Like the 101-year-old shipwreck survivor she movingly plays in James Cameron’s epic “Titanic,” Gloria Stuart has stories to tell.
The 87-year-old actress may not have faced icebergs in the Atlantic, but she’s weathered formidable directors like John Ford and James Whale, defied Darryl Zanuck and Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr., fought to launch the Screen Actors Guild and lobbed butter at Humphrey Bogart.
One of the most exquisite blonds in 1930s Hollywood, Stuart brought elegance and sex appeal to horror classics (“The Old Dark House,” “The Invisible Man”), musicals (“Gold Diggers of 1935") and historical dramas (“The Prisoner of Shark Island”).
Stuart never achieved the one goal that she says inspired her film work: a career on Broadway, where she dreamed of playing Chekhov and Ibsen. But like the journey her character takes in “Titanic,” Stuart’s path has been filled with extraordinary surprises.
Not the least is her first major film role in half a century, a part that’s earned her Oscar talk and a Golden Globes nomination for best supporting actress.
In “Titanic” Stuart plays Old Rose, the elderly counterpart of Kate Winslet’s character. Rose’s memories of the 1912 tragedy frame the movie’s fictional romance and give voice to “Titanic’s” social criticism.
“Old Rose puts the focus on the immorality of the sinking,” the actress explains from the warmly lit kitchen of her Beverly Hills home. “The class consciousness that was so wicked--and lethal; the rich people got the boats.”
Stuart’s passion in discussing “Titanic” is all the more impressive, given that she’s just returned from a promotional tour that took her from Los Angeles to London to New York, and back home for the film’s premiere.
“I had my own limo in London,” she says, beaming. “Flowers, fresh fruit, champagne . . . my own girl Friday. Then the Concorde was the frosting on the cake.”
Definitely an improvement over the way Stuart was treated as a 1930s contract player at Universal, where she spent the most memorable years of her film career.
Born in Santa Monica on July 14, 1910, Stuart and her brother, Frank, both longed to be writers. Each pursued newspaper careers (Frank would become a sports writer at the Los Angeles Times)--"but I chose acting,” Stuart recalls, “because it paid better.”
Roles at Berkeley and the Pasadena Playhouse led to a contract at Universal. After a loan-out to Warner Bros. for 1932’s “Street of Women,” she was spotted by Universal’s top filmmaker, James Whale. The British director had just made “Frankenstein” and was casting another horror tale, “The Old Dark House.”
The result was Stuart’s favorite film experience, amid a cast that included Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey. “Everything was first-class. And James Whale couldn’t have been more exciting and fun to be with. He had a brilliant, acerbic tongue--lightning--daggers! But he was always wonderful with me. He took me to the theater to see Lunt and Fontanne, Kathryn Cornell. . . . He was a great director, very involved with the performance.” (Stuart is thrilled Whale is the subject of the upcoming film “Gods and Monsters,” starring Sir Ian McKellen; “it’s about time he got his due.”)
Whale helped protect Stuart on her next, less happy project with the director, playing Claude Rains’ fiancee in “The Invisible Man.” The following story elicits three perfect little performances from Stuart, as she mimics the methodical English diction of Whale, the disingenuous bluster of Rains and her own youthful feistiness.
“Claude had just come from the stage, where you can upstage people--turn them around, with their back to the audience. On our first take, we had our profiles to the camera, 50-50, and Claude started turning me around. I stopped and pushed him. . . .”
Stuart’s voice leaps an octave, a powerhouse of volume: “ ‘James! Look what he’s doing to me!’ James said, ‘Now, Claude. This is a motion picture. This is a camera. And if it doesn’t end up the way I set it up, we can do it again, and again, and again.’ Claude said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss Stuart, so sorry!’ Then on the second take, he started to do it again. ‘James!!’ ”
By the mid-1930s, Stuart found herself trapped in a different kind of repetition at Universal.
“I had come from Shakespeare, Molnar . . . and in pictures I was playing girl Fridays, girl reporters, girl detectives. Finally, my agent called me, jumping up and down: '[Carl Laemmle] Jr. wants to see you. This is it!’ I went tearing over.
“Junior was sitting behind his desk. ‘Sit down, Gloria. We have a wonderful idea for you. We’re going to make you . . . a female Tarzan!’ I guess it was a count of one, two, three. Then I really started screaming.”
And scream Stuart does 60 years later, pinching her voice in a flood of abuse.
“I left in tears. The unimagination of that concept is what I had to deal with all the time.”
Stuart left Universal for 20th Century Fox, but her luck didn’t improve; when she wasn’t starring in B-pictures, she was playing grown-up foil to Shirley Temple. If she complained, “Zanuck would say, ‘Now, Gloria, when you’re with Shirley, you’ll be seen by millions all over the world.’ ”
Some of Stuart’s most effective roles of the time were off screen. Around 1932, she rallied forces to help create the Screen Actors Guild. Later, she and close friend Dorothy Parker worked to found the League to Aid Spanish Orphans in the Spanish civil war. She also campaigned for the Hollywood Democratic Committee and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi Committee.
But one aim was maddeningly out of reach. When Stuart tried to move from screen to Broadway in the 1940s, “I never made it. It was years and years of disappointment--why couldn’t I and why haven’t I?”
Her second husband, Marx Brothers screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, convinced her to stop trying. “In those days, if you had a strong husband who wanted you to do something, you’d do it. It was difficult having someone you love by your side saying, ‘Give it up. Give it up.’ ”
For the next three decades, Stuart turned her energies to painting (her work has been exhibited in the U.S. and abroad), travel and entertaining. Two regular dinner guests in the early ‘40s were the tempestuous pair of Humphrey Bogart and wife Mayo Methot.
“They had a carpenter on retainer for their front door and the windows,” Stuart recalls, laughing. “It was a very physically violent marriage. We were at Slapsie Maxie’s one night, and Bogie said to Mayo, ‘Sluggy'--his nickname for her--'if you say that once more, you’re gonna get it.’
“She said it once more, and he pushed her and the whole table right over into the next table. She started to scream, and I called him what I thought he was. Bogie said to [my husband] Arthur, ‘Well, wouldn’t you have done that?’ And Arthur’s answer? ‘Well . . . not necessarily.’ It was crazy.”
By the 1970s, Sheekman was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“When he was in it deeply enough that he was not aware of what I was doing, I called everybody in the business still breathing, the sons and daughters of people I knew, and said, ‘I’d like to go back to work.’ ”
Stuart appeared on television shows like “Murder, She Wrote” and a handful of films--most happily, “My Favorite Year,” as Peter O’Toole’s dance partner in a nightclub scene.
“Peter was a dream to work with. He was in every scene in the picture, but Monday through Friday, every single day, he practiced dancing with me.
“One day, he asked me to have lunch with him. [Actress] Sian Phillips had been his wife, and I said to him, ‘How could you ever let such a beautiful woman go?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Booze and broads!’ He was a darling.”
Following Sheekman’s death in 1978, Stuart embarked on her “third life” after acting and painting: book printing. Her volumes can be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and at the Getty and Occidental College.
It was after a day of printing in her garage studio that Stuart received a phone call from casting agent Mali Finn. Would Stuart read for James Cameron’s “Titanic”?
“The next day, Jim came with a video camera. I read for him for about an hour . . . then I didn’t hear anything, so I wrote him a letter and said, ‘I’ve reread the script and I should’ve given it a feistier reading.’ I mailed it on Friday, and Monday Mali Finn called and said, ‘How would you like to be Old Rose?’ I screamed and I hollered.”
Cameron explains he selected Stuart because he was “looking for a pro from the ‘30s or ‘40s, someone probably retired, maybe off the Hollywood radar for a while.
“I had to have someone who’d play the latter part of the life of someone we’d recognize, Kate Winslet, so it couldn’t be someone like Katharine Hepburn. . . . We know so well what she looked like [when she was young]. Gloria had just enough distance, and she gave this fantastic reading.”
Stuart also has nothing but praise for her controversial director.
“James Cameron is a true Renaissance man. He’s a scientist who’s won two Academy Awards for invention, he’s a writer, director, producer, he was an actor, he’s an artist.
“It made me laugh--Jim would come on the set after the prop man worked very hard and rearrange everything. James Whale would do the same thing. They were very close like that.”
Advance word on Stuart’s performance has been so strong that she’s already been offered three films. She declined them all.
“One was a very stupid space thing. The second was a wonderful part of a dowager, but it got into such kinky sex and violence I couldn’t be part of it. And the third one, I didn’t have enough to do.
“At my age, time is very important, and energy is very important,” Stuart explains, sounding very much like her carpe diem character in “Titanic.”
“I love printing, and I have two more books to do. I want to do a book on the art of the kite, and I’ve written what I think are five or six first-rate poems, and my friends and children would like them in book form. So that will take me another year. By that time, I’ll be 88, going on 89.” After that, Gloria Stuart is open for offers. As long as they’re extraordinary.