The Determined Energy of Piper Laurie

The Determined Energy of Piper Laurie

Piper Laurie, at 86, is having quite a year with the release of two movies, “Snapshots,” directed by Melanie Mayron of “Thirtysomething” fame, and the attention-garnering “White Boy Rick.” In the first, she plays an 85-year-old grandmother, who divulges to her disapproving, homophobic daughter (Brooke Adams) that she had a lesbian love affair when she was in her 20s, and in the latter she is the mother of Matthew McConaughey, a shady gun seller, and stoic wife to Bruce Dern. I leapt at the chance to gab with this bluntly honest and altogether winning lady.

She enjoyed making “Snapshots” but said, “I just wish we’d had more time to prepare, but you can’t stop when you’re on a tight schedule so we filmed it upstate last summer. It was 90 degrees almost every day. I don’t know how we survived [laughs], the heat took the curl right out of my hair.”

Asked what woman she might consider as a lover, Laurie thought for a bit and answered, “Maybe Marlene Dietrich. She was a wonderful, underrated actress, too, I just saw and enjoyed her in ‘The Devil is a Woman.’”

It’s hard to think of an actress who has had a more varied career than Laurie. Signed to a seven-year contract at Universal when she was 17, after auditioning with a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ “This Property is Condemned,” one of her early quality pictures among a morass of largely programmer junk was “Until They Sail,” with Paul Newman and featuring Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons, and Sandra Dee as her sisters.

“I did enjoy that one, filmed in Australia and the backlot of MGM. Jean Simmons was lovely. We were very good friends and lived near each other. We would take walks together, and pass our ex-husbands’ houses [laughs]. She wasn’t drinking when I’d see her and she gave lovely tea parties. I really miss her, one of my few actress friends.

“I thought Joan Fontaine was a bitch, frankly. During rehearsals, she brought up the name of some elegant person that I’d been dating, and she made sure that I knew that she’d also dated him. That wasn’t very sisterly. That didn’t matter much, actually, as we didn’t have much to do with each other, scene-wise.

Laurie never got to actually meet the two queens of Hollywood, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but at age 16 she did audition for the part of evil Veda in “Mildred Pierce” (which went to Ann Blyth). “But I did not have Joan Crawford to work with. A studio executive played Mildred for me, this handsome, blonde guy named Bill Orr. They did not sign me.”

Universal, however did, and it was a mistake. Laurie never got to act in the kind of material she wanted “and I kept trying to break my contract when I realized that Universal was making the kinds of movies they did and I would never get any good material. Finally, after five years I was able to break it, and I came to New York as quickly as I could, to work in the theater and TV. I studied with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.”

Laurie appeared as Laura to Maureen Stapleton’s Amanda in the revival of “The Glass Menagerie.”

“It was a very important time for me. I love that part, such a treat and also working with Maureen, an extraordinary person and actress.Tennessee was around for all the rehearsals and performances when we tried it out in New Jersey. I thought this must have been B.S., but apparently Tennessee told everyone that I was the first person who ever really got my character right. He liked what I was doing, and it was thrilling.”

Laurie recalled working for Douglas Sirk, “in a movie I’d forgotten, ‘Has Anybody Seen My Gal?,’ a charming movie and we got along well, although I had a really stupid part… My part was really stupidly written and I have a problem remembering lines when they are really dumb. It’s hard for me to retain them. I had trouble with one scene in which I had to make an entrance and say this line with a lot of other actors involved. Three or four times I just messed up and Sirk was just ferocious, shouting at me with his deep voice, as insulting as he could possibly be. He called for a prop man to bring a drawing board to write out my line. It was just humiliating and I never forgave him for being so insensitive.”

Sirk made a star of Rock Hudson, who started at Universal with Laurie and was a good friend. “He became a really fine actor who could handle Sirk’s soap opera stuff marvelously well. We were very close, hung out together and he was just charming and funny. I was naive then. He never made a pass at me and I just figured I wasn’t his type. I guess I wasn’t! [Laughs.] I wasn’t aware that he was gay and am not even sure I understood all of that.”

Another Hollywood god she encountered was Paul Newman. Four years after working with him in “Until They Sail,” they worked together again in “The Hustler,” which crowned her early career, earning her first of three Oscar nominations. Her portrait of complex, suicidal, alcoholic Sarah who overthinks everything and rails at having no other identity but as “the girlfriend,” is so searing she makes this already tough Robert Rossen film even more lacerating.

“I didn’t think about my part at first, I thought about the script. I was doing a play at the time and kind of procrastinated reading the script as quickly as I should have. I sat down with it finally and by page three or four I wanted the role even though she doesn’t enter ‘til page 40. The writing and the story got me and I just hoped that I would fit in.”

What was it like to play intimate scenes with that chiseled face and those penetrating baby blues inches away from you?

“He very much underrated his own acting and in reality he was lovely man and a wonderful actor who kept growing. I kind of never really understood who my character was, she was so many things. It was really all playing with Paul, and he sort of guided me to the way it should happen.

“I kind of bore myself telling the same story but the first day, we were all sitting around the rehearsal table, Paul was right across from me, reading from the script. Oh boy, it was hard to concentrate looking at his face. It honestly took a two weeks to see him as just a guy who loved his two beers, gregarious and talking to people.”

Editor’s note: In the original posting of this article, the plot of “Snapshots” was inaccurately described.