Though she had built up a very distinguished career in the theater and had appeared in a few films as a middle-aged woman, something seemed to click for Ruth Gordon, on screen at least, when she reached the age of seventy or so. We can’t know now what she was like on stage as Nora in A Doll’s House, as Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife, or as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, just three of her most conspicuous successes on stage. Theater critic Walter Kerr and theatrical grande dame Marian Seldes both said that Gordon’s Natasha in The Three Sisters was the best performance they’d ever seen, and it’s good to remember that she was up against Judith Anderson and Katharine Cornell in that fabled production, and that Natasha is not a leading role, but part of a Chekhov ensemble. Nor should it be forgotten that Gordon wrote, with her second husband Garson Kanin, some of George Cukor’s best films with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, including Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). This would be enough to place her in two different firmaments, but she went even further when she took up a film career in putative old age. Only Marie Dressler enjoyed the same elderly movie eminence; both Gordon and Dressler had decades of technical know-how to draw on in their latter-day film work, but it’s the unusual soul underlying their technique that made them connect so forcefully with audiences.
Gordon wrote three chatty memoirs, and she tells the same stories in them over and over again slightly differently, as if she’s an anecdote machine on the fritz, always returning to the phrases, “Think it over” and “Draw the veil.” Her headlong writing style is cheerfully indifferent to chronology, shape or personal revelation; instead of opening up about herself, she’d much rather tell you about Alexander Woolcott, Harpo Marx, Maude Adams, Edith Evans, Fanny Brice, Jeanne Eagels, and more obscure figures like the paralyzed playwright Ned Sheldon and the actress Pauline Lord. Her second book, My Side, goes into detail about some of her more sordid experiences as she tried to break into the business; she seemed to have no qualms about sleeping with producers if they would get a show going for her (she even relates that one of the shadier of these men offered her a porno movie when she was 19!).
In all three books, Gordon is frank and boastful about her cravings for clothes and jewels, her desire to “be a somebody” at any cost; she had abortions whenever she got pregnant with her first husband, Gregory Kelly, an actor who died of a heart attack in his early thirties. Then, perversely, she decided to keep the child that had been conceived out of wedlock with the demonic producer Jed Harris, who seems to have been a kind of Svengali figure for Gordon. Whenever Harris enters her story, Gordon blabs and blabs about minor details but keeps their relationship fairly mysterious; their illegitimate son was brought up by Harris’ family, so that there’d be no scandal. She keeps her lengthy second marriage to Kanin just as cryptic, even though he figures in many of her polished stories; perhaps she was as much of a mythmaker and outright liar as he was.
“If I’d known I was going to be in Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov, I’d have never left Quincy, Mass.,” she admits. “I was hoping to get in the Follies or The Passing Show or anything that wouldn’t improve anybody.” At five feet tall, with a plain, severe face, Gordon could have been trapped in Margaret Hamilton bits, but the gleam in her eye paved the way for sexier, more disturbing things. Roman Polanski tells a story about how he was walking to the set of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and suddenly became alert to a short girl in a mini-skirt with an amazing ass and shapely legs. “The girl turned around, and it was Ruth Gordon!” he said. A switcheroo like that was one of her best tricks on screen, and presumably on stage; she can be young and old at once, or ugly and beautiful (or loving and devious). Gordon was probably capable of anything, so that you wonder whether she might have been tempted to do that porno film in 1915, for sheer shock value. Witch or free spirit, lunatic or sage, Gordon was great at keeping us all off guard; even when she was just phoning it in for her later movies (in one she supported Pia Zadora!), she was phoning it in from Mars, or some kingdom of her own.
1. Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940): Gordon had tested for various films over the years, including Little Man, What Now? (1934), but no matter how many hits she had in the theater, producers always told her she was un-photographable. When her pal Robert Sherwood wanted her to play Mary Todd in this film of his play, Gordon refused to test and got the role, her only real movie lead as a youngish woman. In a jet-black wig and dresses that seem to move as if they’re frightened of her, Gordon lightly hits all the moods of this unstable, stubborn woman; her appearance and manner are so eerie and unusual that it’s easy to think that the real Mary Todd Lincoln must have looked and sounded a lot like Gordon does here. As Mary becomes more of a nag, Gordon makes her face forbidding, masculine; when she snarls, “Stop it!” at Abe (Raymond Massey) and her noisy children during a family photo sitting, she lets us hear the madness that waits to take hold of this woman after her husband is assassinated. Sherwood’s dialogue is stiff and obvious, and it’s not the most exciting movie, but Gordon is compelling enough here that you wish someone had filmed her production of A Doll’s House, or her definitive Dolly Levi.
2. Inside Daisy Clover (1966): After a number of years away, Gordon returned to the screen as Natalie Wood’s mother (called The Dealer) in this adaptation of a Gavin Lambert Hollywood novel. She sets about stealing the film and establishing her late film stardom from her first scene, where she makes even the most reasonable line of dialogue sound like the most aggressive non-sequitur; this characterization is an extremely accurate portrait of a provincial, Edith Massey-type woman from Massachusetts or Maryland, the kind that goes to drink at taverns every night, has harmless delusions, and basically keeps to herself. Katharine Hepburn took a lot from Gordon’s nasal voice and strange vocal emphases, but no one would or could steal her distracted joie de vivre, which is why her last two scenes here are so touching. The Dealer is institutionalized, and when we see her again, her face is a scared blank, all the exuberance drained out of it. This is an unconvincing film (Wood is particularly poor in it), but Gordon gives The Dealer her own vibrant one-act play right in the middle of it.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): As Minnie Castevet, a pushy wife to the leader of a Satanic cult (Sidney Blackmer), Gordon is dressed up as a kind of moving/talking Diane Arbus photograph, all clanky jewelry and flowered hats and lurid blue eye-shadow on her lined, painted little face. She hauls out her full arsenal of eccentric mannerisms for poor Rosemary (Mia Farrow): mouth twitches, tongue darts, groovy “dancing” to paper over awkward moments, running her words together, then chopping them up. Minnie’s quirks are so outsized that Rosemary’s husband (John Cassavettes) easily parodies them after a crucial dinner, but we see in her later scenes that Gordon is kicking all of her gongs for a reason: to keep Rosemary preoccupied. Her delivery might seem arbitrary, but Gordon/Minnie carefully plots her effects to get what she needs. Only once do we see her with her guard down, when Rosemary sees Minnie standing silently at her door through a keyhole; her face is still for once, calm, even a little melancholy. Gordon provides some welcome laughs in Polanski’s heavy, rather exhausting thriller, but it’s Minnie’s comic “kookiness” that makes her maybe the scariest of the demons here, a recognizable old lady “type” who hams up her own tics for evil purposes.
4. Where’s Poppa? (1970): This Carl Reiner effort is a chaotic, tasteless comedy, to be sure, but Gordon is in her instinctive element as a senile Mrs. Portnoy sexpot who has enough brains left to mercilessly manipulate her son (George Segal). She cups her breasts as she stares at herself in the mirror in her favorite red dress (“Shows off my fig-ure,” she dithers), insists on Coca-Cola on her Lucky Charms for breakfast, and chuckles over her violent impulses (“I liked pinchin’ her,” she says, of a former nurse, one of many who have come and gone). When Segal brings a girl home to meet her, Gordon charges into Oedipal nightmare territory, comparing Segal’s “pecker” with the pecker of his dead Poppa, then yanking down his pants to extol and kiss and then bite his “tush.” The original ending, which is included on the DVD, is much scarier, and more interesting, than the mild conclusion used in its first run, and it brings home the inescapable fascination of Gordon’s impish old lady sexuality.
5. Harold and Maude (1971): A cult classic, this archetypal Hal Ashby joint is surely the film that Gordon will always be remembered for. As 79 year-old Maude, an anarchist, revolutionary and survivor of a concentration camp (the quick shot of the number on her arm is easy to miss), Gordon’s dangerous lust for life is ideally paired with baby-ish Bud Cort’s creepy longing for death, and they make the whole enterprise work (along with some fine Cat Stevens songs). There’s an unresolved tension in this well-loved film between Ashby’s laidback, mournful visual style and the often-crude burlesque tone of Colin Higgins’ script, but the lead players are so in synch that they create their own mood and balance. When Gordon is given a line like, “How the world still dearly loves a cage,” she throws it away, suggesting Maude’s real sadness underneath the stilted wording. Higgins’ conception of Maude is conventional, even slightly phony, but Gordon seizes on what he gives her as an opportunity to express all her detailed feelings about the pleasures and limits of sensuality. When young Harold sleeps with her, it doesn’t feel “daring” or grotesque; it doesn’t feel natural, exactly, but it does feel like the final triumph of a weird little girl from Quincy, Massachusetts who wanted to be pretty in pink on the stage and lived an exuberantly greedy, heedless, off-center artistic life.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.