Eva Marie Saint really, really wants to talk about On the Waterfront – and, I swear, so do I.
After all, our all-too-fleeting interview was set up specifically so she could promote the free-admission, Turner Classic Movies-sponsored screening of the still-potent 1954 drama scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She’ll be on hand – along with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz – to introduce the film, and take part in a post-screening Q&A.
She’ll be on hand – along with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz – to introduce On the Waterfront, and take part in a post-screening Q&A.
Just like any other movie buff, I want to hear all the inside skinny she’s willing to share about acting opposite the late, great Marlon Brando during his hunky heyday, and taking direction from legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan. Hey, I’m such a shameless fanboy, I actually feel a slight shiver whenever she refers to Kazan as “Gadg,” a nickname used only by his intimates.
But a great actress usually has more than one great movie on her resume. And when you actually get the opportunity to talk to Eva Marie Saint —excuse me, that’s Academy Award-winner Eva Marie Saint -- it’s hard to resist slipping into the mix a few questions about making North by Northwest with Alfred Hitchcock — whom she jokingly refers to as “my sugar daddy” because he insisted on personally buying her wardrobe at upscale department stores — or swatting the bejeepers out of co-star George Seagal (cast as her unfaithful husband) near the end of Irvin Kershner’s Loving.
(Using her purse as a blunt instrument on the guy was her own idea, she says, because “that’s what I would have done” had she been in the wife’s position.)
And then there was the time she played Sam Shepard’s mom in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, and the Man of Steel’s mom in Superman Returns…
And bless her heart, Ms. Saint likes to chat about other movies, too. Even ones in which she didn’t appear, but really liked.
But no. We’re both professionals, and dang it, we’ll stick to the subject at hand. Most of the time.
CultureMap: I often wonder what goes on inside an actor’s head when he or she watches one of their most famous films. I mean, when I view On the Waterfront, I know I’m looking at a classic. But when you look at it: Do you remember what you were thinking while you were shooting this or that scene? Or what was going on in your life that day?
Eva Marie Saint: That’s an interesting question. Because when people ask how an actor works, some actors are more articulate than others. I went to the Actors Studio – but I’m not that articulate about it. I know what I do, and how I get to certain places in the character in emotional scenes. And whenever I look back at a very emotional scene in On the Waterfront, I remember exactly what sense memory I was using. [Laughs] And that was quite a long time ago.
CM: Is it hard to be objective while watching your own work?
EMS: Oh, I can be very objective. I can sit there, loving the film, and I’m not distracted by the fact that I’m in the film. It’s an incredible experience.
But when it comes to emotional scenes, I am a little bit distracted when I remember what I was using. Because I’m always interested in -- well, did this work? Did that work?
CM: You mean after all these years, you’re still critical of yourself?
You can tell I liked Moneyball, right? I recently saw Brad Pitt at an event, and I told him how much I loved it. And I told him, “I don’t even watch baseball. And I don’t really like baseball movies.” And he said, “I don’t, either.”
EMS: Of course. I don’t think you can lose your objectivity. No matter how many times you’re at bat, as they say. [Laughs] You can tell I liked Moneyball, right? I recently saw Brad Pitt at an event, and I told him how much I loved it. And I told him, “I don’t even watch baseball. And I don’t really like baseball movies.” And he said, “I don’t, either.” I couldn’t believe it. But I thought his relationship with Jonah Hill was just beautiful. I loved that movie.
OK, back to On the Waterfront…
CM: You richly deserved your Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. But do you remember any scene in the film being especially difficult for you to make work?
EMS: There was one time when I was having trouble in my slip. I was very shy. Maybe it’s because my father was a Quaker, I don’t know, but I was shy. I’m still shy sometimes in a huge crowd. Not with the TCM people, though. So don’t worry, I won’t be shy that night in Houston. But back then, well, there I was on the set, in my slip, and I think I was a little nervous.
I mean, I’d never been anywhere in just my slip, except at home. And this is where [Marlon Brando] kisses me, and you see that they love one another. So Gadg came over to me. And he knew my husband [director Jeffrey Hayden], he’d met him. And he just whispered, “Jeff.” Right in my ear. And then I felt at ease, and went on with the scene. That was very clever of him. And Marlon never knew. [Laughs] He just thought that I really had the hots for him.
CM: That raises a point I’ve discussed with many other actors. When you’re emoting on camera, you’re really putting yourself out there, like walking on a tightrope. And you’ve got to really trust your director to protect you, to make sure you don’t go too far or fall off the wire. How did Elia Kazan earn your trust?
EMS: Well, he was from the Actors Studio, and I was from the Actors Studio. And most of the other main actors in the film were from the Actors Studio. So we all worked a certain way – that was a given. We walked on that set, and we knew that we’d work that way with Gadg. We trusted him, and he trusted you. And you know what? He was always by the camera. By that lens. He didn’t make faces, he didn’t do anything with his hands – he didn’t direct. His presence was enough. You didn’t look at him, because you’d be distracted. But he was there, in such a strong way. Nowadays, I sometimes work with directors, and they’re looking at some kind of machine, some kind of monitor, to see what’s going on. They could be two miles away. Sometimes, they’re blocks away when you’re filming outdoors. They’re not there on the set.
With Gadg, it was different. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, I think he was the strongest. I think it was the empathy that he had. And the trust that he had. It was just very strong. He was an actor’s director. You got the feeling that you were there because he thought you were the only young actress in New York who could play that role. He’d seen me in a play, The Trip to Bountiful, with Lillian Gish. He saw me in that play by Horton Foote, and he thought of me for Edie in On the Waterfront.
CM: What was the day-to-day atmosphere like on that set?
EMS: You were always rehearsing, always working. No one was ever sitting around on the set writing letters home, or knitting. If you weren’t in the scene they were shooting, you were off in another room rehearsing, getting ready for the scene they were going to do next. You would work out things, and then you would show them to Gadg on the set. And he would have suggestions, or he would not have suggestions, or he would say, “Let’s go ahead and shoot right away.” So you were always in that frame of mind: Work, work, work. Get it the best you can. Get everything out of it that you can.
CM: Some people have theorized that certain actors – even great actors, like Marlon Brando – are tormented by the nagging fear that, on some level, acting really isn’t a suitable job for a grown-up male. Which might explain some of Brando’s behavior in his later years. I know that neither one of us is a psychiatrist, but…
EMS: I’ve heard that theory, too. That men reach a certain age and think, “Oh, what I’m doing is kind of silly. Let the women do it. I need a real job.” Or something like that. “I need a serious job.” Marlon, when I worked with him, seemed to love acting. He seemed very, very happy, very, very content. He’d done some wonderful things.
But he reached a point in his life where I think he lost the love of acting. Somehow, somewhere, he lost it. And when he lost it, I was so upset. He went up on that mountain and he gained a lot of weight, and he didn’t want to see anybody. And if anybody wanted him for a role, the money would have to be there, right on the table, before he’d set foot on the set. All these horrible stories.
I’m not a psychiatrist, I can’t analyze what happened. But that’s what happened with Marlon. I still think he’s one of the best actors that America has ever had. And I really feel that way after working with him, and knowing him. You’d do a scene, and you knew what each of you had to say. But in each take, he always said it in a different way, so that your answer could not be exactly the way you thought you were going to answer.
You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors. But he was the finest.