Dyan Cannon; HER BEST IS YET TO BE
New York — On the door is taped a Band-Aid with a note reading "For the volcano of my heart." The volcano herself opens the door in blue jeans and bare feet, whoops with laughter at the note, and pads into the sundrenched living room. There Dyan Cannon curls up with a tall crystal glass of melon sherbet and talks about how her life has changed in the last few years.
The volcano really erupted in 1973 when the former Samile Diane Friesen, ex-wife of Cary Grant, took a long hard look at her career and her life. Leslie Halliwell in "The Filmgoer's Companion" described her tersely then as "American leading actress who tends to play floosies" and followed with a list of her roles: "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond," "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," "Doctors' Wives," "The Anderson Tapes," "The Love Machine," "Such Good Friends," "Shamus," "The Last of Sheila."
People magazine suggested that, "The Last of Sheila," a Riviera thriller, "could have been called 'The Last of Dyan.' For the next four years she all but dropped out of Hollywood, passing up choice roles to piece together a life roiled by emotional upheaval and drugs."
She went, as we like to say in the press, into seclusion.One of the first things she did was enroll, quietly, in the Women's Directing Workshop of the American Film Institute.She took the videotape she made for the workshop (with $ 1,000 from an AFI grant, $9,000 borrowed from friends) and later blew it up into a 35 mm film (another $25,000, much of it borrowed). But it paid off.
The 45-minute film, "Number One," won an Academy Award nomination for its wry and realistic look at small children discovering the difference between the boys' and girls' rooms at school. And the success of "Number One" launched Dyan Cannon into a wider orbit which now includes not just acting but also directing and co-writing her first full-lenght feature film, the upcoming "Current Events." In addition, she is executive producer of an upcoming CBS Films production, "Jenny Rebecca," to be shot in New York's garment district. Behind the radical change in her career is a radical change in her life.
"My greatest inspirational thing was in myself, when I got into metaphysics about seven years ago. And my life really has taken on new vision since that. I think since then I've been able to understand what freedom is, glimpses of it, being able to practice that. . . .
"So since then, metaphysics has been the focal part of my lide and that has come first,before anything. . . .We all have our moments that we have to work through. And boy, I've blundered through mine. And I'm learning to forgive myself more, because I'm hard on myself. But when I remember that it isn't me doing it, when I get myself out of the way and get quiet, then it's smooth sailing. . . . And in allowing myself more quiet time, more listening time, I just don't need it [acting]. I just don't need it as much now.Why is it that we always think that a career or a man or a job will give it [happiness] to you? Uh-Uh. Everything we're taught about that it's all backward. If you don't have that [spritual foundational] first, there's nothing. When you mean that, and you let go to that, everyting else comes into being. . . . There's no question. Truth transcends everything. And it's exciting. It's the only thing that turns me on. . . .
"Because I've had stardom and I've had marriage to a man who is a huge star and I have a wonderful child and I've had great sums of money and all the things that are supposed to make people feel terrific. And none of it's [anything] without knowing where it's coming from."
Although Dyan Cannon has played her share of femmes fatales, there is a certain girlishness about her, a sort of lively eagerness about life that's like a child. She talks for the first time about an experience she had as a child, growing up in Tacoma, Wash.:
"I don't think I've ever told anybody this. I know I haven't. My Dad used to freeze the backyard every winter. it was so wonderful. Mom used to make popcorn, a lot of the kids would come over, and we'd skate out there. and I was out there one day, it was a Saturday afternoon. . . . My Dad was gentile [ Baptist] any my Mom was Jewish, and there was always this great controversy about what God was in the house. And I just looked up and said, 'If You're so great, and so good, and so all-this-power and everything, why don't You just make me fall down right now"' And I'm telling you, my feet went out from under me. And I fell down to the ground with such force, and I looked up from that very seated position with a whole new respect. And whenever I seemed to lose that respect I got whacked."
Dyan Cannon's own daughter, 15-year-old Jennifer Grant, has been more important to her than any of the roles she's played. When I ask about Jennifer, her mother darts out of the room and comes back with a photo. She is a smashingly beautiful girl. The eyes are uptilted, like her mother's, but are the sparkling, dark brown of her father. A wavy mass of brunette hair frames her face like some pre-Raphaelite painting.
Does Jennifer want to be an actress?
She's had offers, but right now her mother says she doesn't know. "Right now she just wants to be a teen-ager." Four months ago her mother put her in a boarding school in northern California. "That was a big break. That was very difficult -- it was the toughest one I've had to go through. But important, very important for her. These are tempting years, these teen-ager years. And she's a good kid. And in the past I have stayed and turned down many films in order to be with Jennifer. But now I can't just leave her at home with a maid. . . . I just can't do that. She's a young lady. so it's for her benefit, first and foremost.
"Because when I'm at home I just love having her around, I love having a house full of kids. But that doesn't seem to be the master plan at the moment, so I have to release her. and in many ways it was a new-found freedom . . .' cause you've been planning meals for 14 years and basing your life on being [at home], it's a change. . . . I was the one that was hanging on."
Just as she says she's cutting Jennifer loose to be more of an independent person, so she's cutting herself loose from some of her dependency on acting. "I don't have this great need to act anymore. . . . I don't seek the approval, the applause. It I do it now it's . . . to get off on it, to enjoy it. But there's so much of it that's so difficult."
For instance, her latest part is the wife whose husband is plotting to murder her in the filmed version of the Broadway thriller "Death Trap." She's fresh from shooting the film on location in Manhattan, with Michael Caine playing her husband, and Sidney Lumet directing. "This woman I just acted is portrayed as totally crazy. [But] the deepest part of her wasn't. The deepest part of her loved her husband dearly. And she was a complete pigeon.Here's this guy just waiting to do her in. All the while he was saying 'trust me, trust me' he was doing her in. It's hard to act out that craziness, honestly."
What was it in that role that intrigued her?
"Not much" she deadpans. "She wasn't really well-written. She was the weakest link in the thing. But the whole peace interested me, and Sidney interest me, and working with Michael interested me. And for all those reasons I'm delighted I did it. I think it's going to be a huge film."
Dyan Cannon didn't start out as an actress; she started out studying anthropology at the University of Washington. Why anthropology? "It sounded good, looked good" she smiles. She dropped out of college after deciding she wasn't going to be Margaret Mead, then headed for Los Angeles to work as a model and showroom manager for a dress manufacturer. When producer Jerry Wald spotted her she was given a screen test, then studied with acting coach Sanford Meisner. she landed her first role in TV on a Playhouse 90 production of "The Ding-A-Ling Girl" before her career took off in films.
Midway through our late afternoon interview the phone rings and she answers. She makes plans for that evening, then darts off to the bathroom to redo her face. From the splashing it sounds as though one of James Thurber's seals is in the bathtub.
She reemerges some minutes later, freshly madeup for the evening, glowing. she hasn't changed her clothes, is still wearing a demure looking blue-gray crepe blouse with puffed sleeves and a white collar. BElow it, a taut pair of blue jeans, bare feet tipped with ruby nail polish.
On screen, Dyan Cannon looks earthy, full-blown; but in person she is smaller than you'd expect, fine-boned as a cat or a little girl studying ballet. Her movie-star mane of hair, cascading over her shoulders and down her back in honey curls, seems almost too heavy for her to carry. She has a California tan. Uptilted, wide blue-gray eyes look very squarely at you from a face that has an almost kittenish softness. She wafts some flowery scent after her as she crosses the room and curls up again on a white couch.
"That's honeysuckle," she giggles. As in "Honeysuckle Rose," the movie she starred in with Willie Nelson? Yes. did she read New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael's rah-rah review of her performance in that? She laughs, a happy bray. "I heard about it. Nice, isn't it? Kind of funny and strange, and she was terrific. She's been really generous to me."
Kael had written in a long, rave review that Dyan Cannon as the wife of a country and western singer "is so full of enregy and humor and knowingness that she gives the audience hope; if this is maturity, then life looks pretty good. . . ."
Dyan Cannon has often been described by critics, even Kael, in terms of her sexual presence on screen. Does she think she's been fairly treated? "I think the press have always been very generous about my work. I've had, gosh, on the whole, wonderful reviews. I think my best work is starting now. I don't think I've really touched the tap yet. I think it's just beginning. I know it." Is she talking now about just acting? "Everything. Acting. Directing. Writing. all of it."
As an actress Dyan Cannon has already won two Academy Award nominations, one for her role as the dissatisfied wife in "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," the other as Warren Beatty's lethal wife in "Heaven Can Wait." That role, in 1977, her first in four years, is her favorite. It certainly brought a new Dyan Cannon to the screen, acting in a high comedy style of such sheen and grace that it equaled a performance by her former husban Cary Grant, that master of the art.
"I didn't want to do the role," she confesses. "I turned it down four times." Then how did she end up doing it?She laughs. "Warren got me into it. Yeahh. It's true. That tells you bout mym taste. No, I didn't want to do it."
Is she glad now she did? "Well, I got a lot of mileage out of that little part, I tell you." Had she taken a different approach to this role? "No. My approach to acting is to be it, not to act it." Then she's not a method actress? "No, I don't do all that stuff. I do what I have to do in a scene."
"There are so many fables about actors. Actors are supposed to be children and very emotional and out of control. And it's just the opposite. Actors have to be able to call on any emotion like this" -- she clicks her fingers rapidly, like castanets. "They're far more disciplined than most people are trained to be."