There is a certain kind of actress who, even after a long and successful career, is forever etched in our memories through the image of an old lady. Margaret Rutherford as the senior sleuth, Gladys Cooper as the embodiment of self-righteousness or Mildred Dunnock as the eternal school teacher-looking spinster are good examples of it.
Among them, maybe no other better than Ruth Gordon represents the epitome of acting longevity crowned by belated stardom.
It is therefore a paradox that someone who became a movie star during the sixties and seventies had been the object of a biopic as early as 1953. The film is a George Cukor rarity called The Actress, with Jean Simmons as the young Ruth Gordon and Spencer Tracy and Teresa Wright as her self-sacrificing parents. The script, based on her autobiographical play Years Ago, was written by Ruth Gordon herself . However, it is easy to understand Cukor’s involvement in the project, since Gordon’s life up to 1953 had been nothing short of extraordinary.
Ruth Gordon was born in 1895, daughter of a housewife and a ship’s captain, and she had to fight against her family humble background and an attractive marriage proposal (by Fred Whitmarsh, played by Anthony Perkins in The Actress), before embarking in an acting career.
She played in some silent movies as early as 1915 and then moved to Broadway, where she would stay for 25 years before returning briefly to the screen at the beginning of the 1940s with some fine but unmemorable parts. She married writer Garson Kanin in 1942 and for the next decade they formed one of the most successful writing couples in Hollywood’s history, most notably with the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicles Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. Tracy’s and Hepburn’s shenanigans onscreen were based on the writing couple’s own life. During that period she was nominated to the Oscar three times as a screenwriter, thus gaining a recognition as a writer that she had so far been denied of as an actress.
She had, however, a phenomenal acting comeback in 1965 with her Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning turn as Natalie Wood’s loony mother in the misappreciated Inside Daisy Clover. She went on to take some of the best ‘old’ roles of the decade, among them the mischievous neighbour in Rosemary’s Baby, for which she won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, the old sleuth trying to unmask a serial-killing granny in the tongue-in-cheek chiller Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? and especially as the unforgettable octogenarian lover in the cult classic romance Harold and Maude. Gordon would work on cinema and television until the end of her life in 1985.
The magic of Youtube is bringing to life some of those favourite moments we had only read about. Some weeks ago I was thrilled to discover the clip of Ruth Gordon’s Oscar win for Rosemary’s Baby. I had read her perfect Oscar acceptance speech many times before, but to actually watch her deliver it is something else. In merely 40 seconds she thanks everybody she had to (including Roman Polanski and Mia Farrow), she is funny and ironic (the first line is a classic, and it certainly puts more than one in their place) and shows how graciously you can walk upstage. It is funny to see some of the other nominees, too, specially a very young and pretty Sondra Locke, an actress more often associated with older roles in Clint Eastwood films (and her later palimony lawsuit) than with the Oscar-nominated epithet. Anyhow, enjoy Gordon’s great acceptance speech. As she once said: “the best impromptu speeches are the ones written well in advance”.