June 21, 1925– Maureen Stapleton is one of those great character actors that I am just crazy about. I loved the film version of the musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963) as a child, and I still do. Stapleton played Dick Van Dyke’s mother in the film and she received an Academy Award nomination for it, although, at 36 years old, she was only six months older than Van Dyke. When she was asked her if she minded being regularly cast as an older woman she merely shrugged and said:
“I was born old.”
At the finish of filming Bye Bye Birdie there was a wrap party. The director George Stevens, the producers, and the cast, including stars Van Dyke and Janet Leigh, each gave speeches extolling the extraordinary special gifts of newcomer Ann-Margret. When it was her turn to speak, Stapleton announced:
“I guess I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret.”
It is one of the oldest stories in show biz: The small-town girl spends her afternoons at the movie theatre, she then moves to NYC dreaming of becoming a star on the Broadway stage. She works, taking employment as a retail salesperson, hotel clerk, and artists’ model, just to afford acting classes. She finds work in summer stock and then gets small roles in Broadway shows. Then, at last, the girl gets that special big break, and what a break! She lands the lead role in the new play by celebrated gay writer Tennessee Williams, fresh off A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams had written The Rose Tattoo for Italian actor Anna Magnani to play the lead role, but Magnani declined. Other actors were auditioned, but none fit the bill for the character of Serafina delle Rose, an earthy Italian-American widow looking for love. Magnani had declined the offer, feeling that her English was not proficient enough for Broadway. Influential director Harold Clurman, who had directed Stapleton in small role in a play by gay writer Arthur Laurents earlier that year, 1950, suggested that Williams and company give her an audition. After a set of grueling callbacks, she won the role.
Stapleton became a muse for Tennessee Williams with The Rose Tattoo. Her performance was a triumph and she won the Tony Award. It played for 300 performances and then toured for six more months. Stapleton went on to rave reviews for Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Orpheus Descending. In the next decade she became a favorite of Neil Simon who wrote Plaza Suite for her, bringing her another Tony nomination. In 1971 she won another Tony Award for Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady about an alcoholic actor, somewhat based on Stapleton’s own life.
Stapleton liked to drink a bit, although she claimed that she only indulged after a performance. Suffering debilitating stage-fright and self-doubt, she always vomited just before curtain time. To counter her phobias, Stapleton would constantly walk all over the stage during her performances. Her long affair with famed director George Abbott began when she was in her early 40s and he was in his 70s and ended when he left her for a much younger woman, sending her into a tailspin. Booze was as much fixture in her dressing room as stage make-up and wigs. Stapleton:
“The curtain came down and I went into the vodka!”
She was also convinced that someday, somehow, someone in the audience was going to try kill her. She also had a lifelong terror of elevators and flying. She was in and out of therapy most of her adult life.
Stapleton had plenty of awards for her mantle. She won an Emmy for Among The Paths To Eden (1967), adapted from a short story by gay writer Truman Capote. She was nominated for an Oscar for Airport (1970) the same year that she won the Tony for The Gingerbread Lady. She received an Emmy Award nomination for the heartbreaking Queen Of The Stardust Ballroom (1975) in which she and Charles Durning played an older couple who warm to romance when they meet at a dance hall. Stapleton received another Academy Award nomination for my favorite of her roles, Pearl in Woody Allen‘s shockingly unfunny Interiors (1978), a fascinating but excruciating study of an extremely dysfunctional family in NYC, led by humorless parents played by E.G. Marshall and Geraldine Page, both costumed in various shades of beige. Into the picture saunters saucy Stapleton in a bright red dress, ready to steal patriarch Marshall away from the family, much to the horror the very beige daughters played by Diane Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt.
In 1981, she was nominated for another Tony Award for yesterday’s #BornThisDay honoree Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes where she held her own opposite Elizabeth Taylor. I bet there were some liquor bottles in those dressing rooms.
I only saw Stapleton on the stage one time, in Sean O’Casey’s Juno And The Paycock opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, presented at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, in 1974, a truly memorable night at the theatre, filled with jaw-dropping talent. I remain inspired by her work in that play, proof that you don’t have to be traditionally pretty to be a true star.
When Stapleton won the Academy Award for her small but powerful role as American anarchist Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty‘s masterpiece Reds (1981), she gave what I consider the best acceptance speech of all time:
“I want to thank everybody I ever met in my entire life.”
Minutes after winning her Oscar, a reporter asked her how it felt to be recognized as one of the greatest actors in the world. Stapleton:
“Not nearly as exciting as it would be if I were acknowledged as one of the greatest lays in the world.”
When they asked her if she had expected to win, she answered:
“Yes, because I’m old and tired and I lost three times before.”
I cannot recall another actor with such a down-to-earth personality, completely devoid of pretension. When asked the key to good acting, Stapleton stated:
“As far as I’m concerned, the main thing is to keep the audience awake.”
Maureen Stapleton took her final curtain call in 2006, taken by lung disease after a life of smoking. In her memoir, A Hell Of A Life (1995) she says of her career:
“I did the best I could.”