A Pinch Of Pepper, A Dash Of Brass Elaine Stritch, In Film "September,\" Gives New Meaning To \"character Actress"

Posted: January 24, 1988

NEW YORK — Actress Elaine Stritch bustles into the hushed, elegant lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, wearing a full-length fur and carrying several large shopping bags like any East Side matron. But there all resemblance ends.

She settles noisily into a secluded table in the dining room, flops her coat down in a heap and rustles her bags, rummaging in them every few minutes: pulling out a bran muffin, retrieving some gizmo to test her blood sugar (she's diabetic).

The dignified waiters and smooth maitre d', who all know her, act as if this were perfectly normal - even when, after lunch, she scoops handfuls of hotel chocolates into her (and a reporter's) bag, along with a glass bowl filled with fruit.

She is a character.

She swears like a sailor and bellows like a bassoon. At 61, she still loves to flash those showgirl legs. This is how she talks: Some days, life is ''swell." Other days, things aren't so "hotsy-totsy." The words broad and dame must have been invented for her.

These days, everything is swell for Stritch, the Broadway show-stopper who may be the best thing about Woody Allen's latest movie, September, which was scheduled to open in Philadelphia on Friday but has been postponed after so-so response in the seven cities in which it premiered. Even before the film was released, people were talking Oscar nomination for her performance as Diane, a fading glamour girl bound by a long-ago tragedy to her daughter, played by Mia Farrow.

The role was not Stritch's to start with. Allen had filmed the part with Farrow's real mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, but decided to reshoot the movie and, the official story goes, O'Sullivan was no longer available.

If Allen didn't write the part with Stritch in mind, he easily could have.

September is about the troubled relationships among six people during the final days of summer in a Vermont country house. It is a "comedy of desperation and anxiety," Allen has said.

Stritch's Diane is five times married, hard-drinking and flamboyant. While the rest of the characters (nicely played by Denholm Elliott, Dianne Wiest, Sam Waterston and Jack Warden) speak in modulated tones, Diane is loud and

profane: Her vitality serves as a rebuke to the rest of the neurotic whiners trapped inside Allen's film. ("There's a little trouble, and everyone disappears into the woodwork," Diane scoffs.)

Yet Stritch knows very well that beneath it all, beneath all the daring and dash, Diane is no different than the rest of us - she is just more determined to maintain the facade.

"I've often said that a woman like that, if she ever broke down with her daughter it would be all over. I mean, she could just never let that happen to her," the actress says.

In 1955, Stritch guest-wrote a Dorothy Kilgallen column about the insecurity of entertainers, herself included, and of the need to keep up appearances. "For my money," wrote Stritch with characteristic bravura, ''insecurity, depression, etc. can be healed by way of El Morocco, sad songs at 4 a.m. and the pop of a champagne cork."

She may not still believe that, but Stritch, who has had her share of tragedies, does still believe in putting the best face on things.

KEEPS A HAPPY FRONT

"Almost everyone in the world tries to put on a happy face, and more power to them. Boy, I'll take that to a sad sack any day of the week," Stritch says.

"We all have to do that, it's healthy to do that. Life is not a bowl of cherries, you know. I love that song, but don't think about it too much or you'll start looking for the author, you know what I mean? You'll say, 'Where is the S.O.B. who wrote this?'

"There are an awful lot of songs written about that kind of thing - 'Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.' What if it's raining on both sides of the street? It's not easy. But boy, I really doff my hat to the people who try to play against it."

The outspoken Stritch has long had a reputation for drinking and for being difficult. (Allen reportedly worked with her only after she promised to behave.)

Certainly she is difficult, she agrees, but only with directors who are jerks. And their numbers, she says, are legion. Since September, Allen has ascended to non-jerkdom in Stritch's book, right up there with Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim.

Stritch also thinks that people have exaggerated her drinking. "I've gone out in the evening and not had a thing to drink and they talk the same way about me the next day as if I had - and I think it's because I have too much fun.

"And I've never had alcohol interfere with my work. Well, once I think I overshot the runway with a few drinks before I went on stage. One night in my life. And I have never missed a performance. I'm not late, either. I look like I'm late," she says, with the innocence of the born troublemaker.

MEDICINAL PURPOSES

Although Stritch has stopped drinking, she is unrepentant. She has stopped only so that she will not die.

"I will say this up front: I love to drink," Stritch proclaims. "I love booze so much that it scares the hell out of me. . . . And I love the taste of it, I love the glasses, I love the ice, I love the olives, I love the cherries, I love everything about booze.

"I've stopped smoking as well," she adds, "so I'm really quite pleased with myself, and I miss all the goodies and I don't mind reminiscing about them, but I'm quite happy and I think I've come full circle."

Allen rather liked his Peck's bad girl, Stritch offers almost shyly (for her). He had her number, she says approvingly. Just before a difficult scene, the director admonished: "Be sweet, Elaine," seeing straight through the brassy broad routine.

He was often sarcastic toward her, which Stritch took as a compliment, a kind of welcome into Allen's filmmaking club. Once, when she wanted to phone her dinner date, she tried conning Allen into letting her leave the set. She told him it was time for her insulin shot. "I could have said I had to go to the loo but I thought this was much more dramatic - and it was an important phone call," she says.

Allen just gave her a look and said, "Boy, you really squeeze this diabetes until it can hardly breathe."

Born in Detroit to a B.F. Goodrich executive and his wife, Stritch attended convent school until she left for New York in 1944 to study acting. (Marlon Brando was a fellow student and beau.)

"I wanted to get out and see what was going on in the world, I wanted to meet interesting people. Now, I'd like to meet a few people less interesting."

Strict Catholic and party girl (not mutually exclusive, she says), Stritch almost married actors Ben Gazzara and Gig Young and restaurateur Joe Allen, among others. But in each case it would have meant marrying outside the church and its doctrines.

During those early years in New York, in what appears to have been a classic publicity stunt - but Stritch vows it was not - the young actress was arrested for stripping down to shorts and halter to sun herself in Central Park. She got her picture in the paper and a fine of $1.

In 1946, she made her Broadway debut in Loco, then went on to hits such as Pal Joey, Bus Stop and the 1960 musical Sail Away, written for her by Noel Coward. Ten years later she starred in Stephen Sondheim's Company, stopping the show nightly singing "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Her TV career was less illustrious. Jackie Gleason fired her from the role of Trixie before the first episode of The Honeymooners aired. The '60s sitcom My Sister Eileen flopped, and so did last season's Ellen Burstyn Show.

And, until now, the Stritch filmography contains only nine, mostly forgettable, roles: one of them as a disco owner in something called Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965). She calls her appearances in A Farewell to Arms and The Perfect Furlough "my few moments of shine-ola on film."

WAITING FOR MARRIAGE

She went to live in London in 1972, where she met actor John Bay; at age 47, she married for the first time. "It was well worth waiting for," she says.

They moved to Nyack, N.Y., to a big old Victorian house on the Hudson River, and Stritch, for the first time, happily played house for real. Then it was discovered that Bay had a brain tumor and, four months later, after 10 years of marriage, he was dead.

In a way, his death is harder now than at first. "When it happened," she says, "being an actress, the drama of it and the emotion of it, it keeps you

from the hard facts of what occurred."

Last year she lost both her parents, who died within 32 hours of each other after more than 70 years of marriage. "It's a fabulous story," she says of their intertwined lives and deaths.

Like her character in September, Stritch has prevailed. She's a trouper. ''There is not a day in my life I would change. That includes the tragedy. John died for a reason, I don't know what it is. It was part of what was supposed to happen to me."

She lives alone in a Manhattan condominium and hopes to remarry someday. ''Who knows? I may get it again. It would be nice, it would really be nice," Stritch says. "If I had a choice of two things, the career or the right guy, guess what? The career's going."

"And know what? I like to think about how somebody is going to impress me for a change, instead of how I'm going to impress somebody else. I'm getting tired of working all day so I look good enough to go by the doorman. But I'm really horrified by what women are doing to themselves to stay young. I'm just horrified by it."

She dismisses age as a problem, at least as far as she's concerned. She is not worried about a dearth of roles; a musical stage version of Damon Runyon's short story "Madame La Gimp" is being readied for her now.

"When a woman starts getting terrified about getting old, there is something else bothering her," she says.

And, besides, growing old "is like being in a traffic jam," Stritch adds. ''There's nothing you can do about it."

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