Sandy Dennis; THE TALENT SHOWS, THE CATS DON'T
Washington — What we are seeing here is Sandy Dennis, unadorned. It is 11 a.m. on a gray, spitting-rain Washington morning and she has just opened the door of her hotel suite looking not exactly the way you expect movie and theater starts to look.No makeup. That is to say, no mascara, no eye shadow , no eyeliner, no eyebrow pencil, no foundation, no blusher, no lipstick, no lip gloss, no elaborately staged coif. Just plain Sandra Day Dennis of Lincoln, Neb., her face as guileless of goo as the day she first stepped out on a junior high stage in "Hatchet Hannah" and made her acting debut.
When you've worn all the faces this actress has, it must be fun to wipe off all the makeup sometimes and just be yourself. We've seen her as the worldly ingenue thrilled with a room full of balloons in "Any Wednesday," as the pathetic, sniveling faculty wife in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as the sweet young chicken farmer who's fair game for D. H. Lawrence's "The Fox," as the gutsy schoolteacher in "Up the Down Staircase," and the suburban housewife dazed and glazed by the hand-to-hand combat of a vacation in Fun City in "The Out-of-Towners." Currently she's visible on film as an ex-wife with an obsession for photographing vegetables, a woman who spends years doing arty closeups of broccoli and Swiss chard in Alan Alda's hit marital comedy "The Four Seasons." On stage, she's doing a powerfully funny performance as the unglued wife of a US senator in "The Supporting Cast," the comedy which opened here at Kennedy Center and has received mixed notices since moving to Broadway.
All Sandy Dennis has to do is stroll on stage as Sally, the brittle New Yorker dressed as a parody of the "layered look" and the audience cracks up. Sandy Dennis gives the impression of being wrapped, draped, swathed, cocooned, festooned, and embannered with so many layers of scarves and shawls and belts and necklaces that keep slipping and sliding and falling that she must constantly clutch at them as she clutches at her neuroses and her flickering marriage. She emerges on a low, second floor balcony at the Malibu beach house where the play takes place looking as stricken as someone with a fear of heights helicoptered to the top of Mt. Everest.
"I thought she would just go out there and plaster herself against a wall," Sandy Dennis says with a faint smile at the acrophobia of her character, Sally.
She is sitting lotus position on a green couch discussing acting as dispassionately as the weather. She explains, "I grew up at the Actors' Studio and I grew up in Herbert Berghof's class, where Herbert -- even when I was a kid -- would say 'You have to have a technique behind your acting, and you have to have good vocal training . . . you have to have good speech, and thenm be emotional.'
"When you're young you know acting is Oh!" -- she lifts her face as though looking at a dazzling sun -- "but as I get older, what's happened is I've picked up a technique. . . . I used to hate not playing emotional people -- [but with] this character, for all her screaming and hollering and carrying on, it's a straightforward, technical thing. She's -- nothing is going on there. That's not a woman that much goes on in. Otherwise she's be sensitive. . . . But she's a crazy lady, otherwise she'd keep her mouth shut and she wouldn't be on stage like that. So you learn to play a technical ability. . . . Technically, I built up enough equipment so that emotionally I can get to a moment very quickly like that [balcony scene] and be right over it. I have no hang-up over it. They're very easy to do. You watch people, you know how you behave, and it's wonderful to be ableto re-create that in a second." She hesitates, runs her fingers distractedly through her long, wavy chestnut hair.
"And also to re-create something unusual as opposed to how we think people should behave. 'Cause my theory is that so much of television acting we see things that are so ordinary. People do the most extraordinary things. They don't always do what you expect them to do.And that's what's so fascinating about acting, to find those moments. And sometimes, that's what makes people angry at you. Because a lot of times when you do something like that people don't recognize it, because they're so used to what they think [about] how you should behave. So they see something else, especially critics." A faint narrowing of the wide green eyes. "And they're angry because it offends them.They have no reference point there. And sometimes it's more than they can tolerate."
The Washington critics nearly killed the play out of town by drubbing it with bad reviews.But enthusiastic audiences went on laughing all the way to the box office, so playwright George Furth cut, rewrote, and rejigged; director Gene Saks did some restaging, then decided to take the play to New York in spite of the reviews. The reviewers, however, applauded Sandy Dennis: "a virtuoso of caricature" said the Washington Post.
"It's funny how two reviews can take five people out of work," Sandy Dennis darkly says. The play's other stars are: Betty Garrett, Jack Gilford, Joyce Van Patten, playing friends all assembled in sunny Malibu to learn why Hope Lange has written a novel about them as the unsung "supporting cast" for their celebrated husbands and wives.
As we talk, I discreetly search the room for some sign of the multipawed, whiskered, kipper-eating enthusiasm of Sandy Dennis's life: her pride of cats. But there is not a grain of kitty litter, not a fishbone, not a sprig of catnip or bowl of cream in sight. Sandy Dennis has arrived catless in Washington. Back in 1968, she confided in Life Magazine, she had 25 cats (in addition to six dogs). Today her cats can be numbered in the dozens but she's refusing to go public on how many there are. "I have a lot. I don't like to say [how many], only because people are very funny about it. . . . People drop animals off on me because they think what's one more. Or else they write me terrible mail about why don't you do things for other [people], why don't you do for this or that?"
At home in Connecticut, her cats ramble around the house with 20 acres she's rented for years. She is asked what it's like to wake up in a house full of dozens of cats. Is there a giant rumbling purr in the morning like a furnace going on? No, she says, but "they have patterns, they get up at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and they're ready to eat. If you don't get up there is this great chorus [of meows] that goes on like the Greek chorus. It takes about two hours to feed them, put their dishes in the dishwater, and scrub the floors. Then everybody settles down. If it's warm, they go out. About 5 we give treats. . . . And then dinner. . . . Then I get them all out of the kitchen." She buys cat food by the case, kitty litter by the carload.
Sandy Dennis is so concerned about homeless animals that she says her dream is to establish an animal shelter. She'd like to buy 50 or 100 acres of land so that she could take in dogs, too, and an occasional horse. "I want to make a home for older animals . . . or animals that were going to be put down."
Although she has her favorite cats, like Alexander, who eats asparagus, and a nameless striped tabby she brought back from London, she says with a grin that a lot of her cats are lemons.
Her concern for them may spring from her childhood experience in a small Nebraska town. "I grew up with animals and we always took in strays." She remembers her mother coming home from work at Woolworth's and seeing a kitten caged in a chicken coop in an alley. As the days passed the kitten got thinner and thinner. Finally, her mother went to the front door of the house where the kitten was caged and asked what was wrong with it. "We don't want that kitten so we're starving it to death" the woman who answered the doorbell said. Sandy Dennis remembers, "My mother hauled off and socked her, knocked her out. My uncle was chief of police. The lady called the police for battery and assault. Then my uncle had a long talk with my mother. . . . So my mother [took it in] and we had the cat for years. And it was an awwwwwful cat. It was just the worst. It grew up to be the worst cat in the world. . . . But I grew up around animals. My mother was wonderful with them. We took in things. We always fed strays."
She spent her childhood wanting to be Margaret O'Brien. She says "I wanted to be an actress from the time I was a little girl, from the time I can remember wanting to do anything." Yes, she went to movies but it was the first play she ever saw, at 13, that clinched her determination to be an actress: Shirley Booth starring in "The Time of the Cuckoo" in Evergreen, Colo., while the family was on summer vacation.
In grade school she'd organize plays, writing them and acting them out, boss everyone around, be "a terrible tyrant," and make everyone's costumes out of crepe paper. The first time she was ever on stage in "Hatchet Hannah" in junior high, she froze and walked right off. At a community theater, when she was 16, she performed in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and talked the director into letting her audition for the starring role in "The Rainmaker," a role for which she was a couple of dozen years too young. She won the best actress award for her performance in "Rainmaker."
After high school, there was half a semester at Nebraska Wesleyan, a couple of art and acting classes at the university of Nebraska, and she was off. First to do summer stock in New London, N.H., then on to Broadway at $45 a week for her first professional appearance, in Ibsen's "Lady From the Sea." The producer had spotted her window shopping in Greenwich Village and asked her to audition.
Her talent surfaced early. New York Herald Tribune drama critic Walter Kerr spotted her in a small part, an ingenue in a Graham Greene comedy, "The Complaisant Lover" and called her "a charmer (with a face like fresh mint)." A year later in 1962 she won her first Tony award for her supporting role as a vulnerable social worker in Herb Gardner's comedy "A Thousand Clowns," starring Jason Robards Jr. Her second Tony was won as best actress in her next play, "Any Wednesday."
She also, according to Time magazine, picked up a reputation as being an obstreperous actress who improvised so much she disconcerted the other actors. But when Mike Nichols cast her in her Oscar-award winning role in "Virginia Woolf," he found her "just about the easiest actress to work with that I have ever met."
What she says of Nichols as a director suggests that she wasn't the easiest actress at the start: "He taught me a great lesson. . . . He'd say 'Sandy, try this and do this' and I'd say [she imitates herself, pouting] 'No, I don't think she'd do that.' And he'd say, 'Listen, don't tell me what you think. Try it for me, and let me see.'
"So I would try it and the first time I did it he would say, 'You know what you just did? Instead of doing what I wanted you to do, you were trying to show me how I was wrong.' And it suddenly occurred to me I'd been doing that for years. . . . So from then on, whenever anybody asked me to do anything, whether he did or anyone [else], I'd try and do what they wanted even though I'd think 'Ooh, that's wrong.' Ninety-nine percent of the time it's right, what they've asked you to do. . . ."
As Sandy Dennis speaks, the words tumble over one another, the sentences break over one another like ocean waves. She has a quick, agile, restless mind. Often she will interrupt herself with an interruption that interrupts the first fragment of a sentence. It gives an interview the challenge of a London Times crossword puzzle. Seeing her on stage, speaking someone else's uninterrupted lines, is like listening to a broadcast without static.
"A lot of acting is embarrassment, people are embarrassed to do things. Once you get over that, and you can make an ass out of yourself in rehearsal or anywhere, then you have to the ability. . . . It's when you feel foolish that you hold back in acting.And [Nichols] had the ability to let you go, to let all his actors go all the way with something, and then bring it down."
She is in a tomato red cotton sundress sitting under a Raoul Dufy print of Paris done in bright blues, greens, and reds. Her hands flutter like moths around her as she talks. At one point I say, "When you were married to Gerry Mulligan . . ." but she breaks in, tersely: "I was never married to anybody." I point out that "Who's Who" says she was married to Mulligan.
She says, "It's not -- I'm not fussy about that -- the truth is I was never married. We had a long association but we never married. . . ."
But there it is in Current Biography: "In June, 1965, after a three-week courtship, Sandy Dennis was married to Gerry Mulligan, the jazz saxophonist and composer."
She sits bolt upright and repeats: "I've never seen married. And I'm not fussy about it. It's just the truth is, that I was never married. It isn't true that I was ever married, which means that I never got a divorce. The newspapers jumped to that conclusion. It's so hard to get to somebody and say . . . Oh, they're so funny about it."
Having set the record straight in her own inimitable way, she mentions some of her favorite things: "Reading is my passion. . . . I do watercolors but I'm not good at them, no that's no true, but I'm always so messy with them and by the time [the] cats walk over your work it's -- I'm the kind of painter who loves to get in bed with my watercolors -- it's not a vision, and then you get five or six paint glasses to clean your brushes, and somebody tries to lick the water out of them. . . . I love to cook. I don't bake. It bores me to death." Long, thoughtful pause.
"I tell you the truth, cooking bores me now. Once you clip your coupons, once you go to the grocery store, once you buy it, and put it in the basket, once you put it in the car, and once you get it out of the car, and once you get it in the fridge, and once you've washed the lettuce, by that time, you know . . ." a wave of the eloquent hands, dismissing it all. There are other hands in the house to do the cooking if they wish: a housekeeper she's had for 15 years, or her mother whom she supports and who she says is a great cook, a beautiful, admirable woman, with a tendency to doze off from boredom after the first line of any play Sandy has ever appeared in. Her father is a retired railroad mail clerk for the post office back in Lincoln, Neb.
Are there any roles Sandy Dennis would still like to sink her shiny white teeth into?She's just recently finished doing one play she's wanted to do for the last 20 years, Jean Anouilh's verse play "The Lady's Not for Burning,'" staged in a university production in Texas. She loved it so much she wants to do it again soon. "And I very much want to do again 'Eccentricities of the Nightingale,' Tennessee Williams's play, a rewrite of 'Summer and Smoke.' I love doing Williams, he's my favorite playwright. I did 'The Glass Menagerie' when I was young, and now I could play the mother. I'd love to do Martha [Elizabeth Taylor's role] in 'Virginia Woolf'." She talks again of Tennessee Williams: "When you do Williams it opens up so much. . . . It's like a whole leap that happens, all the things you've been putting together slowly, pop."