Joan Plowright Just Wants to Have Fun
Joan Plowright has reached the stage at which she might be expected to do grand dame roles, which she has turned down in recent years. Instead, she is being Francoise Gilot’s grandmother in “Surviving Picasso” and the nanny in Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” playing midwife to Pongo’s 15 puppies.
Such roles are not to be scorned: “When you get such interesting and amusing film roles,” she says, “it doesn’t seem dreadfully exciting to be in the 257th revival of [the 19th century play] ‘The Rivals.’ And it’s fun setting off all over the world--and being extremely well-paid.” Her laughter is a rich deep brown, like her eyes.
She has blossomed onto the screen since her husband, Laurence Olivier, died in 1989, playing a series of matriarchal characters, notably Mrs. Fisher in “Enchanted April”; she modeled her style on a suffragette great-aunt and won an Oscar nomination. There was “Surviving Picasso,” which came and went last fall. And there are the Dalmatians. Has Hollywood claimed her? “No, my roots are here, my family is here, my terms of reference are here,” she says. “But I enjoy finding out about film, having been very much a theater animal.”
As a child, she acted in plays put on by her mother. At 15 she won a drama cup, the prize being a week playing a maid with the Harry Hanson Players, “plumping cushions and dusting.”
Seizing her opportunity, she went to London to see Hanson, wearing a coat with velvet collar and a velvet beret. The waiting room was lined with platinum blonds in furs, smoking cigarettes taken from silver cases. “Mr. Hanson raised his eyebrows in disbelief as I came through the door. He sat at a desk, with overflowing ashtrays. I told him I’d won his cup and said I wanted to act.
“He looked at me, kindly and avuncular, pointed to the wastebaskets stuffed with letters and said: ‘Go home, my dear, go home.’ So I went home until I got my scholarship to the Old Vic Theatre School.” When George Devine whisked her into the Royal Court, she starred in “The Country Wife,” and one night Olivier was in the audience.
“I was entranced,” Olivier wrote in his “Confessions of an Actor,” “by the Margery Pinchwife of Miss Joan Plowright, whose very name was enough to make me think thoughts of love.” He went backstage with his wife, Vivien Leigh, and had eyes for no one but Joan, “whose smile had more than a hint of mockery about it.”
He thought he represented everything a lass from northern England would despise. “I was titled, self-satisfied, pompous, patronizing. . . .” But when she played his daughter in Osborne’s “The Entertainer,” Olivier was smitten, and divorced Leigh in 1960. “I realized Larry was falling in love with me when he called me Miss Wheelshare in rehearsals,” she says. “He said it was equally agricultural.” Wheelshare later became the name of their company.
“My daughter found my schoolgirl diary, which said, ‘Got letter back from L.O.’ She had written a fan letter to Olivier after seeing him as Heathcliff. “Of course it would be a letter from his secretary, signed by him. But I didn’t know that at the time.”
Her own career took a back seat as she gave Olivier what he wanted: a family. And though he never quite managed to devote himself wholeheartedly to family life, Plowright kept the home fires burning. “Doesn’t every woman? Attitudes have not really changed. If a man is to achieve, someone has to step down for a bit, as long as each of you gets a turn. He was a world-famous figure, and I sensed the responsibility I had in helping to keep his life going in an enormously important, highly stressful job. Larry didn’t want us to be ships that passed in the night.
“When he was running the National, I was determined that we would not be ‘actor-manager and wife.’ I said I would not act with them for the first five years, and didn’t, apart from Vanya opposite Michael Redgrave.”
But eventually she was under contract for 10 years, the National repertoire allowing her to be at home half the time.
In “Saturday, Sunday, Monday” she earned a Swet award--now known as an Olivier, of course--cooking a spaghetti Bolognese on stage every night. “I nearly turned that part down, but they said: ‘You’ll have to make up your mind, because tomorrow we’re sending it to Rachel Roberts.’ The thought that somebody else might do it suddenly made me realize what a good part it was.”
The junior Oliviers, Richard, Tamsin and Julie-Kate, are now making their own waves--Richard is directing “Henry V,” the opening play at the new Globe next summer--"but I let them do their own publicity,” she says firmly.
While she was nursing her husband and turning down work, he “propelled” her into accepting her first American film role, in “I Love You to Death,” with Kevin Kline and Keanu Reeves. “My son Richard said he would move in while I was away and get Larry to record Shakespeare’s sonnets and scenes for an audiotape company. We asked Ian McKellen and Maggie Smith to come down: Maggie said: ‘Ooh, I don’t know, I’m very dubious. He’ll go on at me about my vowels.’ ”
That Hollywood excursion snowballed into five more films requiring a strong, matronly character. At 67, Plowright’s comfortable face and figure distinguish her from Hollywood actresses who strive in their 60s to look like Joan Collins. But she keeps fit in her swimming pool in Sussex and at health farms after each film.
According to Goldie Hawn in “The First Wives Club,” there are only three roles for a female film star: “Babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ” Plowright did a pilot for a television sitcom as Miss Daisy, but it was picketed by militant black groups for “sending out the wrong message,” so that, at the moment, is that.
In a British Channel 4 film about the making of “101 Dalmatians,” Plowright is seen waiting patiently in the wings while 10 puppies are coaxed into sitting still for 20 seconds, her face a mask of long suffering. “We were all warned that we would have to be patient. If the dogs got tired, they would be taken out to play in the fresh air; we couldn’t do that. But we remained in good humor however boring it got.
“Those puppies are so trusting; they are anybody’s for an orange and leap up and lick you as if you’re the love of their life.” Some critics have complained that the dogs don’t talk. “But that’s the whole point: The dogs talk their own language and get things done, while the talking humans are helpless.”
“One day, if good sense should prevail, Joan will make a superb director of a theater company,” Olivier wrote. She does have a directing project in mind, a television documentary. She also fancies doing a road movie with Jeanne Moreau. “We told a television interviewer that we would like to do an older version of ‘Thelma & Louise.’ ” She roars with laughter.
Between film offers, she is jotting down random thoughts for an autobiography. “When Larry was worried about where to start his book, he was told: ‘Picasso said it doesn’t matter where you start a portrait. You can start with the big toe.’ ”
Having married a husband 22 years older, she knew she might end up on her own. “You take it into account and talk about it, so to an extent you are prepared. But you can’t help it, if you have a great passion: It is better to have loved and lost. . . . And there is an energy from that love, which carries on.” Her husband once quoted: “Artists must be selfish, it is in fact their duty” from Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” admitting that his way of life had demanded great forbearance from his family: “What my beloved Joan has had to stand from me has since caused me much wonderment.”
At Olivier’s 1989 memorial service at Westminster Abbey, where John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and others performed--in some trepidation, feeling that Olivier was listening--they could have filled the abbey five times over. This year Lady Olivier had her usual Christmas gathering at Poets’ Corner in the abbey. “Every year the grandchildren light the candles and we put flowers and holly around the stone and sing one of Larry’s favorite carols, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ ”