Talking with Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint

Once an Oscar winner, always an Oscar winner, and Eva Marie Saint, who won a supporting actress award for her feature film debut in 1954's "On the Waterfront," still breathes the rarefied air of a Hollywood icon despite appearing in only about 20 feature films. Of course, graduating from Oscar winner to Hitchcock blond five years later with her memorable role in "North by Northwest" didn't hurt.

These days, Saint is still trolling for good roles. She and her director-husband, Jeff Hayden, perform A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" around the country. She also is active with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and served on the judging committee for the prestigious Nicholls Fellowships in Screenwriting for more than two decades. Not one to decorate her Westwood home with statuettes and self-referential memorabilia, she recently exhumed a few photos and memories from her early triumph in Hollywood.

I watched "On the Waterfront" again last night. First I have to ask you a question that's even more important than winning the Oscar: What was it like kissing Marlon Brando?

I thought of Jeff. That one love scene, I had a little trouble with that because I felt embarrassed because I was in a slip. I'd done a lot of live television but never a movie. And [ Elia] Kazan was such a wonderful director. He just came over and whispered in my ear. He didn't say "Rosebud." He said, "Jeff." That's all he had to say, and I was into it.

And Marlon was wonderful. He could analyze people just by looking at them. That made me slightly uncomfortable because I thought, "I think he knows more about me than I know about myself."

So you felt undressed in more than one respect.

Yes, exactly. Marlon was a genius, and somehow he lost the joy in acting. I only saw him once after "Waterfront," at a party for Elizabeth Taylor, maybe six years after the film. It was down in Beverly Hills, and I was so happy to see him. He came over, we hugged, and as we were hugging, he suddenly said, "Good to see you, see you later." Because over my shoulder was a very young girl. I said to Jeff, "Hmmm." And that was the last of it. Maybe if I'd been alone, right? It would have been different.

As you said, "Waterfront" was your feature film debut. Were you surprised to get the nomination?

Oh, absolutely. The film was made in New York, all New York actors, in black and white. And at that time there was a little jealousy between Hollywood and New York. Because none of us thought we'd be in the running. You have to know in those days you didn't have the big ads, you didn't have all the screenings around town, you didn't have the publicity. When you accepted your Oscar, you just said, "Thank you." Now I said a little more than most people, because I said, "Thank you, I'm so excited. I may have the baby right here." I had him two days later.

Where did you accept the award?

It was all in New York. It was on television, but they had a coaxial cable, and they brought in New York and they brought in Hollywood. So they had to go back and forth.

Was it scary?

No, it wasn't scary. It was just very exciting, and I was very, very happy. And it was almost too much, because I was having a baby and my mind was really there. I had my baby in the hospital, and there were so many flowers it looked like I had died.

Was that your first child?

Yes, he's 54. No, we didn't call him Oscar. We called him Darrell.

Was there an after-party?

Yeah, down in a Chinese restaurant. It wasn't that big a deal. For me, it was. But it's really out of proportion now. There are too many awards shows. At this time, there was only the Oscar, and that made it very special. How many are there now, seven awards shows? It's still important, the Oscars, but I think the other shows take away from it. There's so much advertising, and the person who has the money pushes a movie, and it might not be the best movie. That night was so simple. We had a Chinese dinner and a few beers.

So how did winning an Oscar change your life, beyond the fact that we're here doing this interview 55 years later?

Fifty-five, gosh. Well, I had done all that live television, did the movie, and Jeffrey and I did a "Person to Person" with Edward Murrow. It's so funny, because I'm saying, "I don't want to go to Hollywood. Theater is what we'll do." How your life changes.

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