Iron-Willed Ingénues Keep Going Strong
BY DAVID NOH | Oscar-winning movie musical queen Shirley Jones just made her Café Carlyle debut with a well-received show and I grabbed the opportunity to chat with her. For those who know her as such, you will be pleased to know that “Mrs. Partridge” is every bit as warm and down-to-earth as the Dream Mom you’d imagine her to be, ensconced in her hotel suite and gleefully greeting a girlfriend, “Red,” who’d just arrived from Rochester, bearing a gift bottle of vodka.
“My opening last night evidently went really well,” she said. “My manager, Milt, called me this morning with a spectacular online review that really made me happy. Fortunately most of my audience were older people who knew my career completely and that helps a lot, even though I don’t sing as well as I used to.”
Shirley and Valeria transition beautifully, Van Druten rediscovered
In her show, Jones not only sings but chats extensively about her life and rich career in film, which happened at the sunset of the great studio era when she worked with industry legends. She was more than happy to answer my rambling questions, faced with the glorious diversity of her past: “You know, Warner Brothers had wanted to cast Frank Sinatra in ‘The Music Man’, and were about to sign him, but [composer] Meredith Wilson flew in and went to the studio saying, ‘Unless you use Robert Preston, you don’t do my show.” I was the first person cast in the film and I’d worked with Frank, but was very eager to work with Preston. He’d done the role for three years on Broadway and won the Tony, and sometimes when an actor has done a role for so long, they kind of throw it away or they keep giving directions to everybody else. Preston did none of that. It was like he was doing it for the first time, and he made it so easy for everyone else.”
Jones had another close call with Sinatra, who “was supposed to do ‘Carousel’ with me. He was thrilled about the part and we did all the rehearsals, which were like for a Broadway musical, done months ahead, and the prerecording. We were shooting in two separate processes –– regular Cinemascope and Cinemascope 55 –– and were up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
“Frank arrived, got out of his limo, and asked, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Everybody knew why, but director Henry King explained it to him, and Frank said, ‘Does that mean we have to shoot scenes twice?’ ‘Well, maybe once in a while.’ He said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and went back in his car to the airport, after doing everything! It could have been the role of his career, and [producer] Henry Ephron said, ‘Shirley, where’s Gordon MacRae?’ ‘He’s in Lake Tahoe, doing a nightclub act with his wife, Sheila.’ ‘Can you get him on the phone?’
“I’m standing on the dock at a pay phone with quarters and I got him and said, ‘How’d you like to play Billy Bigelow?’ He said, ‘Give me three days. I have to lose ten pounds.’ Afterwards, I tried to ask Frank about this and he’d always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’ I came to find out about three years ago, talking to some old guys from the press who said, ‘Ava Gardner was doing “Mogambo” in Africa with Gable, and she had called him and said, ‘Unless you get your fanny down here, I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
Although much of Jones’ career was charmed, two great directors gave her a hard time. “I knew Vincente Minnelli [with whom she worked on ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’] was a great director, but on my first film, ‘Oklahoma,’ I had worked with Fred Zinneman, who was a spectacular actor’s director, who helped me tremendously. Minnelli did not do that. All he cared about was the scenery and where you put your arm or walked. He didn’t seem to care about the acting part and I never got any real direction, so that I wasn’t thrilled with.
“John Ford was pretty terrible for me on ‘Two Rode Together.’ He was a man’s man and not good with women, sort of an inferior race for him. I never got any direction –– here we go again. He’d say, ‘I don’t like your hair. Do it another way,’ and that would be it. I’d walk on, ready to do a scene, and he would rewrite and change the whole scene while you were there. He also had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard Widmark, ‘Why that handkerchief?’ ‘Shirley, don’t ask him about it.’ Very strange.
“Jimmy Stewart was so great. At one point I was in a scene with him in the bedroom, and for some strange reason I went blank and couldn’t remember my line, and said, ‘Oh, Jimmy, I’m so sorry.’ He said, ‘ Oh Shir-shir-shirley, just say what comes into your head. Don’t worry about it!’”
Jones worked with my favorite actor, the astonishingly versatile and sexy George Sanders in “Dark Purpose”: “I loved him. He was a very quiet man on the set. I took my little boy Shaun with me to Italy for the filming. George played the piano brilliantly and when we finished shooting at the end of the day, he’d say, ‘Shirley come up here and sing with me,’ and he loved playing for me, which was so sweet.
“He would sit in his chair, always reading Italian comic books, and Shaun, seeing the comics, would go and stand by him. I said, ‘Leave him alone,’ because George was a very quiet guy who didn’t want to talk between scenes. Finally, one day he picked Shaun up, put him in his lap, and read the comic books to him in English every day after that. So dear.”
My favorite Jones performance is as Flo, in “The Happy Ending” (1969), a good-natured, slightly weathered, but quite lovely mistress of a series of married men. I said that it seems the part that most resembles her in real life, and she replied, “Really? Wow! I loved that part. I was reunited with ‘Elmer Gantry’s’ Jean Simmons and [director] Richard Brooks, to whom she was married at the time. She was so lovely, and Bobby Darin fell madly in love with her. He’d come up to me and say, ‘What am I gonna do?’ I said, ‘Bobby, you’re crazy! She’s married to the director!’ ‘Yeah, but when I’m around her, I can hardly speak.’
“I was so thrilled to be cast in that, as I was in ‘Elmer Gantry.’ Originally, Richard didn’t want me for the part [in ‘Elmer Gantry’], but Burt Lancaster was the one who fought for me and got me the role. Richard didn’t think I could do that kind of thing because I was a musical performer, and if you sang, they didn’t think you could act.”
Jones won her Oscar for that film: “Oh my God, I didn’t think I was gonna win that night. Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’ had won all the other awards. I was thrilled just to have the nomination so it was a real shock. I had a dress made by a famous Beverly Hills designer who had his own shop, David something. I didn’t even have a speech prepared, and my husband, Jack Cassidy, said, ‘You got up there, and instead of saying, ‘This is the most wonderful moment of my life,’ you said, ‘the most wonderful moment of my career!’ But it wasn’t! Giving birth to my sons was the most wonderful moment in my life.
“Jack was a super talent. We played Vegas twice with our act ‘The Marriage Band,’ with singers and dancers, and went on the road, in ‘Wait Until Dark,’ with me as the blind lady and him as the villain. People applauded last night when I spoke about him, he was so admired, with many Broadway shows and TV series. He was very complex –– a lot of problems and bipolar, which wasn’t diagnosed. A heavy drinker, so that was part of it. He had a lot of that stuff, you know, the Irish.”
Cassidy tragically died in a 1977 fire, having fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand.
Jones has now been married for 36 years to comedian Marty Ingels: “He’s wonderful and was supposed to come with me here. He has a fear of heights and doesn’t fly so he was going to train here and I would have gone back to our home in Encino with him, but he got two jobs, believe it or not, and I said, ‘You can’t leave!’ Everybody wonders how we met, he’s so crazy. But he’s a comic and I’ve always been attracted to that. Jack was very funny and most of his close friends were comedians. It wasn’t his looks or debonair personality, it was his humor, and that’s exactly what attracted me to Marty. Debbie Reynolds once said to me, ‘Why’d you ever marry that guy? My gosh!’ I said, ‘Why’d you marry all those guys who stole all your money?’
“I lived in Beverly Hills for 35 years and raised my kids there because it had the best public school system in the country. But we moved to the Valley, which I love because it’s like a small town. My boys are all so talented. Patrick’s done a lot of Broadway shows and we were supposed to do a concert version of ‘The Music Man,’ on the road but it’s so difficult now getting anything produced, financially. Ryan, my youngest, is a set decorator.
“[Stepson] David is still out there, doing his concerts, but, you know, he’s having alcohol problems, which is unfortunate. Yeah, it’s really rough, really rough. Shaun has three or four TV series about to air. He’s a writer now and doing very well. He made a great transition from teen idol and is very happy, with seven kids. Three marriages, but seven kids!”
There rarely was a more luscious ingénue in cinema than Valeria Golino in “Rain Man” back in 1988, with her Botticelli face, mane of ringlets, and body that all in one recalled the great 1960s invasion of Loren-Lollobrigida-Cardinale. Well, a girl cannot remain the exotic toast of Hollywood forever, and she has come back this time sitting in the director’s chair with her first feature, “Honey” (Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St.; cinemavillage.com). It’s a grim but highly provocative, deeply humanistic investigation into that scariest of subjects, death, focusing on Irene (Jasmine Trinca), who provides euthanasia to a variety of desperately needy, oblivion-seeking “clients.”
Golino, who in person is like a juicier, younger, life-embracing Anna Magnani, would seem the last person to broach such a topic but she told me, “I felt a certain urgency about this ethical problem –– dealing with death –– which is a part of everybody’s life. I thought it was possible to make a very cinematic, visual movie, although it was difficult to find the money. The only reason I could take the leap and have the courage to do it was because I felt it was worth it.
“I really wanted to try to face this subject of death. Violent death is at the root of show business, but it is the stylization of death as a spectacle, blood everywhere, which is cathartic but empty, not personal. It’s only the idea of death. In my movie, you don’t see any person die, but I wanted to make it, nevertheless, a real aspect of life.”
Golino purposely did not cast herself as Irene: “This would have been fantastic for me when I was 30. People told me to put myself forward when we couldn’t find the money. This sounds like a precious thing to say, but I am not fascinated by me. I like when other people are –– I have the vanity of an actress –– but me, myself, am much more fascinated by a different actress, who needs to be young, not youngish, like you and me. Jasmine was 32 when she did the movie, but looks 25. If it is a woman like me doing her job, it isn’t going to change –– it’s established. And then I stop being interested because there is no potential of change.”
As Carlo, the older, wiser man who turns Jasmine around with his specific desire for death, despite seeming to have it all, esteemed actor Carlo Cecchi brought a special gravity to the film.
“There was one line when Jasmine says, ‘Yes, I have this piercing because the Mayans did this because, etc.,’ and he says something like, ‘Modern imbecility is out of control.’ That line was exactly what he had said the day before in reference to some young stupidity he had observed. He’s a great theater actor with a rather snobby attitude toward filmmaking, with all the waiting, and I was lucky to have him and presented him as the real diva of the movie.”
Golino looks uncannily ageless, and I asked what was her Italian secret: Garlic?: “Actually, during ‘Rain Man,’ Dustin Hoffman ate so much garlic that, at a certain point, [director] Barry Levinson had us all come on the set, wearing face masks. I was 21, so undisciplined, and with Hoffman and Tom Cruise, these American actors at their most disciplined and focused. I had started being an actress at 17, but it was not enough to be pretty or have talent somewhere. You had to work, and there I was, making joints, so wild. Barry kept telling me, ‘Valeria, focus!’ It was great but also tough because every time you learn something, it is not always nice when you realize what you’ve been doing is wrong.
“I was the flavor of the month when I arrived and it was cool. There’s not one thing I regret about the 10 years in Hollywood and I made some of my best friends there, but it’s a dangerous place, too. Time goes by and you have to work to keep up this life you build for yourself –– mortgages and working constantly to support the six people working for you, the swimming pool, etc., the image of who I was. I finally realized what is inspiring to me. I love to live well, but to keep up this kind of good life is no longer a priority to me.
“The rest of the world is not like this. In Italy and Greece, we are in deep shit, don’t get me wrong, but I come from a different mentality. It’s not moralistic judgment at all, and if I was in a situation like Marion Cotillard or Penelope Cruz now, it would be different. But I was right before them, you see?”
Golino made “Big Top Pee-wee,” and had this to say about her talented, embattled co-star, Pee-wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens: “I adored him and was very much in pain for him during that troubled time he had. I was scandalized by this country, so hypocritical, which mistreated this man with all this talent. America creates these idols only to be able to get rid of them. Madonna was doing sex then, too, but it was a stylization of sex, which is okay. When it becomes real and also private, that is somehow a scandal! I love and respect him. We have been emailing each other lately and I am so happy to reconnect with him.”
Golino returned to Italy, where she is now based, and had to find her place in film again. She’s been working constantly and quite rewardingly there, although not many of her films have reached our shores. She confided one more secret of her eternal youth before I left her: “I am very happy in my personal life now, with a good man now. Yes, he is an actor, but nobody’s perfect, no?”
I heartily recommend Mint Theater’s “London Wall,” which, along with the revivals of “Cabaret” and “I Remember Mama” this season, is bringing the skilled gay writer of well-made plays John Van Druten back into so-deserved focus. This play (through Apr. 20 at 311 W. 43rd St.; ovationtix.com), written in 1931 and glowingly directed, acted, and designed by the estimable Mint, has much to say about women’s then-revolutionary position in the workplace and the killing lack of options offered to them, which somehow remains all too sadly pertinent today.