Ruth Gordon 1896-1985
There are only a handful of actors with personalities so unique they’re remembered long after the rest of the cast is forgotten. Thelma Ritter was one, Marjorie Main another. These women brought to the screen elements of themselves whether it be a plain speaking tower of common sense or a boisterous, good-natured, fun-loving matron, the fact that audiences sensed the realness of their performances not only endeared them in the public eye, but established them in a class by themselves. Ruth Gordon was one of these specialists that created memorable characterizations and like the others, developed a strong cult following.
Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of a sea-captain, young Ruth witnessed a performance by Hazel Dawn in a stage production of The Pink Lady, was bitten by the show-biz bug and began to aspire for a life on the stage. She convinced her father to take her to New York in 1914 where she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, appearing later that year in Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up as Nibs, one of the lost boys, to a very favorable review by Alexander Woolcott, an influential critic who became one of Ruth’s close friends and mentor.
By 1916 she began appearing as an extra in silent films in Ft. Lee N.J., never straying far from New York where she continued working on stage in a variety of Broadway productions. It was in one of these shows where she met and married actor Gregory Kelly in 1921. Gordon was typecast in “beautiful but dumb” roles in the early 20s and it was not until her husband’s death in 1927 from heart disease did she start to get offers for roles with more substance. She grew as an artist tremendously in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the restoration comedy The Country Wife at London’s Old Vic that eventually made it to Broadway, and in Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House during the 1930s.
She began appearing in supporting roles on film in the very early 40s beginning with Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet with Edward G. Robinson and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (as Mary Todd Lincoln) with Raymond Massey both in 1940. She appeared alongside Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Two Faced Woman 1941 and the following year with Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic, then Errol Flynn in Edge of Darkness. It was in 1942 that Ruth married her second husband Garson Kanin, a writer, 16 years her junior. Together they collaborated on screenplays for the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films Adams Rib 1949 and Pat and Mike 1952, both directed by George Cukor. They were nominated for Academy Awards in the category of Best Original Screenplay for both films as well as for A Double Life in 1947 with Ronald Coleman and Shelley Winters. Hepburn, Tracy, the Kanin’s and George Cukor became close friends during this period and remained so for the rest of their lives.
The Actress 1953 was Ruth’s film adaptation of her own autobiographical play that featured Jean Simmons portraying Ruth and Spencer Tracy in the role of her father. It was also directed by Cukor. During the 1950s Ruth returned to the Broadway stage where she was nominated for a Tony for Best Leading Actress as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s classic The Matchmaker (that would later become Hello Dolly!) a role she reprised in the U.K., Scotland and Germany.
It wasn’t until 1965 that Ruth found herself in front of the cameras again playing Natalie Wood’s deliciously confused mother, “the dealer”, in Inside Daisy Clover, with Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford and Roddy McDowell. The film, developed from a book by Gavin Lambert was supposed to be an exposé on Hollywood’s dirty secrets regarding mental health, power brokering and homosexuality, bombed at the box office despite its capable cast but later gained a cult following from TV and home video sales. Never-the-less Gordon won a Golden Globe for her supporting role and was nominated for an Academy Award. Also the film is generally recognized for one of the early depictions of a gay or bisexual character in American cinema who is not ashamed of his sexuality and who does not commit suicide.
In Rosemary’s Baby 1968, a psychological horror film about witchcraft and sorcery in modern-day Manhattan, written and directed by Roman Polanski, was based on the bestselling 1967 novel by Ira Levin. The cast included Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ralph Bellamy and Charles Grodin. As Minnie Castevet, Gordon’s role as a neighbor who has more on her mind than caring for Mia Farrow’s character during her first pregnancy won Ruth her first Academy Award at age 72.
In 1969 Gordon appeared in Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice, the third in a trilogy of psychological thrillers produced by Robert Aldrich, the first being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the second Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. In 1970 she appeared in Where’s Poppa?, a comedy directed by Carl Reiner that starred George Segal.
In 1971 Gordon appeared with Bud Cort in what I consider her greatest, most nuanced and heartfelt performance. Harold and Maude is black comedy at its finest. Its existential elements combined with the strong performance of the young lead and Gordon’s free wheeling personality make it hard to resist. The plot concerns a young man Harold (Cort) who is obsessed with death, drives a hearse and attends funerals of strangers much to the chagrin of his socialite mother. He meets 79-year-old Maude who shares Harold’s hobby of attending funerals. He is entranced by her quirky outlook on life, which is bright and excessively carefree in contrast with his own morbidity. The pair form a bond, and Maude slowly shows Harold the pleasures of art and music (Harold is taught to play banjo), and teaches him how to “make the most of his time on earth”. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother determines, much against Harold’s wishes, to find him a wife to settle down with. One by one, Harold frightens and horrifies each of his appointed dates by appearing to commit gruesome acts such as self-immolation, self-mutilation, and seppuku. As his relationship with Maude deepens he overcomes many obstacles to keep the light supplied by Maude burning bright. Panned by the critics upon release, Harold and Maude eventually found a cult following like many of Ruth Gordon’s films and in 1983 started to turn a profit. Harold and Maude and Adams Rib were 2 of her films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the United States Library of Congress.
Her film career began to wind down but not before she made two films with Clint Eastwood, Every Which Way but Loose 1978 and Any Which Way You Can 1980. She was no stranger to television. Throughout the 70s and 80s she appeared in Rhoda, Love Boat, Kojak, Newhart and Taxi (where she received an Emmy) and also hosted Saturday Night Live.
Ruth Gordon was also a prolific writer, authoring numerous plays, movie scripts and penning 2 autobiographies titled My Side; An Autobiography and Ruth Gordon; An Open Book.
Her aspirations for a career on the stage developed into a life she never could have imagined. Ruth Gordon was a woman of substance whose excellence of work helped expand the role of women in the entertainment industry. She died after suffering a stroke in Edgartown, Massachusetts and left behind a legacy of memorable roles and writings to be cherished by future generations.