Maureen Stapleton and Elaine Stritch
Probably the greatest actor on this entire list (says me), Stapleton simply owns every scene I have ever seen her play; her presence is always arresting and enveloping. Even in such middling fare as Cocoon and Airport, she was a scene stealer. Anyone who has seen Reds already knows this, or at least is aware that this woman could do an uncanny amount with very little, given a chance. The look she gives Diane Keaton when she sees her in the bread line in Russia holds more joy and despair than a week of soap opera scripts. However, I digress.
This consummate skill, suffice it to say, made her the ideal choice as the foil for Geraldine Page’s ice queen in that iciest of films, Interiors. Famously dressed in vivacious reds (to offset Page’s persistent beiges and taupes) – costumes were designed by that master of subtlety Joel I-am-actually-not-very-subtle-at-all Schumacher – Stapleton breathes life and effervescence into her scenes, bringing with her the only gasps of fresh air in what is an intensely stuffy film. In a movie that is all closed space, all walls and shut windows and, well, interiors, she is the breeze flowing through, waking everyone up. Indeed, before the film ends she will actually breathe life into someone. So, it isn’t all that subtle, but it works. As Sarah Vowell, among the cleverest commentators on whatever the hell she feels like commenting on summarized: “Geraldine Page is all beige this and bland that so her husband divorces her and hooks up with noisy, klutzy Maureen Stapleton, who laughs too loud and smashes pottery and wears a blood red dress to symbolize that she is Alive, Capital A.”
However, it isn’t just that she exudes confidence, charm, passion, and joie de vivre, but she is also powerful in her refusal (or is it obliviousness?) of the intellectual circles the other characters run around in. She is life, yes, but she is also low brow and simplistic in her tastes. (“She is a vulgarian!” shrieks one of her new stepdaughters after she crashes into a vase.) Since this is Woody Allen, after all, there are class connotations that come along with any traits such as these. Allen has always been prone to uncomfortable assumptions about the neuroses of the upper classes as compared to the carefree la-dee-dah of the working classes, and Stapleton’s key scene revolves around precisely this “truism”. As the sophisticated, artistic, and highly educated family discuss a play they have all recently seen, debating the finer points of the existential questions raised therein, and appearing for all the world not to have actually enjoyed any aspect of the thing (so caught up were they in the abstract moral issues it suggested to them), Stapleton deflates the whole thing with effortless sincerity. “I mean, to me, it wasn’t such a big deal… How do you know [what is the moral thing to do]? I don’t know. You just know, you feel it.” And, watching her, you know just what she means, because you feel it, too.
September (1987), Small Time Crooks (2000)
September is widely considered one of the low points of Woody Allen’s career. It’s one of his lowest grossing films, and production was a notorious mess because, dissatisfied with the results the first time around, he insisted on re-shooting the entire thing. Stritch seems, in retrospect, untouched by all of this. As a matter of fact, because Allen had brought her in to replace Maureen O’Sullivan during the second shoot, she had no idea that there had ever been a first. As Marion Meade quotes her in The Unruly Life of Woody Allen: “We were well into it before I found out. But what did I care?” Those words sum up Stritch’s persona. She’s brash, sarcastic and unapologetic. She’s also marvelously entertaining. All these qualities make her perfect as Lane’s celebrity playgirl mother Diane. Stritch gives off the no-nonsense attitude that everyone’s in it for herself and there’s a fine line between sinking and swimming.
In a movie full of melodrama, Diane stands out as a touch of light-hearted self-sufficiency. She may be the only likeable character in September, bustling about Lane’s summer house with an air of absent-minded self-absorption and dropping witticisms about everything from the guests set to arrive for a night of drinks to the handicapped vanity of her advancing age. She is flippant with everyone, even her daughter, but she is wildly successful in all her relationships. Diane’s charisma is her identifying trait and it makes her a foil to Lane’s morbid frailty. She charms the man of her daughter’s dreams the way that Lane never could, and she arrives at the house with one more in a series of husbands. Lloyd (Jack Raines) is benign and perhaps a bit goofy, but he is reliable and clearly down-to-earth, unlike Lane’s crush Peter (Sam Waterston), an immature and idealistic writer.
Stritch truly has led a storied and worldly life, and she carries off her role with a cheeky, jaded ease. Her career in the theater has been international and eminent: she was a leading lady for Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim. It has also been, at times, very troubled as she struggled with alcoholism and the vagaries of life as a performer. She is now over 80, and she has cultivated her reputation as a survivor in her dynamic performances and in the autobiographical solo stage show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. In that show she reveals that it was after the final day of shooting for September that she relapsed for the last time, nearly dying of an insulin deficiency caused by diabetes, which had only recently been diagnosed.
The dark side of the high life is never far from the surface when Stritch talks about her career, and the same is certainly true of Diane’s cavalier wisecracks. Her personal prosperity is off-set by her callousness about the crimes of her past and the rights of her children. In a stunning scene toward the end of the film she tries to contact a dead lover with a Ouija board and ends up in tears. What would ordinarily be a moving sequence is unfortunately watered down significantly by the abundance of earnest, confessional dialogue in September. Stritch nevertheless maintains a powerful presence throughout the film. Her smart, multi-faceted performance is one of the only dimensions of the movie that treats Allen’s theme, the ability to pick up and move on after a personal disaster, without getting too much bogged down in over-agonized reflection.