November 18, 1939– Brenda Vaccaro
I never met her, but in the autumn of 1973, I did watch Brenda Vaccaro eat breakfast with her pal Barbra Streisand at Nate ‘n’ Al’s in beautiful Beverly Hills, leaving me with a neck ache from gawking.
Professionally, Brenda Vaccaro‘s career has taken some crazy turns, from a stage role opposite Lauren Bacall to films with Streisand, winning an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for her performances, as well as Tony Award and Academy Award nominations, and then long stretches with no work at all.
She is a skilled and original actor who had an influence on the style of a generation of female performers including: Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, Karen Black, Leigh Taylor-Young, Cybill Shepherd, Jennifer O’Neill and Valerie Perrine.
After appearing in episodes of several television series during the 1960s, her film career took off after appearing in gay director John Schlesinger‘s classic Midnight Cowboy (1969). What a debut it was, playing a sexually voracious Madison Avenue socialite who picks up Jon Voight. I was drawn to that distinctive husky voice, her unusual good-looks and earthy sex appeal.
Vaccaro was born in Brooklyn to Italian American parents who ran a restaurant. She grew up in Dallas, where her parents started Mario’s Restaurant in 1943.
After high school, she returned to NYC to study acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She made her Broadway debut in a comedy by John Patrick, Everybody Loves Opal (1961), which only ran 21 performances, but brought her a Theatre World Award. Vaccaro’s other Broadway credits include The Affair (1962), the special female version of Neil Simon‘s The Odd Couple (1985) and Jake’s Women (1992). She is a three-time Tony Award nominee: Cactus Flower (1965), the musical How Now, Dow Jones (1967), and The Goodbye People (1968).
On screen, Vaccaro played Robert Mitchum’s sweetheart in the powerful, if downbeat Going Home (1971), and she was Oscar-nominated for playing a wisecracking magazine editor in the decidedly trashy (in the good way) Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (1975). Always terrific in both dramas and comedies, she is over-the-top funny in Zorro, The Gay Blade (1989), and sad as Streisand’s dumpy best friend Doris in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Her performances are always fresh, impressive and unforgettable.
Offscreen, her life has not always been easy. She had three short marriages, but she seems to have found happiness in a fourth with handsome model/manager/real estate exec Guy Hector, who she married 31 years ago.
Vaccaro lived with Michael Douglas for seven years in the 1970s and almost married him. Vaccaro:
“I did Midnight Cowboy, he fell in love with me and asked his dad, Kirk Douglas, to introduce us and offer me a part in Summertree (1971). He was a great guy and I loved him, but I did not want to marry him. This was the 1970s. No one got married. Then we decided to have a hippie wedding at my agent’s house. We said vows that we loved each other and would be together forever. Finally, it came time to say that we were doing it for real. I wound up backing out of it. I really messed that one up.”
“I fell madly in love with someone else, Don Stroud. There was this really strong connection spiritually, sexually and so overpowering I could not handle it. My dear friend Robert Shaw, who was making Jaws, told me what I was doing was rash and I was making a mistake, that momentary pleasures like the one with Don would lead to lasting regrets if I broke up with Michael. Turns out Robert was right. I regret all of it. Everything was different back then. There were a lot of drugs. We hung out with Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson, and it was a crazy time.”
Vaccaro was a staple of films in the 1970s and 1980s, appearing in all sorts of films, good and no-so-good, including Airport ’77, and Capricorn One (1977). In recent years, with her honey and whiskey voice, she has mostly gotten voice-over work and the occasional guest appearances on television series like Ryan Murphy‘s Nip/Tuck.
But, after years of not being able to land a gig, Vaccaro and Hector, were about to get out of Los Angeles and move to Hector’s native France.
“I wanted to work, but I couldn’t get roles. Hell, I couldn’t get representation. These agents, they would say, ‘Let’s face it, it’s the age’ or ‘You don’t make enough money’, or they already had old cows on their plate and couldn’t take another one because there are too many old cows out there already.”
Out of work, she did the bit parts, tampon commercials, and taught acting at the Malibu Senior Center. As an actor gets older, especially females, and as the agents and executives get younger, Hollywood can be a really tough place. Vaccaro:
“Geraldine Page said to me once, ‘If you want to work, just go to New York and walk down the street and they’ll give you a play’, and I said, ‘Well, maybe for you; you’re Geraldine Page’.”
Then came the call that changed everything. She was offered a role in HBO‘s biopic You Don’t Know Jack in 2010. Who would have thought the story of Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia activist turned controversial celebrity, would have made for such a rich and moving film? Director Barry Levinson and star Pacino fought for her to be cast. Her throaty dry humor and salty frank persona matched Pacino’s character perfectly as Kevorkian’s sister and partner in crime, Margo Janus. With Pacino and costar John Goodman, Vaccaro brings humor, and pathos, that lifts the story out of the tabloids and makes it human.
I’m glad Vaccaro didn’t move to France. I think she is very special. It was just great to see her in the terrific film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) playing Al Pacino‘s character’s wife in the funny Quentin Tarantino film.
“If I would have received the Academy Award in 1975 instead of Lee Grant (for Shampoo), that would have been very valuable to me at that time… except she is my best friend. She came up to me that night and said: ‘Well honey, I’m older’?”