The where and when of the telling have long since faded from memory, but the papery voice of Ruth Gordon telling about her Broadway debut lingers like a just-played song.
When she died Aug. 28, she was 88 but still in full career. In her story, the year was 1915, she was not yet 20 and, to hear her tell it, her stage career was going to be over before it began. She was convinced she was terrible. On opening day she cried, threw up and cried some more and was working herself toward total nervous collapse.
She sought out the director and told him she couldn’t possibly go on. Send in the understudy, she said, groaning. The director was astonished. What on earth was she talking about? She was going to be terrific, wonderful; it was all going to be a piece of cake.
Gordon (a wonderful raconteur all her days) felt the panic melting away. Really all right? A triumph, the director insisted. Were there, she asked, any little last-minute words of advice, any small notes left over from the dress rehearsal?
The director thought a minute, then gave a dismissive wave as if something had come to mind but was hardly worth noting.
“Well . . . , " he said.
“Yes?” she said.
“There’s one thing, I suppose. . . . “
“Yes, yes?” she said.
“Watch those mannerisms,” the director said.
Despite the catastrophic guidance, she survived the day and the night, and triumphed and in time became the best advertisement for seniority since Bertrand Russell.
Survival is the achievement the show-business community prizes above all others, because it’s the hardest. Getting there is one thing; staying there is something else. Forgetfulness is a kind of acid rain that eats away at quick fame. Obscurity is the natural cause of celebrity death, so to speak, turning the one-shot success into What’s His Name and You Remember Her. (Oh, the dreadful finger-snapping as recollection tries to work.)
Time is hardest on actresses. The radiant ingenue does not necessarily become the player of sophisticated careerists of 30, the worldly women of 40, the interesting character personalities of 50 and beyond.
Gordon was unique among actresses, not only because she defied the passing of time but because she used it like a bonus, a spiritual annuity paying off.
She grew more vivid and valuable as a character as she went along. Despite the achievements and honors of her career as a stage and film actress and writer in what you customarily would have said was her prime, she in effect began a new career when she was 70 (the year, 1966, she played rather raucous characters in “Inside Daisy Clover” and George Axelrod’s updated Faust story, “Lord Love a Duck”).
After more than half a century of acclaim sufficient to satisfy most actresses’ dreams, Gordon became a pop star with “Rosemary’s Baby.” She was, as if it were possible, sweetly satanic, comfortably wicked, benignly dangerous. Goodness was overmatched in its battles with her.
She seemed thereafter to be playing herself, which is never quite true but never entirely wrong when it’s said of an actor. Being “natural” is not enough to see you through the readings, rehearsals, blockings, retakes and voice-dubbings; naturalness on the screen is its own form of impersonation.
But Gordon’s salty, uninhibited, sexy, sharp-witted, energetic, convention-snubbing, life-celebrating and joyous assertiveness on the screen obviously reflected what we might call her own soul-set.
The heavenly earthy senior citizen who roared and cooed through “Harold and Maude,” “Where’s Poppa?” and “Every Which Way but Loose” was an irreplaceable original, for whom writers could provide lines but whom they couldn’t create, any more than writers could fully create the characters John Wayne played in his maturity.
In her glorious post-70 years, she was worth two dozen pages of exposition the moment the camera--grinning in anticipation--caught sight of her. She was an impeccable comedienne, a disciplined actress whose craft, properly, never drew attention to itself as craft.
But she was above all a woman whose whole life, the bruises and the triumphs alike, informed and enriched her performances. She was a life force who became a symbol of the vigorous and even riotous possibilities of the upper years. It is very likely true that the life and the role fed each other, and that her successes confirmed her private, passionate feeling that activity is the real fountain of youth, the rocking chair an item for the defeated.
No one made clearer that extra-inning games are the most pleasurable of all. She leaves with gratitude and affection for the performances, and that helpful truth.