Marsha Mason: Raw, Angry Talent

Interview with James Grissom
New Orleans
From the forthcoming Artistic Suicide

The question of choices keeps arising, doesn't it? So much of our artistic life is pre-ordained, I guess. Place of birth. Genetic peculiarities. Cruelties. Choices. And suddenly I am one sort of writer and Arthur Miller is another. There is a Jessica Tandy and there is a...what? Faye Emerson? There is a Margaret Leighton and a Joan Collins. There has to be, I suppose, something like Marilyn Monroe, and then her lesser fruits, dried fruits on lower limbs--Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Sheree North. Oh, well, the trees bear some things for some people.

What fascinates me is the struggle of real talent--raw, angry talent--to free itself from the choices that have been made upon it. I'm thinking of Marsha Mason, among others, whose talent is terribly evident to me, so real and pronounced, but matched in its boldness by the badness of the material in which she has been asked to display it. What is this about? Can anything be done about it? How victimized are we by the perception of others? I can work with these questions and I could, I think, present to Miss Mason a property that would fully expose all of which I think she's capable.

There is the perky beauty she possesses, which, I think, has made her everyone's abused best girl pal--a Doris Day, urban-brunette division, whose heart has been scarred far too much, perhaps because she did not have Mary Baker Eddy on retainer. I am not confused by her looks, but producers appear to be, because they keep her giggling and crying, and I keep seeing a violently intelligent and angry actress boiling beneath the edifice of false charm that has been placed before her, demanded of her.

She looks, I must tell you, like someone who has just listened to Wichita Lineman about twenty times in a row, in a stuffy bedroom full of her dreams and from which she can't wait to escape, and where a lubricious father or uncle is in the next room or downstairs. Her dreams are her weapons, and she will survive, but she'll never be able to fight the defensive application of charm, a quivering chin, misty eyes.

But look at her in a film about a doctor treating a young girl [Promises in the Dark]. There is a remarkable scene in a restaurant, where this intelligent, strong physician, seemingly in control of her life, her skills, the cells and membranes of this dying young woman, eats alone and sees an older woman doing the same, daubing her dry lips, topped with a helmet of dry, unmoving hair. This is her future, perhaps. Death awaits us all. We then cut to this woman, sitting on a bed, checking her breasts for lumps, disorder, decay. Death, she knows, is coming for us all, for her, and her life hasn't been lived yet. These two scenes are all you need from this film, and it is a tiny master class in acting.

There are moments in The Gingerbread Lady [Tenn meant Only When I Laugh, the 1981 film version of his 1970 play] when the banter ceases and Mason simply lives and moves as the character, and you see an actress inhabiting a woman, living a life. There is another scene, on a payphone, when all the anger of her entire life, of her misunderstood talent,  is unleashed, and it is wonderful.

            I want to work with her. I want to talk things out and get to work on the anger that fuels us both, limits us both, but which can get us to something true that can be shared.

She has had success, but now she needs fulfillment.

© 2013 James Grissom


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