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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
A Hell of a Life : An Autobiography by Maureen Stapleton with Jane Scovell
By Elyse Sommer
I spend a lot of time in the same Berkshire neighborhood that actress Maureen Stapleton calls home. That's why during this Christmas vacation at my away-from-New York City hideaway I decided to make up for my failure to read Stapleton's autobiography when it was published last year. Better late than never. The outspoken actress's life on and off stage and screen makes for good reading any time.
Her thorny personal history includes an irresponsible, alcoholic father; her own alcoholism, two troubled marriages and a fear of flying that includes elevators. As roses bloom on their prickly stems, however, so Stapleton has managed to forge a life that more than fulfills the title of her book. Despite the difficulties of her childhood, she maintained a close relationship with her mother as well as links to her home town of Troy (NY). And, while she was unable to shield her children from her personal demons, she gave them the kind of unconditional love that overrides the pain of living with a less-than-perfect mom
The meat and potatoes of this, like any theatrical memoir, dishes up recollections of her acting career and the relationships with fellow actors, playwrights, directors and producers she met along the way. A fear-of-flying phobia is not easy to reconcile with a life in the theater and the movies, but Stapleton managed to answer opportunity's knock even if it meant a long train ride or an ocean voyage. Always the consummate professional, her personal quirks followed her on stage just once when the play in which she got her big Broadway break-- The Rose Tattoo--was on the road. That's when her unresolved marital difficulties surfaced by way of an uncontrollable fear that she would be shot on stage causing her to move all over the stage so as not to be a target.
Stories about her many illustrious colleagues are frank but never mean spirited. There are enough of these celebrity anecdotes to give rise to a suspicion of name-dropping, but while the cast of Broadway and Hollywood bigwigs marching through A Hell of a Life is indeed large, most are seen as flesh-and-blood people with a meaningful connection to Stapleton's life. Both Tennessee Williams and Eli Wallach, Rose Tattooplaywright and co-star respectively, endured long past their first professional connection. A note from Tennessee that read "Dear Maureen, I do not say fuck the drama critics because fucking is too good for them"" remains one of her most treasured mementos--which is not surprising considering the fact that salty language is, if you'll excuse the wordplay, a Stapleton staple, as is her wry, matter-of-fact sense of humor.
Another standout bit player in the Stapleton saga is Marilyn Monroe. The two actresses met at the famous Actors' Studio where they were assigned to work on a scene together. They started out rehearsing a Noël Coward play, Fallen Angel, but, since Stapleton admired Coward but could never get comfortable in his plays, they switched to Anna Christie. The rehearsals seeded a warm friendship between the two women. Stapleton tells how Marilyn's performance in their scene got a big hand--something contrary to Actors' Studio custom--adding that it was "too bad the public wanted her to be a ditzy blonde."" In her typical self-deprecating manner she adds: "See how lucky I was? I never had that problem. People looked at me on stage and said, 'Jesus that broad better be able to act."
A number of other "cast members" in her story have appeared elsewhere at Curtain Up:
The already mentioned Noël Coward whose plays she admired but couldn't relate to as an actress, ( Review of Present Laughter . . . Review of My Life With Noel Coward ).
Doc Simon, in whose comedies she did feel comfortable--to wit her appearance in Plaza Suite on stage as well as screen. ( Rewrites, Simon biography)
Lillian Hellman's more than casual appearance in these pages should be particularly interesting to anyone who's seen Cakewalk, ( Review Cakewalk ) or read some of the more recent Hellman biographies .(Hellman and Hammettby Joan Mellen).
Stapleton who would never have been tagged as a "legend"" for a Blackglama mink advertisement, as was Hellman, recounts how the more stylish and free-spending Hellman tries to help her beef up her fashion image. There's a hilarious shopping trip during which Hellman persuades her to buy the alligator handbag she's always wanted but for which she would never have spent several hundred dollars. When Stapleton declares "I'm never going shopping with you again" Hellman laughs and says "Dorothy Parker said the same thing. She told me she'd only shop with me in the five-and-ten."
With another Little Foxes scheduled at Lincoln Center, Stapleton's own experience as Birdie, (her last major Broadway role), and Hellman's confidences about the play are especially enlightening. As Stapleton tells it Hellman carefully guarded that play against bad acting by avoiding any major productions (except for the one with Maureen which starred Elizabeth Taylor). As for the actresses who played the coveted role of Regina, it seems Hellman didn't like either Tallulah Bankhead's on stage original or Bette Davis's silver screen interpretation. One can't help wondering what she would have thought of Linda Lavin Playing her or the casting of Stockard Channing in the forthcoming Foxes production.
Stapleton's story concludes with one of her longest off-stage "romances" started when she was 43 and the man, Mr. Broadway himself, George Abbott was 81. Ten years later, at 91, he threw her over for a younger woman, a situation she found more humorous than enraging, quite different from her anger when her first husband, (on whom she'd cheated with her second), asked for a formal divorce so he could marry another woman.
Co-author Jane Scovill is to be commended for keeping Stapleton's voice throughout, and organizing this feisty story into a highly readable saga of show business and one woman's life in it. The book is available on line at the Amazon book store Some of Stapleton's work is also available on video cassette (Plaza Suite, The Queen of the Stardust Ballroomand a little gem she never mentions in the book, Sweet Lorraine).
©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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