Monday, July 4, 2011

Remembering Anna Massey

I am terribly, terribly sorry to read of the death of actress Anna Massey. For many years, she has been one of my favorite actresses, particularly for her work in an unusually high number of films made by major directors nearing the end of their careers. Her film debut was in John Ford's Gideon's Day (1958), made a little less than ten years before Ford's last feature. She had a leading role in Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), and a memorable supporting role in a key late Preminger film, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Then in 1982, she appeared in the great final film of Fred Zinnemann, Five Days One Summer.

Last spring, I was writing an article for CinemaEditor magazine about George Cukor's version of Emlyn Williams's The Corn Is Green (1979), in which Massey appeared alongside Katharine Hepburn. The focus of my piece was the editing of The Corn Is Green and the director's collaboration with editor John Wright; I thought of it as a continuation of my earlier CinemaEditor piece about the editing of Cukor's Travels With My Aunt (1972), Love Among the Ruins (1975), and Rich and Famous (1981). Even so, I thought it could be interesting to give the piece a broader context by speaking with someone who acted in the film. This, of course, provided me with an opportunity to interview Anna Massey.

While we mostly talked about the Cukor film, I couldn't resist asking Massey about some of the directors mentioned above, and others she had worked with, like George Roy Hill (she had tiny roles in his A Little Romance [1979] and The Little Drummer Girl [1984]) and Bob Rafelson (Mountains of the Moon [1990]). She was a very expansive interview subject, so my challenge was in winnowing the material down -- I hated to lose a word of what she said, even when what she said didn't have anything to do with The Corn Is Green!

Below are some highlights from our conversation. Much of this material first appeared in my article, "'Now I'm a television director': George Cukor's The Corn Is Green," CinemaEditor, Volume 60, Issue 3, Third Quarter 2010.

On The Corn Is Green:

Anna Massey: He [Cukor] and Katharine Hepburn knew each other so well that they had a special way of talking to each other which was quite amusing to listen to. He would always say, “That was a good take and now we’ll go again.” She would always say, “If it’s a good take, then why are we going again?” It was a running gag.

I found him quite irascible, to be perfectly honest, and quite unbending and slightly old-fashioned. I thought it was very much a 1940s Hollywood version of The Corn Is Green.

Peter Tonguette: Of course, Hollywood was the world Cukor came from.

AM: Yes, but a lot of the great directors moved more with the times. There were great directors, like Michael Powell and Ford and Huston, who didn’t get stuck in the era that they worked in.

It [The Corn Is Green] was very formal and unexploited. We did it, but it wasn’t really discovered. It felt to me very old-fashioned.

PT: This was your first time working with Cukor. Had you worked with Hepburn previously?

AM: It was my first time working with both of them. I adored her. She was a most original person and terribly generous. She took us all out for picnics made by her on Saturdays or whenever we had the day off. She would wear Spencer Tracy’s old shirts and old trousers and sit under umbrellas. At that time, with her skin, she couldn’t have any sun anywhere near her. She loved the water where we were staying and she took bottles back to the States. She said her skin felt terrific, washing in that water. You felt like you were in an old film.

I just would have loved more direction [from Cukor]. He let my voice get higher and higher with each take. At his peak, he was meant to be the great director for women, wasn’t he? He was always known as the great director for women. But I would have liked more direction! They didn’t really know that much about the subject that they were filming. Emlyn Williams’s story, which took place in the early part of the 20th century, wasn’t their territory, really. They weren’t at an age when you explore that. It was their version of something that they already had in their minds.

She didn’t take direction either. Nobody would say, “That’s not what that line means!” Nobody could say it. Although, actually, if you had, she would have been totally open to it. But when you’re a legend, you tend to become slightly out of touch with the real world, don’t you? I remember John Gielgud said once, when he was doing all of these Hollywood films and they had him for millions of dollars for very small parts, “I will play it, I accept it, but please, please tell the director to give me some direction!” The greats, the geniuses -- they long for it. I think if somebody would have come up and said, “Look, this is what this line means, Katharine,” she would have been very, very grateful. But nobody did.

[Cukor] was in considerable pain, exacerbated by the damp Welsh weather. He never joined in on the weekends when we all went off traipsing into the Welsh hills. He didn’t come with us.

When you’re in something, and you’re with the director, you do the shot. You don’t really see the overall view that he has until you see it all together. I have to say I was extremely disappointed when I saw it all together. I didn’t believe in the boy at all. I knew Emlyn Williams very, very well. He was one of my mother’s closest friends. And Emlyn was a little Welsh pit pony, and this boy was just not.

PT: Had you ever played in The Corn Is Green before making the film?

AM: No, but I did afterwards. I performed it on the radio. I played Miss Moffat on the radio. It was a very good production we did. Emlyn was around at the time that we did it.

I mean, listen. Let’s be brutal. [Hepburn] was no more Miss Moffat than the side of the moon. She was a huge personality and she had enormous screen charisma. She was the heroine to beat all heroines. I knew the character upon whom Miss Moffat was based; I knew Emlyn’s teacher. And [Hepburn] was no more like that than I’m like the Queen of England.

But I’m saying this at the grand old age of 72. When I was in it, it was the most extraordinary experience and I loved every minute of it. I actually found [Cukor] really waspish. But I think looking back, when you’re in pain you lash out sometimes when you don’t mean to.

On Gideon's Day:

AM: If you take Gideon’s Day, that was quite far from John Ford’s world. But he encapsulated it with wit and it had some wonderful things in it. He was wonderful to work with. He edited on the floor. He knew exactly what he wanted. He knew to the millionth of a second how long a take should be.

On Bunny Lake Is Missing:

AM: George Cukor, compared to Otto Preminger, was a saint. Preminger was the most irascible and unpleasant director that I have ever worked with.

PT: I don’t know how you feel about the film, but I think it’s wonderful!

AM: I think it’s terrific. Terrific suspense and talk about visuals. Very, very powerful. And I loved it being in black-and-white. Such a coup, that.

On George Roy Hill:


I loved him. He was a darling man. The Sting is one of the greatest films of that genre ever made. He was so witty. Oh, God, he was so funny.

On Fred Zinnemann:

AM: Five Days One Summer doesn’t work. There was no charisma between Sean Connery and Betsy Brantley. She was just not cast correctly, I don’t think. I was asked to coach her at one point. She just wasn’t happy in her part. Sweet girl. She wasn’t right for the part. She was at sea.

On Bob Rafelson:

AM: He’s a really interesting director to work for. My God, he goes on and on until he gets what he wants. When you work with Hitchcock, when you work with Powell, when you work with Ford, we hardly ever went over one take. A maximum of two. Whereas with Bob Rafelson, you did five or six on every single angle.

On "Camera" versus "Action":

AM: Normally directors say “Action,” but because [Cukor] worked in [early] movies, he said “Camera.” And I loved that! I said to somebody on the set, “Why is he saying ‘Camera’ and not ‘Action?’” I didn’t start when he said it the first time because I didn’t know what it meant! [Laughs]

PT: Ford and Hitchcock began in the silent era -- did they say “Camera”?

AM: With Hitchcock, I think he allowed the first assistant director to say “Action.” I don’t think he said it. I’m not sure. A lot of directors do allow that. The first assistant says, “Are you ready, sir?” I have a feeling that Colin Brewer [assistant director on Frenzy] said “Action.” But I might be wrong. Hitchcock would say “Cut.”

PT: And Ford?

AM: Ford would have said “Action.” I had never heard “Camera” before Cukor. But one is always very, very nervous in those situations, when you’re working with those very great people. You are working with legends. So they well might have said “Camera”!

If you ever find out if Hitchcock said "Action," will you let me know? [Laughter]