Spunk and resolve

Spirited actress Ruth Gordon of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ fame at heart of new play

Special to the Union Leader
April 11. 2018 12:42PM
Ruth Gordon famously played Minnie Castevet, a devilishly intrusive neighbor, in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Roman Polanski’s late 1960s horror thriller about a young woman (Mia Farrow) uncovering the horrifying truth behind her pregnancy. 
If you go...
WHAT: reading of 'The Story of Ruth'

WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Jupiter Hall, 89 Hanover St., Manchester

COST: Free

When Ruth Gordon finally won an Oscar, for her role in the late ‘60s psychological thriller “Rosemary’s Baby,” she was 72, with 50 years in the biz under her belt.

New Hampshire screenwriter David Preece remembers watching Gordon’s acceptance speech, in which she says, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.”

Preece says he was struck by her tenacity, her ongoing drive to win an Academy Award for supporting actress in a field that tends to favor the young.

“It’s a great lesson, and that’s what really turns me on in writing this play and taking the audience through this journey of her life.”

The result is a a new play, “The Story of Ruth,” which will get a table reading at 3 p.m. Saturday in Jupiter Hall, 89 Hanover St., Manchester. The story covers Gordon’s life from her teen years up to and including her career as a movie and television actor and screenwriter. (She died at 88 in 1985).

Eight actors, including actress Barbara Webb, who plays Gordon from 14 through to her 80s, portray more than 50 characters that revolve around the hard-luck actress. Matt Cahoon, artistic director of Theatre Kapow, directs a cast that also includes Kim Lajoie, Carey Cahoon, Steve Lajoie, Wallace Pineault, Aaron Compagna, and Paula Dermers.

Although Preece began researching her life in 2003, his fascination with Gordon really began in 1968, when she played witch Minnie Castevet in Satan’s coven in “Rosemary’s Baby.” (Roman Polanski directed the winning cast that included Mia Farrow as a woman coming to terms with a demonic pregnancy.

“She pulled attention from all the other actors in the movie. And then I rewatched ‘Harold and Maude’ (about a romantic relationship between an elderly woman and a young man) and again, that’s like a tour de force. And she did this movie in her early ‘80s. It was just stunning to see how you can characterize love and hope and a new beginning.”

A rocky start

Gordon’s career began in 1915 during the silent movie era with mixed results. Success did not come easy for her.

“She was short, she was not attractive; she had this terrible voice,” Preece said of a nasally tone that could be shrill and hitching in cadence. “She could not act in the beginning. And she came from a very poor working class. But she rose above all of that to become this incredible actress. And to me that kind of represented fortitude, it represents focus ….. and never giving up.”

Returning to her hometown of Quincy, Mass., was not an option.

“She was accepted at the (American Academy of Dramatic Arts) in New York, and they kicked her out the first year. They said, ‘You can’t act. I’m sorry, go home.’ (But) there was no home in Quincy ... for her. Her mother had died and her father was just barely surviving.”

Preece said she kept trying, knocking on doors of agents and casting directors — “anybody that would give her a chance.”

One of her first roles was supporting actress Maude Adams in “Peter Pan” on Broadway. Despite negative reviews for some of her early work, Gordon continued to soak up acting tips from those around her and improve on her craft.

“She just went overtime in trying to learn the techniques and the tools,” said Preece. She even had her legs broken in 1920 to fix her bowleggedness, he said.

Her legendary persistence paid off. From 1943 to 1966, Gordon focused her attention on Broadway and screenwriting rather than film. Among her many Broadway plays was a turn as Mattie Silver in “Ethan Frome,” about a fictional Massachusetts town, and Mrs. Margery Pinchwife in the comedy “The Country Wife.”

By the time “Rosemary’s Baby” rolled around, a new generation began to appreciate her vast experience and plucky skill.

“We all have journeys in this life and we all meet a variety of people, and if we’re receptive to them we can learn a lot from them. And that’s what she did,” Preece said.

Jim Webber, a set designer and director, plays seven characters in “The Story of Ruth” including playwright Thornton Wilder (of “Our Town” fame), stage director Guthrie McClintic, and writer and director George S. Kaufman, all of whom had a significant impact on Gordon’s career.

“There are so many characters in the show. I mean really, there’s probably almost 65 characters in the show,” Webber said.

Webber’s interest in Gordon’s work was piqued long before Preece’s play. While a student at Emerson College in the ‘70s, Webber met Gordon during a visit to a Boston theater during a screening of “Harold and Maude” and the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie “Adam’s Rib, which Gordon co-wrote with her husband, writer and director Garson Kanin.

“‘Harold and Maude’ was becoming a cult movie. A lot of college kids would see it over and over and over,” Webber said.

“She was really fun. I remember she was extremely short and she had red, red, dyed hair. She was very spunky,” he added.

Webber was also impressed with her message of never giving up.

“She told all the young people, the college kids (that) they need to have confidence when they go out in the world. And she ... telling them to be very strong and be very confident and go out and do the things they wanted. So she was very much like the character she plays.”

In Gordon’s autobiography, ‘My Side,’ she says, ‘Publish everybody’s book but this one and I will still make it. Why? Because I believe I will. If you believe, than you hang on.”

And when it came to criticisms, Preece said Gordon took it in stride, refusing to let negative reviews keep her from her goals.

“It’s really easy to put yourself out there, but if you get rejected ... we all do, we all have, we’ll continue to get rejected,” Preece said. But it’s knowing that you need to get back and try it again. And that’s the message of Ruth Gordon. Never give up.”

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