Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ruth Gordon Rocked

Alfonso Cuarón's excellent 2001 Mexican film, Y Tu Mamá También, opens with a young naked couple -- boyfriend and girlfriend -- engaged in a lusty sexual encounter.  The room has signs of upper middle class suburban life and scholastic opportunities.  There's a big bed, framed photos on a headboard and the bookcases are full of books, mostly paperbacks.  Above the naked couple is a large old movie poster on the wall.  It promotes a 1971 film.  It reads "Harold et Maude."  Yes, Harold and Maude starring Ruth Gordon as the older woman who gets involved with and changes the life of a young man.  That comedy was a big hit with young audiences.  (Also, if you saw Cuarón's film, you know that the Harold and Maude movie poster was clever foreshadowing.)  Young women today interested in film careers need to know about this actress.  Ruth Gordon rocked.
Ruth Gordon, as the female lead in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, became a hit with young moviegoers the same year that those same moviegoers bought tickets to A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Klute, The Last Picture Show, Shaft and Dirty Harry.  This was during the Vietnam War era.  I went to see this movie because so many of my college friends were raving about it and had seen it more than once.  They were quoting Gordon's lines from it.  There she was -- Ruth Gordon, in her 70s -- playing a woman in her 70s who was anti-war and could ride a motorcycle.  By this time, Gordon had been successful on Broadway and had made Hollywood women's history in the Academy Award nominations.  She did not get an Oscar nomination for her hip, hilarious and touching performance as Maude.  But she should have.  It's memorable work and she really lit up the screen.  Those two characters were the ultimate odd couple.
He comes from a privileged life.  He's obsessed with death and regularly tries to freak out his clueless rich snob of a mother with his grotesque fake attempts at suicide.  He looks and acts like a member of The Addams Family.  Mother sets him up with a shrink and a dating service.  Then Harold (Bud Cort) meets this unique individual. Maude celebrates life at funerals.  She's fearless, smart, creative and loving.  She questions authority.
She inspires Harold to embrace life, not death.  He should live, reach out, take a chance, get hurt even.  That's Maude's advice.  "Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room," she says.  This outrageously funny film holds up.  You can't imagine it without Ruth Gordon.  Maude is one of the stand-out women characters in a 1970s Hollywood studio release.  By this time, Gordon had a 1965 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination to her credit for Inside Daisy Clover.  She played the aging, institutionalized mother of a 1930s Hollywood star.  She soon got a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  In 1968, she blended laughs with evil when she played the nosy next door neighbor in Roman Polanski's modern day horror story, Rosemary's Baby.  Gordon was Minnie in this box office and critical hit.  Minnie seemed like a "typical New Yorker" who was constantly getting into the business of Rosemary (Mia Farrow).  Minnie makes you laugh with her mannerisms and appearance, but she's really a dark force in the neighborhood. For that role, Ms. Gordon was a winner.
Ruth deserved that Academy Award.  She's so good, catching you off-guard with her wickedness because Minnie seems so ordinary.  Gordon had two Oscar nominations for acting and one victory.  She had a total of five Oscar nominations in her film career.  The other three came for screenwriting.  Did you ever see Adam's Rib?  That smart, sophisticated comedy classic is my favorite of all the films Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together.  Two top Manhattan attorneys are happily married husband and wife.  Sparks fly at work and at home when they represent opposite sides in a media sensation court case.  An unhappy wife shoots her unfaithful husband.  Ruth Gordon and her real-life husband, Garson Kanin, were 1950 Oscar nominees for this original screenplay that questions the equality of the sexes while also delighting in their differences.  Judy Holliday co-starred as the wife on trial.
George Cukor directed Adam's Rib.  He also directed Tracy and Hepburn in another comedy with a solid feminist angle.  Kate's character, Pat, is being pressured to say "I do," quit her career ambitions and be a supportive wife.  Her fiancé fills her full of self-doubt.  Tracy plays the roughneck who sees that she's a champion athlete and shouldn't marry any man who won't treat her like a champ.  Mike works to help her realize her pro athlete potential and keep her from being a domestic cheerleader to a chauvinist husband's career.  Gordon and Kanin got an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay to this 1952 comedy, Pat and Mike. This movie displayed Kate Hepburn's sports skills on the tennis court and golf course.  Aldo Ray co-starred as Mike's other athlete.
Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote the script that enabled veteran screen star Ronald Colman to win an Oscar.  He was Best Actor of 1947 for his superior work in A Double Life.  Colman, a big star, had been in films since the silent era of the 1920s.  This award was not merely a sentimental gesture because of his long career.  It's one of his best films.  Colman was riveting in this tale of an actor's duality.  Performer and part start to become one.  The closer he gets to madness, the more brilliant his performance as Othello becomes onstage.  Shelley Winters co-starred as the woman who triggers his alter-ego Othello-like rage.

This film was also directed by George Cukor.  This inspired take on a Shakespeare tragedy and the demands of a stage career was the first film that brought Gordon and Kanin an Oscar nomination for screenwriting.  Here's the talented married couple with A Double Life star, Ronald Colman, on the set.
By the way, Garson Kanin wrote the play Born Yesterday.  It would make a Broadway star of Judy Holliday (Adam's Rib) and she'd win an Oscar for reprising her lead role in the film adaptation.  Guess who directed the movie?  That's correct.  George Cukor.  In Gordon's youth, her movie career didn't quite take off.  In the 1940 historical bio pic, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, she starred opposite Henry Fonda as Mary Todd Lincoln.  She had a role in Greta Garbo's last film, a flop comedy called Two-Faced Woman -- directed by George Cukor.  She left film acting in the early 1940s and didn't return until 1965's Inside Daisy Clover.  But there was Broadway.  And screenwriting.  With Kanin, she also wrote the screenplay that further proved Judy Holliday's acting skills and her ability to break your heart.  It's one of my favorite films about marriage.  In 1952's The Marrying Kind, a working class couple in Manhattan is on the brink of divorce.  In the judge's chamber -- and with a very imaginative use of flashbacks -- we review their marriage by going all the way back to how they met. We hear his version, her version and we see the flashback of how it actually was.  We see that these two people were meant for each other.
But "I do" doesn't equal "happily ever after."  Years of expectations, dashed hopes, failed dreams and unexpected severe heartbreaks have taken a toll on their emotions.
Is the marriage tattered and torn beyond repair?  The screenplay strips this relationship down to the basics.  What was it that kept it together before life beat it down with unwanted extras?  There's much wisdom and warmth in this simple beauty of a film.  I've seen it several times.  Judy Holliday has a breakdown scene that it so raw, painful and honest that it always brings tears to my eyes.  Next to Born Yesterday, this is her best screen performance.  Cukor seemed to distill the essence of her as an actress, the way Vincente Minnelli did Judy Garland in her MGM years.  The Marrying Kind introduced audiences to gravelly-voiced beefcake actor Aldo Ray.  Ruth Gordon went solo and wrote the screenplay to 1953's The Actress.  It's autobiographical with Jean Simmons starring as the young Ruth Gordon Jones, a New Englander who dreams of a life in the theatre.  Anthony Perkins stars as the young man who dreams of making her his wife.
There is one big obstacle on Ruth's way to the stage door.  That's her stubborn father, played with lovable grumpiness by Spencer Tracy.  Poor papa wants her to learn a sensible trade.  He wants her to be a physical education teacher.  Like in gym class.
The Actress and The Marrying Kind were two more films directed by George Cukor.  Film History:  It's 2012.  I cannot think of another woman who had more than one Oscar nomination for acting in her list of achievements coupled with multiple Oscar nominations for screenwriting.  Ruth Gordon was one of those women in film who rates re-appreciation today.  And to think, her film acting career didn't really start to heat up until she was well into her 60s.  Rent Harold and Maude.  Ruth Gordon rocked.  You'll agree with me.  I know the director of Y Tu Mamá También would agree with me.  Adiós.


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  2. Ruth Gordon is a fine example of being human in all phases of life. She even had sex appeal. You can't tell me that in the movie Harold and Maude, she didn't have any turn on. Aging sucks but I am going to take the hand that is dealt to me and I will use Ruth Gordon as an example of a person who aged gracefully and I aspire to emulate some of those good qualities. My Mom used to say "Beauty is only skin deep and ugly is to the bone."


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