The Violation of Marian Seldes
|Marian Seldes, captured by Dan Winters|
Marian Seldes waltzed through the world to a composition only she could hear and only she could transcribe. Proudly not of this world, she was regal and positive and ready to worship talent and people in need and people who wanted the world to work. Marian was also an intelligent woman, and fully aware of the performances she was giving both on and off the stage, and she made no apologies, even as she confessed that she was frequently teased, parodied, ridiculed. She told me once, “I guess they can make fun of me. I’m in my own world, but my world works, and I want everyone to be in this world, to be their best, to reach toward their dreams.”
In Rick Rodgers’ grisly, scabrous documentary marian (the title perhaps made so small, uncapped, because the goal of the film is to diminish its subject), Marian is abused for nearly half an hour, and we watch in horror as dementia overtakes her and as her avaricious daughter laughs at the diminution of her mother and refutes the way of thinking that sustained her. Early clips of Marian offering intelligent, honest evaluations of herself are dark and gritty and badly lit, jumpy, amateurish, but when we jump to the frightened, wide-eyed Marian, the images are lit as if in a stadium, the focus sharp, and there is Marian, so often elegant and controlled in her working years, asleep or alarmed, clearly in no condition to offer consent for this violation. A home attendant brings her the phone and pokes at her face as if looking for nits, and when I pointed this out to Rodgers, his defense was that “it happened. That was real. I didn’t plan it or tell her to do that,” a defense that I find as morally offensive as this film itself.
What must be stated is that marian is not a film, not a documentary, but an invasion, a protracted abuse of a woman who is not defended at any point by those many peers and students who could let us know that her way of thinking and living—fabulist and ornate and occasionally annoying—nonetheless led a number of people to work and live in ways they might never have considered. Instead, we have the talking, angry head of Katharine Andres, Marian’s daughter, her over-plucked eyebrows like pitchforks, tightly telling us that her mother was terrifying, that they always performed, that Marian lived to worship, while she lives to call things as they are. If nothing else, this film will lead many to immediately sign up for a life of denial and worship, particularly if truth, so to speak, crafts someone like this unreliable, angry witness.
And now my disclaimers and the back story:
I met Marian Seldes in November of 1978, when my high-school drama club spent Thanksgiving week in New York seeing plays and musicals, and I went backstage at the Music Box, where Marian was appearing in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, to have her autograph my copy of her autobiography The Bright Lights, which had just been published. At that time I wanted to be an actor, and Marian went out of her way to secure me an audition at Juilliard (I had missed deadlines), and we began to speak by phone and write to each other on a regular basis. Why? I don’t know: It was in Marian’s nature to reach out and help people, and she often came to consider them friends. When I eventually wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams and he agreed to meet me for lunch in New Orleans in 1982, it was Marian to whom the playwright placed a call, to ask if I was a good pick to entrust. Marian told him I was. When I eventually moved to New York and to begin interviewing people on behalf of Tennessee Williams (an assignment he had given me), Marian made calls and wrote letters and secured interviews for me with dozens of people. She made the book I wrote—Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog (Knopf)—possible: She was its heart and its guiding angel. So I am letting you know now that I am not objective in my disdain for this noxious little film, but unlike its director and producer, Rick Rodgers, I will clearly make my case. For those who think I cannot write well or truly about this film, this should be where you get off.
I first became aware of Rick Rodgers when I saw him appear with Marian in Terrence McNally’s Dedication Or the Stuff of Dreams at Primary Stages in 2005. Marian told me he had asked if he could make a documentary about her late-life resurgence. The film was to be called “The Third Act of Marian Seldes,” and Marian told me “It’s about this incredible luck I have had: Marrying Garson [Kanin], working so often and so well, having so much.” This was the assumption of several people who agreed to be interviewed by Rodgers, and a trailer that appeared several years ago featured their faces and their testimonies to Marian, her unique way of thinking; her link to a theatre long gone; her traditions; her gifts to her students. There was a lovely anecdote from playwright John Guare, in which he related that Marian had called him to say that Garson was unlikely to survive the night, and she wanted his final hours to be in conversation with another playwright. Guare went to the apartment and granted Marian her wish. That testimony is nowhere to be found in this film, and Guare, along with Edward Albee, Nathan Lane, Tina Howe, Joe Mantello, Tony Kushner, Elizabeth Marvel, and Terrence McNally, is a mere blip, a voiceover lost in the shuffle of bad images and bad intentions.
|Nathan Lane and Marian Seldes in Terrence McNally's Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams (2005)|
After eight years of following Marian around the city and her apartment, Rodgers has assembled a film (I use the term loosely) that never decides what it is or what it intends to do. Regardless of Rodgers’ intentions, the effects of the film are horrifying, and it is nothing but a sort of snuff film poring over the face of an actress we are losing to dementia and the greed of her daughter and her filmmaker.
Consider this: Katharine Andres, Marian’s daughter and only child, tells us that Marian’s husband, a producer named Julian Claman, was abusive and unfaithful and unpleasant. Marian told others this, including Alex Witchel, who wrote a wonderful profile of Marian for the New York Times in 2010, before Marian descended fully into her decline. Andres castigates her mother for not seeking help in the marriage, because to do so would be to admit that her life and her marriage were not perfect. Andres also claims that she and Seldes left their apartment daily in the act of performing the roles of perfect mother and daughter. There is a legitimate charge here—a daughter recalling that reality was a hazy concept in her life. I have no doubt that this affected her as a child, and it clearly still rankles her as an adult. However, who is present to offer a balancing view? Did Rodgers, who has miles of film, never discuss this with Seldes? Why didn’t he reference the Witchel article in which Marian admits she does not recognize the person she was in that marriage? Marian was not oblivious to her avoidance of reality in various ways: She loved to quote Ruth Gordon (the first wife of Garson Kanin), who often told aspiring actors given disparaging news or facing odd effects in the mirror to “Never face facts.” Ruth Gordon, like Marian Seldes, like Katharine Hepburn, like Tennessee Williams, crafted her own reality that allowed her to have the career we now know and remember. People have often ridiculed Marian for her romanticism of the past and her refusal to face negative facts (never in my four decades of friendship with Marian did she ever voice a criticism of her former husband or her daughter), and they are entitled to their opinions: They could, in fact, have been in this film voicing them, if Marian had been able to defend them, as well as various of her students, who credit her way of thinking and exalting with bringing them to a full creative fruition. There is none of that. Instead, we see Katharine Andres in close-up, tight and pinched and smug, a villager from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” her hands full of rocks, claim that Marian shook her by the shoulders, spanked her, and withheld affection if she was disappointed in her daughter. These comments are stated over appropriated images—distorted, bleached—from an episode of the 1960s series East Side/West Side, in which Marian is seen coddling a daughter, but also walking toward someone to slap them At that point, marian seems to veer toward becoming a Mommie Dearest, albeit of the Theatre Wing, Upper West Side division. As someone who often disappointed Marian with my cynicism or failure to believe in others, I can imagine that life with Katharine must have been a drag and a judgment, since anger and criticism seem to be staples of her diet. When Andres says that Marian, vacuuming the apartment (no doubt before heading to the theatre), looks at her and says “I’m not a maid, and you’re not a princess,” I wondered if the film might then be about the unbalanced daughter, expecting impossible things from a parent. I have shown this film to dozens of people and all of them can recall a similar exchange with a parent, and none of them considered it odd or abusive, and none of them would state it publicly about a parent, dead or living. Then I thought the film might be about lies on the parts of both mother and daughter, but my confusion is nothing compared to that of the filmmaker.
Rodgers claims that he strenuously worked to create a balanced portrait, but he is either a liar or incompetent, probably both. To have Andres spout her poisons and to then cut to an ebullient and annoying cabaret singer yelling into Marian’s face is not a balance to the slander. Rodgers claims that these visitors to Marian’s apartment were culled from a list of “acceptable” people provided by Andres and Martha Wilson, an assistant to Kanin and to Marian, and both have a lot to answer for. Rodgers provides no information about these visitors, and they do not speak “for her,” as he claims: They speak or shout or sing at her, like a bad League audition or an immorally visited therapy session. A student and friend of Marian’s visited her and considered the visit a private privilege, valuable time with a sick mentor who had changed her life. It was not a career moment, or something to be shared in a film or on Instagram. It was sacred, private.
But here you can see Donald Corren, a student of and friend to Marian, sitting close to her and three cameras, Marian’s expressive hands touching his handsome face, struggling for words. She asks him to sing. If Rodgers had cared more and were more diligent, he might have learned that Corren studied at Juilliard with Marian, and that he took Marian to Café des Artists for a dinner Marian spoke of for years. Marian rhapsodized about his talent, his kindness, and she turned me into a fan of his work. You won’t learn a speck of this in the film, and Corren isn’t even offered a credit on the screen as he bonds with Seldes. Neither is Charlotte Booker, a wonderful actress who sits with Marian and tries to remind her of words that were important in her life: “angel” and “beautiful” and “birds,” the term of endearment she offered her students and friends. Booker’s face is full of empathy and caring and sadness, but did we need cameras shoved so closely and for so long? It’s touching to see Marian fondle her pearls with wonder, childlike, but what is being said here? Once you have established that Marian has been lost to dementia, why is it belabored?
The worst scene is that of an actress—unskilled, sepulchral—shouting verse into Marian’s face, and it becomes her time, an audition of sorts, a boasting. The visiting actress comments on the scary winds, and Rodgers shoots Marian’s still, silent face in shadows. It’s tasteless and horrifying. In fact, there are so many shots of Marian’s eyeballs, pores, whiskers, chattering teeth, and fingers scratching and tapping that I had to keep stopping and re-starting the film.
Earlier shots of a functioning Seldes, shot darkly and as if on damaged film, often capture only her voice, the camera on an empty chair as she talks on the phone, calling people “darling” and rhapsodizing about plans. In non-capped, pretentious titles we’ll read two thousand five or two thousand seven, as if Marguerite Duras were in the room prepping us for the bomb (dementia) soon to follow. Why the empty chair? The only empty chair involved in this film is the one in which the director sat. Rodgers follows Marian about her apartment, and he features comments about Central Park looking like a “dream,” and Marian admitting she isn’t a good houseguest or hostess, and she only wants to get home. He seems to be painting her as dotty. When Marian speaks of how the theatre is a healing art and that students often grew to be beautiful or handsome through the creation of a character, Rodgers cuts to amateurish footage he cadged while in McNally’s Dedication, in which Marian, as a woman dying of cancer, wore a convincing wig that conveyed a balding pate, and the film seems soaked in urine, yellow highlights spotting the screen. Is Rodgers punking Seldes? Refuting her claim? We’ll never know, because, despite his claims of “balance,” he does not then cut to a student of Marian’s –say, Kevin Kline or Laura Linney or Patti LuPone or Kevin Spacey or Frances Conroy—who could testify to the power and truth of her sentiments. No, we just get the Satanic daughter, grinning and laughing about her mother’s eternal silence, while attendants shove things around Marian, who clutches a stuffed animal and sleeps, unaware of what is being done to her.
Marian Seldes was romantic, a sentimentalist, and it is possible a film might have been made about a mother and a daughter who were at emotional odds: A dreamer and a realist (“I’m not worshipful,” Andres brags) locked in a battle of beliefs; a daughter envious of the attention and love her mother received and gave to others, but could not give to her. There’s a story there, but it does not make to the screen with marian. I often visited with Marian, and she had durable boxes in her apartment for virtually every production in which she appeared. A box devoted to her first appearance on the stage—at the old Metropolitan Opera House, in Petrushka, in 1942, contained small circles of colored paper that had been snow, photographs, a playbill. A box devoted to Ondine, from 1954, and starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Alfred Lunt, contained letters and photographs. A lot of this was cleared out by Marian’s daughter and son-in-law, for whom Marian was a burden and an ATM machine, and incinerated or dumped on Central Park South. Awards won by Marian have shown up on eBay and at flea markets.
One of Marian’s final appearances in New York is shown here—a reading at the 92nd Street Y in celebration of Tennessee Williams on his centennial. Produced by the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, a bacchanal of non-talent and ambition, a group of unwanted "artists" who have claimed Tennessee Williams as their property, Marian appears unkempt and shaky, not even removing her coat. Several people who were there that evening thought she should leave, but the producers had sold tickets on Marian’s name, so they pushed her out on the stage, where she floundered, frightened and confused, until she is finally, after fifteen interminable minutes, pulled from the stage. Several of Marian’s friends had urged her over the years to not attend to the various circle jerks of non-talent, non-theatre in the city—Food for Thought, Symphony Space—that called on her constantly, used her up, sent her on her way. But Marian always responded to those who needed her, so in addition to watching people plaster their ambitions all over Marian’s apartment, we see an example of people abusing Marian through their own paltry ambitions, even at her peril. The video of this travesty did not appear on YouTube until several weeks after Marian’s death, and like this film, it is a terrible memory to have of this wonderful, generous actress.
Marian believed in and loved Rick Rodgers. She told me he was honorable and that he could be trusted. For this reason I promoted his film-in-progress, and I offered to help him, as Marian taught me, in any way. Then I saw the film, several times, and I had to tell him that I could not support it, and I had to defend my friend and deride his film for the act of abuse I think it is. Rodgers asked me to consider the time and money he had spent on the film, and he wondered how I could sleep at night. While my sleep is really of no concern to Rodgers, I had to tell him that my sleep would be interrupted far more if I failed to call him out on his assault on my friend, his exaltation of an unbalanced, rapacious daughter who dominates a film bearing her mother’s name. I told him I thought he was honorable, but I was wrong. Rodgers replied “You don’t know me—and you never will.” All I can be grateful for at this point after seeing this film is that I have this promise from Rodgers in writing.
© 2017 James Grissom