Saint for her elegant and thoughtful presence in many projects, but for North by Northwest and her vivid display of bitchery in People Like Us in particular.


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