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Life as performance art for a family not bound by typical assumptions

The actress Gladys Florence Ryan was in a crosswalk on the way to her West Hollywood gym, 24 Hour Fitness, when she was hit by a car and knocked to the ground.

And I almost forgot:

She’s 96 years old.

I heard about the Nov. 28 accident from Ryan’s daughter, Maureen Murphy, who wanted help going after the insurance company of the driver. Her “Muma,” as she called her, was recovering from a knee fracture and banged-up legs, and there were medical bills and lost wages to be recovered.

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But it turns out that the story of a 96-year-old woman getting mowed down on her way to the gym was the most normal thing about this family.

On my way to Ryan’s home in Hollywood, I asked Murphy by phone if she was an actress, too. “No, I was a comedian,” she said. “I was on the Johnny Carson show 10 times.”

At the house, the lovely Gladys Ryan sat on an easy chair, her leg in a brace, a look of hope on a face made more beautiful by each passing year.

As Ms. Ryan retold her story, Murphy began looking awfully familiar, as did her Australian accent, so I asked if she could describe her act.

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“I did male put-downs.”

Such as?

“I’m dating a man who says, ‘Would you like to come back to my apartment after dinner?’ And I say, ‘Well, yes, that would be lovely.’ And he says, ‘Then why don’t I pick you up at 9? You should have eaten by then.’ ”

“That always got a sure-fire laugh,” her mother proudly proclaimed, slapping herself on the knee.

They’re originally from England, where Ms. Ryan was a stage actress, Murphy told me. They moved to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia before settling in the U.S. in the 1960s.

“I had to give up acting for a while,” Ms. Ryan said.

Why’s that?

“Because I was wanted by the police,” the 96-year-old said, as if she were telling me she knits winter caps.

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Ms. Ryan explained that she had married “a drunken Irishman” who could be a menace when he was in his cups, so she grabbed the daughters without full custody and ran.

After he died, they settled in California, and she returned to acting, Murphy went into comedy and the other daughter, Eileen, put herself through medical school belly-dancing.

Well, of course she did.

And what about this movie Ms. Ryan is starring in now?

Well, said Ms. Ryan, it’s directed by Murphy.

She’s a director, too?

No, said Murphy. But six years ago, she was reading about Rembrandt and came across a reference to the Italian realist Caravaggio. She found his dark soul, passionate painting and brawling lifestyle captivating. She fell in love and decided to make a black comedy celebrating Caravaggio’s spirit.

OK, so it’s more than a little crazy. But I love living in a town where you open a door and find someone who believes against all logic that she can make a movie about a 16th century artist despite having never filmed so much as a Del Taco commercial.

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Two years ago, using her own savings, the retired comedian began making “Carravagio: The Search,” in which Caravaggio kills a man and as an act of redemption, must visit seven great artists and influence their work.

“It’s not an American movie,” Murphy said when she saw my reaction. She’s hoping to distribute in Europe.

She needed a real pro, though, to play the mother of each and every artist visited by Caravaggio. And Meryl Streep was busy.

“When I put Muma on camera,” said Murphy, “I knew I had my star.”

Muma looked as though she was preparing her Oscar acceptance speech.

So where is Murphy shooting this movie with virtually no budget?

In her home around the corner, she said.

“You should see her paintings,” said Ms. Ryan.

What paintings?

“Maureen has painted all the masterpieces of those great artists that we’re using in the movie.”

So she’s an artist too?

Not really, Murphy said, although she once had an act in which she sketched cartoons and sang while her sister belly danced.

OK. Why not?

I was in way too deep to turn back now, so we went to Murphy’s house, pushed open the door, and I was stunned.

She had painted an incredible “Mona Lisa,” as well as brilliant copies of Picasso, Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Raphael. She had done a Caravaggio ceiling mural. Almost the entire house was turned into a set, with black drapes against the walls and paint splatters in the room where she builds her dream.

She is half done with the film, she said, showing me some clips. She said hundreds of actors and wannabes have performed without pay, taking a one-in-a-million shot that it will pay off one day.

Dr. Martin Kast, a cancer research scientist at USC, told me he was at an event at the Dutch Embassy when he bumped into Murphy, who had invited herself to the party on a scouting mission. She needed a real Dutchman for her movie and asked if he might like to play Nicolaes Tulp, the doctor in Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson.”

“I thought it was a prank,” said Kast.

Not only is Kast in the movie, which he has helped translate, but his wife, two daughters and son also have roles.

Kast said he’s watched Murphy paint copies of masterpieces “in a day, and it looks just like the original.” He doesn’t know if the movie will ever be up on a screen, but he finds Murphy’s passion contagious, and said he has met so many other actors and directors while working on the film, he’s beginning to get offers on other projects.

“I even got an agent,” he said.

Getting back to the star, Ms. Ryan hopes to be back on the set in January. In the meantime, “the Jewish people help carry her in and out of the house” as she goes for doctor visits, Murphy said, speaking of their neighbors.

The driver who hit Ms. Ryan refused to speak to me, as did her representative at Mercury Insurance. Ms. Ryan’s attorney, Andrew Friedman, told me he was preparing a lawsuit.

Murphy, meanwhile, told me there was a home-invasion robbery in the neighborhood recently.

Must have been scary.

Actually, she said, she ran for her camera.

Her movie will end with a homicide, and now she’s already got the crime scene on tape.

It’s all falling into place.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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