Ruth Gordon: The Actress

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Today is the birthday of that divine character Ruth Gordon Jones (1896-1985 — she shortened her name for show business). She wrote several autobiographical books, plus her early life was the subject of the 1953 film The Actress, all highly recommended avenues for learning about the life of a barnstorming trouper in the final glory days of the American theatre. Gordon was from a middle class Quincy Massachusetts family (THAT’s what that accent is!). Star struck as a girl she wrote fan letters to several actors; Hazel Dawn wrote words of encouragement back to her. After much heated family discussion, Gordon’s father finally paid for her to move to New York and study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Her Broadway debut was as one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan in 1915; over the next 60 years she would star in nearly three dozen plays, including works by Chekhov, Ibsen and Shaw. She was the original Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955). She also wrote several plays for Broadway: Over 21 (1944), Years Ago (1946), and The Leading Lady (1948). This led naturally to screenwriting. Over 21 became a film in 1945; she also wrote A Double Life (1947) and The Actress (an adaptation of Years Ago, 1953) and with husband Garson Kanin, the two HepburnTracy vehicles, Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).

Success in front of the cameras was slower in coming, however. While the younger Gordon was pretty, she was very short and her looks were not conventionally beautiful. In the 1940s she got about a half dozen roles, the most notable of which was Mary Todd Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).

94 Ruth Gordon

It wasn’t until her later years, when she was an elderly woman that she suddenly clicked before film and television audiences and became a modern celebrity. As an old woman she was adorable and had her own vocabulary of tics and tricks that allowed her to steal the show no matter what she appeared in. The late roles include Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Lord Love a Duck (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968, for which she won an Oscar), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), Where’s Poppa? (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), My Bodyguard (1980), Every Which Way You Can (1980), and lots and lots of television, including a memorable Columbo turn in 1977. Her last (posthumous) part was in The Trouble With Spies (1987). My post on some on some of her darker late performances is here. 

Here’s why we loved her. This turn on Dick Cavett’s show, with Woody Allen beside her is just riveting. I forgot to mention — in addition to being brilliant, she was a nut!

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