October 30, 1896– Ruth Gordon:
“To get it right, be born with luck or else make it. Never give up. A little money helps, but what really gets it right is to never face the facts.”
Ruth Gordon has been such a major part of my life for so long, it is hard for me to remember a time when she was not my muse. When most people think of her, they immediately go to a certain frightening film.
Like all scary stories, this one starts out simple enough. It is the story of a young bride, played by a mesmerizing Mia Farrow, who moves into a new apartment in an historic Manhattan building with nosy neighbors. She soon gets pregnant. What could go wrong?
I was 14 years old when I saw Rosemary’s Baby in its initial release in 1968, and I have seen it again many times. As a youth, I thought of it as a horror flick, but in Film Studies in college, I took it as a film about other films. The movie spawned The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), after all.
A husband, Guy (John Cassavetes) trades his wife, specifically her womb, to a group of Satanists who live in his new apartment building. In a strange ceremony, the devil impregnates a drugged Rosemary (Farrow). The trade-off seems to be keeping that apartment in The Bramford, a thinly disguised version of The Dakota, an apartment house in Manhattan at 72nd Street and Central Park West; and showbiz guaranteed success for Guy, who is an actor.
When Ira Levin‘s novel was published in the spring of 1967, it sold four million copies in just a few months. Robert Evans (R.I.P.) a young producer at Paramount Pictures hired 33-year-old Polish auteur Roman Polanski, to direct. It was his first Hollywood film. Evans thought Polanski, a Holocaust survivor, might have an interesting take on evil.
Rosemary is gaslighted by men and exploited for her sex. Farrow brought a kind of madness to the role that has stayed with her ever since. Cassavetes’ Guy is dishonest, privileged, and mean. Sidney Blackmer, who made his Broadway debut in 1917, plays Roman Castevet, an old man searching for young bodies to offer the devil. Ralph Bellamy, who won an Academy Award for The Awful Truth (1937), is the infantilizing doctor. Veteran gay actors Patsy Kelly and Maurice Evans show up too.
Then, there is Gordon, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Minnie Castevet, the Satanist next door, who is a busybody who controls Rosemary with homemade elixirs and sweets. Gordon was 72 and on the verge of her biggest success, a career-defining performance in Harold And Maude (1971), when she won. She was presented her Oscar by Tony Curtis, and I hope that when I finally win my Academy Award that I will be as witty as Gordon during her Oscar acceptance speech. Gordon:
“I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is. The first film that I was ever in was in 1915 and here we are and it’s 1969. Actually, I don’t know why it took me so long; though I don’t think, you know, that I’m backward. Anyway. Thank you, Roman. And thank you, Mia. And thank all of you who voted for me. And all of you who didn’t, please excuse me.”
A quote from Gordon: “Never Face The Facts” has long been my motto, once painted on a wall in our tiny cottage in Seattle by my husband in the 1980s. Gordon’s point was, if she had owned up to the fact that at 4 foot 11 inches, not pretty, and with her drama teachers telling her that she had no talent, well, she would never have become Ruth Gordon.
I treasure her three volumes of memoirs Myself Among Others (1971), My Side (1976) and Ruth Gordon: An Open Book (1980).
The daughter of a ship captain, Gordon knew what she wanted to do with her life after witnessing a performance by stage actor Hazel Dawn in Boston as a child. Over the initial objections of her father, Gordon decided upon a stage career for herself, studying at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
In 1915, she made her Broadway debut in Peter Pan. Influential, acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott, who became a valued and powerful friend to Gordon, doing what he could to encourage her and promote her career, wrote:
“Ruth Gordon was ever so gay as Nibs.”
The next year, in Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen, her first starring role, Gordon received scathing reviews. Critic Heywood Broun wrote:
“Anyone who looks like that and acts like that must get off the stage.”
Thankfully, Gordon only read her good reviews.
Gordon took whatever acting gigs she could find, mostly touring in past seasons’ Broadway shows. To gain stature, she had a doctor break and reset both her knees to correct her bowlegs. She worked on her voice and fervently researched every role she played, developing a wide range.
Gordon became one of Broadway’s biggest stars in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the first female American to perform with England’s Old Vic Company, where she was the toast of London. Back in New York City the next year, she won raves as Nora in Henrik Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House. In 1940, Gordon went to Hollywood when she was cast as Mary Todd Lincoln in Abe Lincoln In Illinois opposite Raymond Massey.
Privately, her life was in shambles after the sudden death of her husband, actor Gregory Kelly after just six years of marriage. She then had a very scandalous affair with handsome Svengali-ish producer Jed Harris, with whom she had her only child without the benefit of matrimony.
Her career only got better though. Theater critic Walter Kerr wrote that Gordon’s Natasha in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1949) was the best performance he had ever seen, and the other women in that production were played by theatre greats Judith Anderson and Katharine Cornell, plus Natasha isn’t even a leading role.
She created the role of Dolly Levi in gay writer Thornton Wilder‘s The Matchmaker (1956), a role written for her, and the basis of the musical Hello, Dolly!.
For 23 years, from 1943 to 1966, Gordon did not work as an actor in films. In 1942, she married the bright bisexual playwright Garson Kanin, who was 16-years younger. It was a union that lasted more than four decades. Gordon collaborated with Kanin on writing projects, with delightful results like the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn comedies Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat And Mike (1952), as well as the Judy Holliday vehicle The Marrying Kind (1952). She received three Oscar nominations for screenwriting.
Gordon finally returned to film acting for Inside Daisy Clover (1965), a film that had a strong impact on me at 11 years old, when inexplicably, my parents took me to see it at a drive-in theatre. She was unforgettable in two other films from my high school years: Where’s Papa? (1970), in which she plays the obscenely senile mother of George Segal, and of course, Harold And Maude, as the free-spirited soul mate of a death obsessed young man perfectly played by Bud Cort, who remained her lifelong friend in real life.
I saw Gordon on stage only once, in a revival of George Bernard Shaw‘s early feminist play Mrs. Warren’s Profession on Broadway in spring 1976. I was so enthralled with her funny, spry performance that I turned around and watched it again the next night.
The story of Gordon’s early life is smartly told in her own hit plays Over 21 (1944) and Years Ago (1947), plus in the film The Actress (1953), directed by George Cukor, with a screenplay by Gordon. She is portrayed by Jean Simmons and Spencer Tracy plays her father.
Here is a sweet anecdote: Polanski wrote how he was walking on to the set of Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and he suddenly became aware of a short girl in a miniskirt with an amazing ass and hot legs. Polanski:
“The girl turned around, and it was Ruth Gordon!”
It makes sense. One of Gordon’s greatest gifts was an ability to be both young and old, or homely and beautiful all at once.
Gordon was never fussy or old fashioned. Kanin wrote:
“Her great joy was hanging around young people. She was always very much involved in the new stuff. I remember when we went to see the Broadway musical Hair (1967) at a preview. Richard Rodgers was there, and he walked out after the first act. So, did producer David Merrick. But Ruth just went bananas. She thought it was just terrific. She went backstage to congratulate the cast and went back to see the show many, many times.”
When Gordon left this world in the summer of 1985, I wasn’t too sad because during her remarkable career lasting 70 years in and around the worlds of stage, screen, television and publishing, Gordon manifested a fearsome will and an insatiable appetite for things new:
“Pan me, don’t give me the part, publish everybody’s book but this one and I will still make it! Why? Because I believe I will. If you believe, then you hang on. If you believe, it means you’ve got imagination, you don’t need stuff thrown out for you in a blueprint, you don’t face facts, what can stop you? If I don’t make it today, I’ll come back tomorrow.”