APPRECIATIONS : Remick Proved a Beautiful Role Model
The actors and actresses we watch on screens large and small are sometimes love objects, occasionally role models, but perhaps most often simply figures of fascination who lead us to wonder what they are really like in their private lives (when we haven’t been told by the checkout stand tabloids, or even more so when we have).
Both Lee Remick and Michael Landon, who died from cancer within a day of each other this week, became role models of a special and remarkable kind in their real lives.
They offered us profiles in courage as they both accepted and, as long as each could, defied the terrible medical news that came to them as it comes to so many others.
When I last talked with Lee Remick a year and a half ago, she had been battling kidney cancer for nearly a year. Her silent struggle had been, as she said, “drastic and horrible--and successful.” Now that she had conquered it, she felt free to go public with the fight, for the encouragement of others, and to get on with her career.
She was no longer the sensual but somehow innocent 22-year-old cheerleader marrying Andy Griffith in the Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg “A Face in the Crowd,” her unforgettable film debut. But she was a breathtakingly beautiful mature woman, whose ordeal could be seen only in a kind of deeper wisdom in her eyes.
Whether in the privacy of her thoughts she was entirely confident she had beaten the disease I have no way of knowing. But if she wasn’t, the disguise was perfect and she was eager simply to look ahead and talk of the roles that awaited her.
In the picture gallery of fine American actresses, she holds a special place. She was always, indubitably, Lee Remick; her beauty, both perky and patrician, and her obvious intelligence were hers alone. But her gift as a superior actress, like the gift of all really good actresses, was to move so far into the role that she ceased to be the actress acting and became the character. She induced that willing surrender of disbelief.
The range was wonderful, from the sexy and teasing young things of “The Long Hot Summer” and “Anatomy of a Murder” (in which she was sensationally and mischievously fine) to the alcoholic wife in “Days of Wine and Roses” and the elegant and somehow mysterious lady in “The Europeans.” In her mid-50s (she was 55 when she died), she had succeeded in the hardest career chore for any actress, moving smoothly up the age ranges from the nubile newcomer to the riper allure of what the French call “a woman of a certain age.”
She had begun on stage when she was only 16, did summer stock, live television and a short-lived but unforgettable Stephen Sondheim musical: his first, “Anyone Can Whistle,” with Angela Lansbury. She was going to do Sondheim again, his “A Little Night Music” here in Los Angeles, when illness overtook her and forced her to abandon the idea.
When film work slowed down, as it has for nearly everyone, she blossomed again in television, playing the title role as Winston Churchill’s American-born mother “Jennie” and a range of other productions from “The Blue Knight” to Henry James’ “The Ambassadors” and “Mistral’s Daughters.”
When we talked last year, Lee Remick was remembering a curious moment when she became aware of a woman studying her closely in a restaurant. Eventually the woman got her nerve together and came to her table and asked, “You’re Lee Remick, aren’t you?”
The actress said, “Yes, I’m Lee Remick.”
“I thought so,” the woman said. “You look so much like her, and she’s so pretty.”
Lee Remick regarded the moment as mystical, almost metaphysical. “Then I realized that she was separating the me she saw on the screen from the me she was seeing in person.”
When I heard the sad news Tuesday morning, I thought of that restaurant encounter as Lee Remick had described it. It is true that our stars have both public and private lives, and probably more often than not the latter are not as romanticized and idealized as the former, or the tabloids would have little to write about.
But once in a while there is a beautiful concurrence between the private person and the public performance. As an actress, Lee Remick was a role model to inspire any young performer. As a private woman confronting the hardest news of all with courage and dignity, Lee Remick was a model for the world.