October 8, 1949 –Sigourney Weaver:
“I’m no Ripley. I had doubts that I could play her as strongly as she had to be played, but I must say that it was fun exploring that side of myself. Women don’t get to do that very often.”
She was born with the name Susan, but at 14-years-old she decided to change her name to Sigourney, chosen from a minor character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel The Great Gatsby(1925). She felt the name change suited to her increasing height. She was already nearly 6 feet tall.
It must have been tough studying at Yale School Of Drama, being cast only as old women and walk-ons, having your professors tell you that you would have a trouble getting work because of your looks. Add the indignity of having Meryl Streep, in the class behind you, getting all the best roles. Weaver really suffered for her art.
She became buddies with Christopher Durang who was in the playwriting program at Yale. Weaver wanted to break boundaries and she got support from the writers, especially from Durang, for whom she became a muse. She starred in his first Yale show, Darryl And Carol And Kenny And Jenny, where she sang Better Dead Than Sorry while undergoing shock treatment. Weaver would become Durang’s darling, starring in his plays on and off Broadway: from Das Lusitania Songspiel in 1976 to the Tony Award winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in 2013.
“My teachers at Yale said I had no talent and would never get anywhere. I tried! I wanted to work in a flower store or a bakery, but my friends, who were mostly playwrights and directors, kept casting me in plays in New York, so I worked all the time, even though I wasn’t being paid. My dream was to be part of a repertory company and play big parts in one play and little parts in another. I love being part of an ensemble.”
Weaver has a fine Upper East Side pedigree. She went to boarding school in Connecticut. Her famous father was Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who began an empire at NBC. As president of the company, Weaver created both The Today Show and The Tonight Show. He kind of invented the whole host at the desk/guest on the couch format that is still used on talk shows today. Her mother was the beautiful English actor Elizabeth Inglis who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock‘s The 39 Steps.
In 1979, Weaver became one of the very first female action stars, certainly the first with true box-office clout, when she played Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, the only woman and the single survivor of a doomed starship crew in the terrifying Alien, Ridley Scott‘s Science Fiction Horror classic. Weaver:
“It had nothing to do with feminism. Men decided to make Ripley a woman for commercial reasons.”
Ripley not only showed off Weaver’s acting skills and physicality, the role helped change how female characters were seen in modern film.
“It was a time when a lot of women in America were taking on these traditionally male jobs such as being in the US Army and Navy, so I think it was a very timely character. I was lucky that the script was all about character and action, as opposed to looking fantastic in an unbelievable outfit. It was such an original and innovative movie, showing space as it might be. Ripley was a woman from that world.”
James Cameron‘s sequel, Aliens (1986), brought back Ripley, but made her more soulful and more explicitly feminist. Remember the famous ad campaign that featured a battle weary Weaver cradling a huge weapon in one arm and a frightened little girl in the other? Her Ripley fought back against a male dominated corrupt corporation that was choking the entire universe, but she had to wear a special outfit called the “power-loader” to do it. 1980s working women could really relate. Speaking of 1980s working women, my own favorite Weaver role is her horrible boss in Mike Nichols‘ Working Girl (1988).
Once she got started, Weaver has been able to have a long, varied career on stage, screen and television that has lasted four decades, performing in nearly every genre from Comedies to Sci-Fi to Westerns to Dramas. She has had seven Golden Globe Award nominations, winning as both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for playing real life Diane Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist (1988) and for Working Girl, becoming the first person to win two acting Golden Globes in the same year. She has a BAFTA for The Ice Storm (1997), a Tony Award, plus three Academy Award nominations and three Emmy Award nominations.
I love her in the terrific The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982) opposite a pre-crazy, very hot Mel Gibson. In most of her films, Weaver plays tough, troubled characters.
“I’ve played a lot of women who were quite isolated. I always end up playing these loony women who are very much on their own.”
Weaver also has shown a great sense of the absurd and terrific comic chops in films like the three Ghostbusters flicks (1984, 1989, 2016), Dave (1993) and especially Galaxy Quest (1999).
“I would run a mile to do a comedy. I started out in comedy on stage and it’s my favorite thing to do. I would maybe have liked to have done comedy earlier in my career, but I think Ripley made such an impression it took a long time for someone to trust me with it.”
I certainly think that Weaver qualifies as a Gay Icon and of special interest to her gay fans, aside from her obvious fabulousness, would be her roles in Prayers For Bobby (2009), the true story of gay rights activist Mary Griffith, Jeffrey (1995) Paul Rudnick’s very funny, sweet gay romantic comedy, and as Babe Paley in that other Truman Capote biopic, Infamous (2006), plus there is Avatar (2009), Cameron’s big-budget 3D blockbuster, which I have never seen, but I think she plays some sort of green-skinned lesbian. I also especially admired her work in the limited television series Political Animals (2012) as a divorced former First Lady and current Secretary of State with a bad boy gay son.
“When I look at my career, I’ve followed the same model. I don’t care how big the part is; if it’s a good story and hangs together it’s something I want to be part of, and that’s thrown me into all kinds of projects. For me, it’s all about the story. I’m not saving lives, but I feel there’s something very important about being a storyteller and to give someone a sense of what it is to be someone else.”
She has been married to director Jim Simpson for 33 years. They live together in NYC.
Weaver has created a unique career on stage and in films, especially impressive when decades ago, she was told she’d never get anywhere as an actor. She is a dedicated environmentalist and also serves as spokesman for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and on the board of Lawyers Committee For Human Rights.
Up next, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) directed and written by Noah Baumbach. I love his bittersweet films. In this one, she stars with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Candice Bergen, Adam Driver and Emma Thompson. It was a big hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and begins streaming this Friday, October 13, on Netflix. She is currently filming the next two unnecessary sequels to Avatar.
Weaver’s work as an actor and activist is enough to make even Streep jealous.
“Our country is so polarized in so many ways. Parts of this country are really digging in. This is the big battle, and I’m afraid it has not changed. That’s why the Pope saying ‘Let’s love each other’ was so profound. The fact that it’s all still wrapped up in religion and shame, I’m very impatient with our species. I don’t think gorillas in the wild do this. They are superior to us in every way.”