Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright. Dir: George Cukor
What we have here is a biography about Ruth Gordon. It is based on a play called “Years Ago” which was written by Ruth Gordon. If you don’t know who that is, please continue reading because, in the immortal words of the Mad Hatter, “I shall elucidate.”
But first I want to talk briefly about the movie itself because, for a movie made in 1953, it’s especially well done. Now don’t freak out because I’m dissing movies from the 50’s; there are some truths that you must come to accept about movies of this decade, but I’m only going to address one of them here. Almost all movies of the 50’s, even westerns, have 1950-something stamped all over them. This includes hair, make-up, costumes, acting styles…everything. The Actress takes place in 1913, and this moment in time is portrayed well. Truly, if it weren’t for the actors and their ages, I would have had no idea what year it was made, and that’s important. Even the lighting and cinematography is old-school for 1953. I can’t get technical and tell you all about how they did this because I can’t find much on the interwebs about the movie. Mostly what I can find about it is that it happened. And that it’s good. Given that these two facts are, in fact, factual, I consider my sources impeccable and will move on.
I suppose now’s as good a time as any to throw in some semblance of a plot synopsis (beyond that it is a biography of Ruth Gordon), so here goes. Ruth sees a play starring Hazel Dawn and determines that she wants to be, nay- needs to be, an actress. Her father has other plans for her. Her mother both supports her and doesn’t support her. A boy wants to marry her. She sneaks around to auditions and such. Her family has financial issues. Her father struggles with telephones. Other stuff happens, the movie ends.
Jean Simmons does a wonderful job at 24 of playing a teenage girl, and Anthony Perkins does well as the boy who loves her. Teresa Wright seems a little young to play the mother of a 17 year old so soon after playing a very young woman herself in previous movies, which is why I had to look the movie up several times to make sure that’s who that was. It’s not that she doesn’t look like herself, it’s just that seven years earlier, she was the daughter of Fredric March and Myrna Loy in The Best Years of Our Lives, and I can’t wrap my mind around that. I would point out that this is one of the rare (*not at all rare) occasions where Spencer Tracy plays an easily frustrated, cantankerous, old man. So if you’ve developed a deficiency for such performances of his, you can stop reading right now because you now know you have to see this movie.
For those of you who need more convincing, and want to read more about Ruth Gordon (as I promised I would write more), thanks for sticking around. I’m not going to say anything about the portion of her life that the movie covers. I’m going to talk about what happened later on. She did pursue her dreams of acting and she was very successful. Back when the east coast was the place to make films, she was actually in three of them (uncredited) in 1915. But Broadway was more her thing, so that’s what she stuck with for a while. She was signed to a contract with MGM in 1931, but they didn’t put her in a single movie because they didn’t know what to do with her. Warner Brothers, however, cast her as Mary Todd Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). She made a few movies for Warners and then went away for a while, returning here and there to tv and film throughout the rest of her life. The thing is, she didn’t really go away at all. She did go back to Broadway again, but she also married Garson Kanin (16 years her junior) and wrote a lot. I realize none of this sounds very spectacular, so let me load you down with a few more facts. The woman was not one hair over 5 feet tall, but her personality filled the screen as soon as she came on, which is why she enjoyed many film successes in her very late years. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Rosemary’s Baby (age72), and her most famous role was in Harold and Maude which she made with Bud Cort when she was nearly 75. If you haven’t seen Harold and Maude, make it a point to. Perhaps soon I will write about why you should. And then there was her role as a gun toting, foul-mouthed old broad in “Every Which Way But Loose” which she made around age 81, followed by the less-appreciated sequel “Any Which Way You Can” two years later, both starring Clint Eastwood and an orangutan.
Here’s something maybe the rest of you who are still shaking your head and thinking, “Still not impressed,” will like: Ruth and Garson were very good friends with Spencer and Katharine. Ruth and Garson wrote Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. Both movies were written specifically for Tracy/Hepburn so their real personalities were very much included.
And Ruth wrote The Actress, which is why you should see it.