April 27, 1937 – Sandy Dennis:
“I take everything they offer me. I never turn down parts.“
Sandy Dennis was one of the most eccentric stars of stage and screen. Loved and loathed equally by critics, she was known as a stammering and muttering nut case, but also winsome, adorable and hopelessly mannered. She was the titan of tics.
She has won two Tony Awards and an Academy Award. Dennis, Anne Bancroft, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Irene Worth, and Audra McDonald are the only Tony Award winners for both Best Actress in a Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play. Her Oscar is for her performance in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966).
A little too quirky to be considered an ingenue, even at the start of her career, she was a real character actor and a real character. No role was too peculiar for Dennis.
For three decades, Dennis lived in an early 19th century Georgian house in Connecticut with 17 cats. The house had an unusually orange living room. Dennis:
“When I was in Same Time Next Year on Broadway, this fancy restaurant invited the cast for a lunch because we mentioned their name in the play. I got so drunk that afterward I rolled over to Bloomingdale’s and bought the ugliest orange furniture you’ve ever seen. I hate orange, and I don’t know why I did it. I have tag sales all the time, and everybody just walks right past it. But the cats love it. They’ve torn out the cotton stuffing and eaten the legs away.“
I know the cat lady thing seems creepy, but the kooky Dennis was also a neatnik. She told an interviewer:
“Cleaning gives me more pleasure than anything in the world. I’d clean all day long if I could. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and start waxing the floor. Then I’d lie on it and wait for the shine to rise. I just don’t want anyone to say my house smells or looks dirty.“
Her career started when she was chosen to be an understudy for the Broadway production of Dark At The Top Of The Stairs in 1957. Her first film role was Kay, Natalie Wood’s nasty pal in William Inge‘s Splendor In The Grass in 1961. The next year she was back on Broadway opposite Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns, winning a Tony Award. Her first lead role was in Any Wednesday (1964), for which Dennis won another Tony, and it made her a star.
Mike Nichols chose her for his film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Virginia Woolf?. She played opposite George Segal and the planet’s most famous couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who found her beguiling.
“Sandy is really one of the most genuine eccentrics I know of. She sat on the set like a schoolmarm and suddenly produced the most gigantic belches, like a drunken sailor. Elizabeth is also a good belcher, so they had competitions, but Sandy nearly always won.“Richard Burton
By 1968, Dennis was a big box office draw and the darling of the critics. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times theatre critic wrote:
“Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis. There should be one in every home.“
Yet, her maddening mannerisms also attracted notice. Dennis was described as giving neurotic and mannered performances; her signature style included running words together and oddly stopping and starting sentences, suddenly going up and down octaves as she spoke, and fluttering her hands. She was the only actor I know of who would take a pause in the middle of an “uh”.
The New Yorker‘s great film critic Pauline Kael wrote:
“Sandy Dennis has made an acting style out of postnasal drip.“
The Hollywood establishment was resentful in 1967, when Dennis, nominated for her role in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? refused to attend the Academy Awards, and instead watched them from a New York City restaurant. Dennis:
“The Oscars are just not the kind of thing I’d get some clothes and go to. I never dress up if I can help it.“
With an Oscar, Dennis seemed ready for film stardom. Warner Bros. recognized her talent and Hollywood was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they didn’t quite have the imagination to see the woman who played Honey in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf playing the role of a saucy kept girl in the film version of Any Wednesday. Jane Fonda got the role. Instead, Warner Bros. loved the Broadway play Sweet November but didn’t see its star Barbara Harris as having movie star potential, so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who directed Fonda in Dennis’s original role would also direct Dennis in Harris’s role, a part that she was all wrong for.
Yet, her curious behavior may be the reason she wasn’t offered more starring roles. Dennis:
“I should have kept myself blonder and thinner, but I just didn’t care enough. It’s true. I had these big buck teeth as a kid, and they called me Bugs Bunny. I had braces for five years, but they just didn’t work. Then this wonderful dentist filed them off.“
Shortly after the mistake of Sweet November, Dennis received a truly great role when she was cast in Robert Altman‘s experimental That Cold Day In The Park (1968). Altman knew just how to best use Dennis. His directing worked perfectly in reigning in Dennis’s eccentric take on her characters. The film is a warped psycho-sexual thriller, plus it features male nudity, unusual for the era. It is worth seeking out.
Oddly, Dennis was next cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Neil Simon‘s The-Out-Of Towners (1969). Filmed on location in decaying New York City, Arthur Hiller‘s film is as silly as it is an insightful look at a dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off each other brilliantly. It has genuinely comic moments. Dennis’s frequent “Oh, my God!”s are just too, too funny. It was a big box-office hit.
She played a lesbian in a sexy film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence‘s The Fox (1968), an idealistic teacher in Up The Down Staircase (1967), and a photographer fixated on vegetables in Alan Alda‘s Four Seasons (1981) with Rita Moreno and Carol Burnett.
Dennis never seemed comfortable with success. She continued to take film roles, but they were as peculiar as her acting style. One of my favorites is the smart satire Nasty Habits directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. It is one of my favorite films, a zany satire of The Watergate Scandal and the Nixon White House, with nuns as stand-ins for the major players! It has amazing performances: The Mother Superior played by Glenda Jackson as Richard Nixon (it may be her greatest role), Melina Mercouri as Henry Kissinger, Geraldine Page as H. R. Haldeman, Anne Jackson as John Ehrlichman, Anne Meara as Gerald Ford; plus Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller and Edith Evans. Dennis is John Dean; I am not making it up.
About her performance in Nasty Habits, Vincent Canby of the NY Times wrote:
“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale.“
In the very early 1980s when Altman convinced her to take a role in Ed Graczyk‘s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with the unexperienced Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person; she stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed hard until she earned Dennis’ respect. Cher:
“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair.
Critic Frank Rich said of Dennis in Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean:
“She either runs on her sentences incoherently or scrambles them with false starts, jerky internal word repetitions and teeth-baring snorts.“
A life member of The Actors Studio and an advocate of method acting, she was a unique and visionary actor blessed with undeniable charisma and a presence that was hers alone. Once you had seen her, you could never be able to forget her. Her odd take on realism and her characters could drive you crazy, but there was no one else doing what she did.
Dennis was a private person. She had a decade-long term relationship with Jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, and a four-year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. She never bothered to come clean about her bisexuality. Roberts said that she was open about her sexual relationships with other women to him and to her other close friends. She wrote Sandy Dennis, A Personal Memoir (1991) where she is not personal at all, writing mostly about the Actors Studio and her animals.
Her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter, which speaks volumes.
Dennis was taken by cancer in 1994, leaving this world at home with her cats. She was only 54 years old.
In 2004, Ian McKellen, wrote of Dennis:
“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.“