SDNN: Feature on EVA MARIE SAINT in “On the Divide”
By Pat Launer
Beloved Saint: Screen Legend Eva Marie Saint Performs Live in Poway
Sex symbol. Femme Fatale. Hitch cock blonde. Eva Marie Saint tore up the screen in movies like “On the Waterfront” and “North by Northwest.” But she was fired from her first job, in “Mr. Roberts,” because she was considered to be “too prim and proper.” In perhaps her most memorable role, the one for which she won an Academy Award (the modest Catholic School girl, Edie Doyle, in “On the Waterfront”), her prudish outfit had a long-lasting effect.
“I wore that little navy blue dress for such a long time during the shoot,” the ebullient, 84 year-old movie star recalled in a recent phone conversation from her Los Angeles home, “that I never wore navy again. Any time a costume designer asked me about my preferences for style and color, I’d always say, ‘Anything but navy blue!’”
Saint, energetic and quick to laugh, has nearly 70 years of entertainment stories to tell, though she really doesn’t like to dwell on the past. Right now, she’s focused on her upcoming performance at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts (May 16), a rare public appearance when she and Jeffrey Hayden, her husband of 57 years, will present “On the Divide,” readings from the work of novelist Willa Cather.
The Great Divide: Nebraska and Beyond
The couple has taken this show on the road for the past couple of decades, even performing it in a theater named for Saint, at her alma mater, Ohio ’s Bowling Green State University . It all began in 1990, when they were invited to give a reading in Red Cloud, Nebraska , the childhood home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cather (1873-1947).
“They preserved her home, the opera house, the train station, everything just the way it was,” Saint muses. “It’s a very picturesque, charming town, which is the setting for most of her fiction. Seeing her bedroom, the old house, the cemetery, got us way beyond the writing. We were smitten. And from that one reading, we developed an evening of Cather work. She used such beautiful language, stark and lyrical.”
Saint’s “On the Divide” co-star is her lifelong leading man, an Emmy Award-winning director of more than 450 plays, films and network television classics, including “Leave it to Beaver,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Route 66,” “ Ironside ” and “Quincy,” for which he garnered the governor’s Media Award. Hayden has also won awards for his documentaries, about artist Corita Kent and “Children in American Schools,” a PBS production that earned him the Emmy. He’s directed numerous stage plays, by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, many featuring his wife.
In 1995, Saint appeared in a made-for-TV production of the Cather classic, “My Antonia,” with Jason Robards and Neil Patrick Harris.
“We filmed in Nebraska ,” says the movie star, vividly recalling the Plains as “nothing but the horizon, as far as you can see. It’s beautiful and calm – except for the tornado. That was really scary.”
What she loves about Cather’s work is how it “glorifies the courage and passion of women. Those sturdy females triumphed over the land. And her men have sensitivity and compassion.”
“She was really one of the early feminists,” adds Hayden, who adapted the two stories they’ll perform, ““Erik Hermannson’s Soul” and excerpts from “O Pioneers!” The evening is a dynamic blend of drama, romance and suspense.
“She went against the grain of her Victorian times,” Hayden continues. “She was quite outspoken.”
Saint can relate. Though people often think she’s just like pure, angelic Edie, she relishes a little devilish playfulness. Recently, on a TV appearance with a “prim and proper” interviewer, she was asked the secret of her marital longevity. Saint blurted out, “Sex!” The host blanched and they immediately cut to a commercial.
The actress is vibrant, engaging, delightful and inspiring. She laughs, she sings, she listens attentively. She’s a very seductive communicator.
When asked about all the stage work she and Hayden have done together, Saint contends that, “when we’re working, we turn off husband and wife. I respect him as a director and he respects me as an actor. It’s wonderful to go home and talk about it. I like sleeping with my director!”
Both got their start at the Actors Studio, which is where some of Saint’s highest-profile collaborators trained: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger , director Elia Kazan.
Not long ago, returning to his roots, Hayden gave up his half-century TV career to focus exclusively on stage directing. As a sometime actor, one of his favorite works is A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” which he and Eva Marie have toured around the country – and hope to come back to Poway to perform. In the meantime, Hayden has written a play, and is shopping his musical about Davy Crockett, with a score by L.A. composer Pete Romano.
How It Al l Began
It was actually a theater production that jump-started Saint’s legendary film career.
“ Kazan saw me on Broadway in ‘The Trip to Bountiful ,’” she recalls, “and he brought me in to audition for ‘On the Waterfront.’ I improvised with Marlon. When I found out that I got the role, I cried. I was terrified. I had never made a movie before. It was an incredible experience. Marlon was one of our finest actors, the finest I ever worked with.”
And that’s saying a lot, since the list of her leading men includes: Cary Grant, Paul Newman, James Mason, Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Richard Burton, Sam Shepard , Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, and Bob Hope.
As for the women with whom she’s shared a stage or screen, there’s Lillian Gish, Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Cicely Tyson, Kim Basinger and Cybill Shepherd, to name a few. It’s Gish and Lansbury who had the most lasting impact.
“I learned so much working with Lillian Gish on ‘The Trip to Bountiful ’ [on TV and stage, in 1953]. She had a backbone of steel, but she was so sensitive. She was such a professional, always the first to arrive and the last to leave. And onstage, she was the sweetest thing. Al ways trying to do the best for the cast, not to make herself shine. She never married, and had no children. She said she couldn’t have a career and be married. She admired me for being able to do both. She lived to over 90, and remained a lifelong friend. My kids loved visiting her. She was a mentor for me.
“And I’ll always remember something Angela Lansbury told me, not too long ago. ‘The parts that I’m offered’, she said, ‘are often old, decrepit women, and I refuse to play those roles. I want women my age to be presented the way they are — vital, productive members of society. These cliché-writers of older women must not have grandmas!’
“But I don’t look back. When people call me and tell me TCM is showing ‘North by Northwest,’ I say ‘Thanks so much for calling,’ and wouldn’t dream of turning on the TV. The last think I want to do is sit and watch myself! Lillian never looked back. She’d always say, ‘Today and tomorrow!’”
Regrets… Too Few to Mention
Saint has no regrets about her unwavering commitment to her two children and three grandchildren.
“I had a manager who wanted me to do twice as many things as I did. But I put my family first. He said, ‘You’ll never be a superstar.’ ‘Then I won’t be a superstar,’ I said. The kids always came first. My family is what I’m proudest of.”
Still, Saint never gave up the movies. She appeared in “Don’t Come Knocking” with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard in 2005, the same year she made “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a favorite recent experience, with Jeff Daniels and Cicely Tyson. In 2006, she played the adoptive mother of the Man of Steel in “Superman Returns.” And this year, she was invited onstage at the Academy Awards, to introduce one of the Best Supporting Actress nominees (Viola Davis in “Doubt”).
“I loved the Academy Awards appearance !, ” Saint enthuses. “It was one big love-in backstage.”
Now she has another film in the pipeline, “a wonderful project with a wonderful director,” but she won’t reveal any details until it’s definitive.
At home in L.A. , she and Hayden focus on their art. “We have a modest collection,” Saint says modestly, of their eclectic array of works by Andrew Wyeth, Frank Stella, Milton Avery, Winslow Homer, Wayne Thiebaud , and many others. “We love our collection and it’s an important part of our everyday lives. We continue to go to openings to find new gems.”
Her only professional regret? That she didn’t keep singing. In 1955, she snagged an Emmy nomination for the musical version of “Our Town,” which featured Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra. “What I always wanted to be was the woman singing Big Band songs with an all-male band!”
But she has done so much, starting from her upstate New York childhood in Al bany , a high school cheerleader who “could’ve been a baseball player, I hit the ball so far.” And a stage, television and screen actor who has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for film and one for TV. Years ago, she was nicknamed “the Helen Hayes of television.”
That was then, and Poway is now. One of the stories in “On the Divide” is a romance between a farm boy and a city girl.
“It’s a very sexy story,” says Saint, with an unsaintly chuckle. “Get ready!”
WHAT: “ON THE DIVIDE,” starring Eva Marie Saint and Jeffrey Hayden, at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts
WHEN: Saturday, May 16, 2009
WHERE: Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Road
TICKETS: Adults: $33-39; Youth 18 and under $5 ( with purchase of an adult ticket)
CONTACT: (858) 748.0505 ; www.powayarts.org