The Mary Steenburgen Story By Lawrence Eisenberg

    Everybody should have Mary Steenburgen's problems. Let's look at the fairy-tale aspect: In the spring of 1972, Mary, age nineteen, moved to New York from her home in North Little Rock, Arkansas, after being accepted by the Neighborhood Playhouse, a select theater school. For five years she auditioned, made rounds, appeared in showcase productions, but mostly worked as a waitress. On May 7th, 1977, while sitting in a casting office, she was noticed by Jack Nicholson and several weeks later; became his costar in Goin' South. While shooting her second film, Time After Time she fell in love with her costar, Malcolm McDowell, and married him. For her third movie, Melvin and Howard, she won an Academy Award as best supporting actress. Meanwhile, Milos Forman had cast her as Mother, a leading role in his production of Ragtime. Finally, cementing the impression that she'd arrived, Woody Allen asked her to play his wife in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.
     It's a sequence that could turn the head of a catatonic. While she may not have a calculating bone in her body, Mary Steenburgen certainly has a great sense of direction.
     Near the Hudson river, in Greenwich village, in a fairy-tale house built by a sea captain nearly two centuries ago, Mary is leaping down the steps. She looks anything but a movie star-tall and thin in a turquoise cotton dress, her somewhat frizzy brown hair framing a pretty face and a neighborly smile. She leads a visitor to the first of two floors, her living room-dining room-kitchen. "If you could have seen this place an hour ago," she says. "What a mess! My husband is sick with food poisoning and he's upstairs, sleeping."
     A roast marinates on the kitchen counter, surrounded by herbs and utensils, as Mary hastily adjusts teapot, cups and cookies on a tray. A floral-print blue couch and chair face each other on opposite sides of a fireplace, and a glass coffee table is a clutter of books and magazines. Line drawings are on the wall, a wooden duck on the mantel, an old-fashioned quilt thrown over the stair rail. It looks like an apartment you'd find in a magazine layout on busy New Yorkers. Except for the Academy Award on the bookcase.
     The slight natural sob in her voice becomes more pronounced. "I'm tremendously proud to have won it," she says, "but what really makes me smile was doing the work and knowing so many people went to the film and liked it. Is that sticky-sweetness or just another case of showbiz modesty? The celebrity who claims she's still one of the little people.
     "I'm surprised you pronounced my name correctly," she says (it is Steenburjen). "Few people do. Its a Dutch name that goes as far back as any of the family remembers-about three or four generations in Arkansas. They were all railroad people, from the beginning, and my father worked on the railroad for about forty years."
     That kind of background spawns homemakers and schoolteachers - no matter how talented they had been in school plays. So when Mary auditioned for a traveling talent representative for the Neighborhood Playhouse, she kept it a secret. When she was one of seventy chosen out of hundreds, it was a mixed blessing.
     "When I was growing up, my daddy had a heart condition," she says, "and we were encouraged never to make too much noise because it could cause Daddy to have a heart attack. It's only since I became an adult that I realized nobody's going to die if I get mad." Her smile changes direction several times. "But I had to tell him. I started the first sentence, and then it all came out in a torrent of tears. I finally told him how I felt I had to do this and I really couldn't be happy unless I did. He cleared his throat and said, "I don't really understand it, but if that's what you want to do, then were behind you, and I'll do anything I can to help you.'"
     The Neighborhood Playhouse held her over for a second year. As Sanford Meisner, the school's director of acting, puts it: "Something in her goes out to you. She seems not to have any negative emotions, and you get the feeling you don't have to defend yourself around her. She's that way as an actress and as a person."
     During---and following---those two years, she clerked in a bookstore and waitressed at the Magic Pan, a crepe restaurant. Along the way, she dumped her Southern accent and, with several other alumni from the Neighborhood Playhouse, formed an improvisational group called Cracked Tokens. They had no theater, so they made a deal with New York City's Bureau of Alcoholism to perform for people in halfway houses. "The people there weren't exactly ready to laugh, " she recalls. "But I think we took them away from their troubles for a while." Soon, while performing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, she was recommended to a casting director who agreed to see her on that fateful day of May 7th, 1977. Mary went through the standard interview, and then she asked whether anything was being cast. Yes, she was told, Goin' South, but only well-known actresses and models were being tested.
     "I decided I was going to sit in that stinking room until somebody saw me," she says. Jack Nicholson walked by, looked at her and asked why she didn't have a script. She mumbled that they hadn't gotten around to her yet. Nicholson handed her a script with three scenes marked off and told her he'd give her ten minutes the following day. "By the time something like that happens," she says, "you've had so many years of elation and disappointment that you begin to treat your heart very carefully. Earlier in the week, a job I'd been told I had in a television pilot was yanked out from under me and given to a blond with big boobs."
     Ten minutes stretched to two hours as she and Nicholson went through the script at Paramount's New York headquarters. "When I left I was so excited I screamed for thirty floors in the elevator of the Gulf & Western Building."
     Three days later, she was asked to come to L.A. to audition. With a new wardrobe - bought with part of a thousand-dollar loan from two Arkansas friends-she made the screen test, assumed she'd failed and went to Paramount for reimbursement for her hotel bill. She ran into Nicholson, who told her she had the part. "It was a great gift,' she says. 'Nobody could imagine what was happening in my mind not just in terms of work but life wise. I had no perspective. I didn't know if I was going to be an overnight international film star or back at the Magic Pan. You know, you dream of how wonderful it would be to go to the North Pole, and one night somebody comes in, doesn't give you a chance to pack your bags and-just picks you up, puts you there and waves goodbye. And you always wanted to be there, but don't have a clue as to what to do.
     Once the film was finished, Mary decided she'd only do projects she loved. 'I wasn't about to take every single movie of the week that was offered to me. She was unemployed for nine months, and Goin' South was a flop. But, as she says, 'If I have a talent at all, it's an unfailing belief that I'm going to survive and be fine."
     It may all sound stem and serious, but whenever Mary Steenburgen talks, there's a sense of self-amusement just beneath the surface that never stays dormant for long. Consider her Oscar. "I probably shouldn't say this," she says anyway. "but the Academy Award is the most glamorous night of your life. It's the biggie, and everybody's watching you on television. At the end, they ask you to go back out onto the stage, and as I was standing, there, I noticed I was in a pool of breast milk (she had given birth nine weeks earlier). And I thought, oh my God, this would not happen to Lana Turner. Luckily, I was wearing a black coat. Instead of going to the ball, we went home so I could feed the baby. Who was it who said our heroes usually become bores?"
     As Mary gets up to refill the cookie plate, it's suggested to her that a time of success is often a time for revenge. Is there a Bad Mary inside the ever-good Mary Steenburgen?
     “I remember being tremendously rejected by my sixth grade boyfriend" she says. "And I dreamed I'd become a movie star and live in a house like the 'Beverly Hillbillies'. I would go down the staircase and he would be at the bottom, and I'd be very gracious and forgiving." She thinks harder. "There was this guy who lived next door to me in New York who had seven barking dogs, and I used to go over and bang on his door at four in the morning, screaming and crying because I couldn't get any sleep. I saw him on the street last summer and sort of smirked at him. That was about the extent of my vengeance."
     She shrugs. "Malcolm went through an experience similar to mine, at the same age, with a successful film (if....), and that's probably one of the reasons we understand each other, because he had to learn what success means and what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that you're not answerable to other people, and it doesn't mean you can suddenly start acting like a big shot. You have to learn that stuff. Going off the deep end is kind of easy."
     She shakes her head. "To suddenly have a dream actually happen there is a little guilt that goes with it, because you want to take everybody with you, and your efforts to try to make it happen for them are fruitless. If I don't return a phone call right away, it's because I've suddenly got a swelled head. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to prove that I was still a decent human being. I don't do that anymore because I am a decent human being, and I don't have to prove it to anybody!'
     Mary and Malcolm met in late July 1978 and were married September 29th, 1980. "Growing up, I had dreams of what somebody would have to be, for me to fall madly in love. As I got older, everybody kept telling me it doesn't exist. I couldn't accept that. I didn't like to date; I didn't like to have love affairs. I always felt uncomfortable and untruthful. And then I met Malcolm, and that was the dream."
     She looks toward the upper floor. "Compatible is a terrible, boring word, but if anyone's compatible, it's that man. We spend ridiculously long amounts of time together without ever feeling tired of each other's company. What I like best about him is that he just dives into each day. He never takes things for granted, including his success and whatever money and good things have come his way. I refuse to read any more statistics about how difficult it is to make a marriage work. We both turn down jobs so we can be together."
     Footsteps on the stairs. It is Gloria, the housekeeper, carrying Lilly Amanda McDowell, born January 22nd, 1981. Mary rushes over to the baby, hugs her, tells her how glad she is to see her. When Gloria takes the baby back upstairs, Mary's eyes follow her until she's disappeared. "I tell you' " Mary says, "nobody can harm a hair on her head. It is amazing how passionate you feel about children. I just loved her so from the moment I watched her come out of my body. Malcolm was right there beside me, helping me do it. He kept staring in my face and making the pain go away. It was a very beautiful experience, not in any sort of bullshit way...just simple and lovely. That was the most powerful thing that ever happened to me."
     She shakes the teapot, considers making more decides to wait. "I feel sad sometimes about the heritage were leaving our children. There's an attitude that everything is a laugh. It's partially because we can sit and watch somebody being shot on television, and we don't see the reality. I can't imagine being casual about anybody else's life. I don't feel you should be able to get away with everything - not necessarily in a criminal way, but in terms of old-fashioned loyalties and responsibilities to your friends and the people you care for.
     "Listen, I make on one film what my father worked a lifetime to earn. It's ridiculous, and I don't begin to make as much as a lot of other people do. There better be some justification for that and it better come from me, when there are actors all over New York and L.A. who are hungry just to get a day on a film. I cannot take it for granted, because it seems like only a breath away that I might not have it. Those are some of the things I'm going to try to teach Lilly."
     Three months later. An old, rustic, gray-shingled house in Sneden's Landing, New York, on a late summer Sunday afternoon. The only way to park here is to drive onto the lawn, the main feature of which is a badminton net that won't see another summer. A peek through the top of the Dutch door to the kitchen establishes that nobody is here now, but the amiable disarray of kitchen utensils and baby items indicate that this is where Mary Steenburgern lives. People suddenly appear from everywhere: Mary drives her car onto the lawn. Accompanying her is Mike Kaplan, who was best man at her wedding. Lilly arrives next, in the arms of Allison, her new au pair. Following on their heels is Malcolm McDowell, in white shorts and sneakers. The big-news of the day is that Lilly, this afternoon, stood up for the first time in her life. Everybody announces this fact simultaneously, like an unrehearsed chorus.
     Mary, in a violet jumper and no makeup, smiles broadly at Lilly as she hugs her. Malcolm pats the child's cheek. Mary gets up to grind decaffeinated coffee beans, explaining that when you grind them they taste like real coffee. Malcolm offers some homemade cake. I have a piece. Mary has a piece. Malcolm says he will have none, and then eats half of Mary's. Malcolm, Mike, Allison and Lilly exeunt. A rather ratty, though beautiful, cat appears, rubbing against Mary's leg.
     "Today is our last day in this house" Mary says. She doesn't own it? It looks like--even the cat looks like--hers. She shakes her head. "She comes with the house. It's been convenient for the last four weeks, because we've been shooting Woody's movie nearby, but I've begun to miss New York, being able to walk to my newspaper stand and go to little restaurants and so forth. But I think the idea of commuting is kind of nice, too."
     The cat leaps onto Mary's lap, and she strokes its fur. "What first struck me when I met Woody," she says, "is that he looks exactly like what you expect him to look like. Other actors, when you meet them, are something like they appear on the screen, but not quite. Woody has what I call a very good bullshit barometer, and when an actor isn't telling the truth he reminds him of it You feel like you can sort of fly without looking down at the ground to see if you're falling. As a person Woody is ... well, not funny all the time, but I find I have to put my hand over my mouth and hold my nose at least 2 or 3 times a day." A slight break, a smile. "Woody is very private, and I don't think he's the sort of person that I'll be hanging out with a lot after I finish the film."
    Mary goes to check on Lilly upstairs. Meanwhile, in the living room, Malcolm is sprawled on the couch. Time perhaps to set out some more bad Mary bait: Mary says he's neater than she is.
     Malcolm twists a lamp's shade around. "Oh, that's true," he says. "God, she's a mess!" Pause. "Um, not really." Pause. "I actually don't mind her mess at all. I mean I like the place to look-as you can see-lived in. But I do have my little things, and I like to hang my trousers up on a hanger and stuff like that. Mary would just throw hers on the floor. It's probably a $300, a $3000 dress. I mean, I can't do that, but it doesn't bug me that she does it.
     "You know, Mary has amazing strength, a great sense of humor. She's a good person. I don't know many people as good as she is, or as nice. A lot has happened to her in two years, whatever it is, and that's been a difficult time because she's had to adjust and realign her whole life. But she's very levelheaded. She's from the South, and I think that's helped her."
    What about her faults?
    A mischievous glint. "She can be a bit holier-than-thou at times, but she doesn't have many. All the faults are on my side."
     Back in the kitchen, Mary pours the coffee. The compliments are duly related to her. It's as if she's too good to be true.
     "I'm not! I sometimes scream. Do I scream, Allison?" Allison, the au pair, gives half a nod. "When you're making movies, you're only as good as the people around you, and if somebody denies me something that I need to do my work, well, I get real pissed off and make demands. I'm not a primadonna, but I'm also not going to be pushed around. I learned that from Jack (Nicholson) and from Malcolm. Before we started shooting Goin' South, Jack said, "Your work is your priority. If you need a motor home because you're in the middle of the desert and you're in period clothes, you don't have to feel like you're an elitist to demand it. It's having enough rest so that when you get out there in front of the camera, you can do what you're supposed to do.
     "On a personal level, I can't stand for the people I love to have anything bad said about them or for them to be mistreated. I get angry at bureaucratic stupidity, and I can't stand ridiculous rules that don't make sense. There's a store that I've shopped at for ages-there's no telling how much money I've put into it-and now I can't go in there because there are no baby strollers allowed. I can understand a rule like that in a shop that's tiny, but there's room there. For a long time, when Malcolm and I would meet people, they would shake his hand and look into his eyes and keep looking at him while they shook my hand because he was a movie star, and they'd never heard of me. It made me mad, not because I needed their attention, but they were meeting another human being, movie star or not, and their priorities were screwed up. That used to piss me off a lot, and it pisses me off now that those same people are suddenly my good friends. I just hate all forms of indecency. Look, if I weren't guilty, ever, I would be a perfect person. I suppose I've hurt my friends occasionally, like everybody else. In a way, it's sort of a lofty thing for me to 'I hate all forms indecency.' It just seems to me that people should try to be kinder to each other." She shrugs. "Look, I'm a mess like everybody else.' A pause. "You know Gone with the Wind? I always related to Scarlett, never to Melanie."
     Eleven months later. A Mobile home, on Sutton Place in New York City. This is not a trailer park for upscale bag ladies. A movie is being shot here-Romantic Comedy, costarring Dudley Moore and Mary Steenburgen. The trailer is Mary's. Over the past year she's risen from up-and-coming to "hot." Producers talk about a "Mary Steenburgen type." She is getting all the offers (Mia Farrow starred in Romantic Comedy on Broadway, Arthur Hiller chose Mary for the movie). And she's also getting the reviews. With Ragtime and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, the one thing the critics agreed on was the quality of Mary. Doesn't somebody hate her? Hasn't anyone lured the Bad Mary out?
     She sits at the table in her trailer, in a beige jacket with green embroidery. Her hair is up, her makeup impeccable. She looks almost too grand for Mary. The word is out that she's abandoned the fairy-tale house in the Village for Malibu. Here it comes, the turnaround.
     "Me? Grand? Different? Not vastly," she says. "If there's any change, it's because I just came off. An extraordinary experience [portraying Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Martin Ritt's Cross Creek].' She sighs. "Things change when you have to more or less carry a film, as opposed to what I was doing on Melvin and Howard and Ragtime and Woody's film. The part was enormous. And now, doing another movie back-to-back. It was something I wanted to try. But the first day I was nuts. Terrified. It's like opening night. Also part of my hysteria is I'm away from Lilly for the first time in her life. I miss being socked in the face in the morning with her sneakers. She has an extraordinary sense of humor-which she needs with parents like us.
     Also, we've bought land in Ojai, California. We're sick of rented houses. We've had the Malibu place for a week, and before that, we were in Florida for three months for Cross Creek. And all our stuff is still in the house in the Village. We want to build a place where I can ride horses and we can have a garden to grow things and a sense of community for Lilly, where, when we say 'home' we'll know what we're referring to."
     Any other changes?
     "The other day," she says, "a man was telling me how much he enjoyed me in Woody's movie, and I read that if you're an actor, you have the unique experience of having people talk about you in front of you. You're constantly confronted by other people's opinions of you. I guess it's that voice inside me that says I want to survive and keep my own opinion of myself …When I was working on Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's character, I spoke to her husband, who's still alive. He said one day she'd be as prim as a New England schoolmarm and the next she'd be bawdy as hell, and I thought, of course, everybody is and so am I. I'm not too good to be true. I'm just as true as I can be."
     A knock on the trailer door. Mary is called for a scene with Dudley Moore who is up the block in a white suit next to a matching Rolls-Royce. She says, "Dudley makes me giggle so much that Arthur Hiller says he's going to have to add five days on to the schedule for my giggling,"
     Giggling? Give us a break, Mary. Then I wonder: why must everybody have aberrations in order to seem human? Suddenly, a light bulb goes on in my head: Mary Steenburgen is a nice person in a world uncomfortable with nice people.

©1982 Rolling Stone Magazine
Archived 1998-2008 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net