A Boy of Twenty and a Woman of Eighty
The following interview with actor Ruth Gordon originally appeared in the April 4, 1971, edition of the New York Times.
“Have ya gotta angle for the story?”
The accent—part New England hayseed, part Dead-End Kid—is unmistakable. It belongs to Ruth Gordon. Well, it’s not hers, exactly; it’s a variation on the accent she used when she played Minnie Castavet in Rosemary’s Baby. But why shouldn’t she use it? Three years ago—when she was seventy-two—that accent helped her to win an Oscar for best supporting actress. And that award helped her to get her present part in Harold and Maude. She plays Maude, an eighty-year-old woman who has a love affair—nude scenes and all—with a twenty-year-old boy and dies at the end. Another love story by Paramount.
You’re sitting in her mobile dressing room near Lands End, and she’s asking again in that asperulous accent, “Have ya gotta angle?”
“Y-e-s,” you hesitate, thinking to yourself that she really looks about thirty years too young for the part in her fringed leather jacket and sandalwood hippie beads.
“’Cause if ya don’t, I gotta angle.” She goes right on: “How many actresses are there whose careers have peaked at age seventy-five?”
Okay. Have it her way. She’s entitled. But remember to ask about the nude scenes later.
“Ya know,” she says, “Thornton Wilder asked me, ‘Why do you have to tell everybody your age?’ Well, I figure everyone knows an actress’s age. I went on the stage in 1915 as Nibs in Peter Pan. They didn’t bring me on in baby clothes. I was nineteen at the time. So I figure my age is known. But I tell plenty a’ lies. I took that up two years ago.”
“What kind of lies?”
“Anythin’ that’s useful,” she replies truthfully. “And a year ago, I took up selfishness. And this year, look out, ’cause I took up vindictiveness. I’m gonna give it out to anybody who did anythin’ wrong to me. I’m not gonna lose track of lyin’ or selfishness, but I’m addin’ to it vindictiveness.”
“Look,” I suggest, only half-seriously, “let’s pack it up. I probably won’t know when I’m being conned, and I’ve got a responsibility to the readers.”
“No, stay,” she insists. “We’re not tryin’ to get somethin’ truthful, we’re tryin’ to get somethin’ interestin’—so people won’t throw it away and start readin’ Walter Kerr.”
“Lissen,” she confides, “if you’re gonna be a star, don’t start later than four years old. At four, you’ve gotta start curbin’ your family into line. You’ve gotta get everybody sorta comin’ your way. And you’ve gotta start makin’ things happen for ya. Now, maybe ya can still do that at five, but if ya haven’t begun by then, forget it. So, I have roughly seventy years of experience, and that’s seventy years with the blinders on, ’cause I’m a careerist. I love people, and I love a lotta other things, but I’m a dedicated careerist. I’m just gonna be what I’m gonna be. And that’s nothin’ to do with the time, nothin’ to do with my age, nothin’ to do with whether my hair is tinted or whether it’s gray, or whether I’ve got wrinkles or whether I’ve had my face lifted. My talent—of which there is a great deal—has just been trainin’ itself for seventy years. And I have to see that I realize what I set out to do, ’cause I’ve got a helluva investment in myself, and it would be terrible, just terrible, if it didn’t realize itself.
* * *
“And ya know,” the feisty little five-foot star goes on, “I think I’m terribly interestin’. I’m a classic. The wonderful thing about a classic is that a classic never grows old, a classic is eternally modern. Would ya believe it, I never think of myself as old. And I think I should be playin’ all the young parts. Just ’cause I look old and everythin’, that doesn’t really matter, ’cause I’ve got the talent to do those parts. Of course, everybody doesn’t join me in this. And if a part calls for a thirty-year-old, I know they’re not gonna cast me. So I hafta wait until the right genre of a part comes along. And I don’t hafta tell ya, it’s rare that ya get a lead that calls for an eighty-year-old. But I’m gonna be terrific as Maude—even more terrific than I was as Minnie Castavet.”
Enough of this white knight stuff. Did she have any qualms about taking the part? About bucking the taboo against cradle-snatching, especially as done by an old woman?
“I never have qualms about takin’ a great part,” the careerist replies evenly, “unless the part stands for somethin’ I don’t believe in. This says ‘a boy of twenty and a woman of eighty.’ If somebody decrepit and fallin’ down the stairs got married to an eighteen-year-old, I guess that wouldn’t be too appropriate. But you gotta show me the lady and you gotta show me the guy. My God, I’ll be seventy-five, and I think I’m terribly attractive. I don’t know why I should change in five years. I’m gonna be a mighty big smash and a sexpot and everythin’ at eighty. Lynn Fontanne is eighty-two. Well, have ya seen her? She looks more dazzlin’ than you and me put together. I don’t know whatcha can say about sex, except that Coolidge said, ‘I’m for it.’ Ya know, I think it’s great. It’s part of life, isn’t it? And it’s what makes the clock tick.”
“Listen,” I put in, “your husband, Garson [Kanin], is sixteen years younger than you are. But what if he were sixty years younger than you? Maybe you would’ve collaborated on screenplays. But would you have made it? Isn’t Harold and Maude too incredible?”
“Anythin’ is credible to me,” she replies softly, with a kind, no-nonsense smile, “except tryin’ to understand anythin’. That, I think, is incredible. And, I think, if you’re an adult, it’s extremely juvenile to want to understand anythin’. All ya can hope to do is to feel somethin’. Is it credible that the world’s in the mess it’s in and that no one knows how to solve anythin’ or what to do about it? Actin’ is a kind of Zen thing. Peter Pan is about a little boy who’s lost and lives in the treetops. Is that credible? No. But if you’re an actress and you’re playin’ Peter Pan, ya take the Peter Pan pill. Well, I’ve taken the Maude pill.”
And will she play the nude scene nude?
“That’s not a very interestin’ question.” Silence. “In this day and age, everybody is in nude scenes or is not in nude scenes. I haven’t thought about it. I don’t even know if the nude scenes are in or out. I guess I’ll do what Hal Ashby, the director, tells me to do. If he wants the nude scenes done in a body stockin’, then they’ll be done in a body stockin’. And if he wants them done in winter underdrawers, then they’ll be done in winter underdrawers.”
And if he wants them done in the nude?
“Then they’ll be done bare-ass. What can I do?” Silence. She has answered me coyly, somehow chaste as a cloistered girl. “I’m a careerist, and in a film or a play, I would do whatever the director tells me—except for one thing: smoke a cigarette. That I wouldn’t do.”
* * *
Leaving Ruth Gordon’s dressing room, you encounter Bud Cort, at twenty-one the blue-eyed, baby-faced veteran of such films as M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud. In Harold and Maude, he plays Ruth Gordon’s lover, Harold. You ask him, with a certain amount of embarrassment, whether he thinks the relationships in the movie are credible.
“Oh, Lord,” he says, “I don’t know why not. When I was growing up, I used to hang out a lot with my great-grandmother. And she used to put me on incredible trips. Wow! Hell, everyone’s getting liberated. And I’ll tell you something. I walk around now and I look at old ladies, and they look pretty good.”
In real life, he assures you, Ruth Gordon is anything but an old woman. “She’s like a fifteen-year-old teenybopper. She jukes around. And she’s got more energy than anybody I know—including me. I’m really looking forward to getting it on with her. You know, she talks about her husband, Garson Kanin, all the time. I’ve seen some of the films he’s written, and I guess he’s a genius. But I think she talks about him too much. I think she ought to spend a little more time with me.”