The digital version of this story has been lost. This is a text-only reproduction. The original was published October 2, 2008


SAVING SARAH PACKARD   by Terrence Knight


  An Interview with screen legend Piper Laurie

To begin with, she had this really beautiful name. And then there was the fact that she was personally beautiful – and it wasn't just the usual Hollywood swank, either. She had that kind of penetrating beauty that can make you ache. Everything about her seemed to be deep and complex and beautiful.

Piper Laurie. I had never before heard of anyone named Piper, but I was sure that anyone with a name like that must be wonderful. Once she became a star, many expectant parents thought the same.

"A man who wanted to be my manager invented it for me," she said. "it was an uncomfortable relationship with this man. One night we were out somewhere and he wrote it down on a napkin."

This was before she signed with Universal Studios, and fifteen or so years after she was born in Detroit (nee Rosetta Jacobs), but when we spoke with her she was staying at a friend's apartment in Los Angeles, because she had been temporarily dispossessed by a landslide at her Hollywood Hlls home.

People recall Piper Laurie in different ways. In their release announcing her appearance as Piper Laurie and Paul Newman in 'The Hustler'Special Guest of the 9th annual Port Townsend Film Festival, Artistic Director Peter Simpson described her professional persona as "complex, convoluted . . . schizophrenic . . . " This description contains no hyperbole. No other serious actress is so completely cross-generational: she made her reputation in a gritty, black-and-white post-war drama, but a later generation mostly remembers her as the maniacal mother in the trendy horror flick, Carrie. They were very different movies, but the roles had something in common: in both Piper Laurie played a woman who had become unglued.

"The fact is I didn't make another movie for fifteen years," she said.

She was talking about The Hustler, which is now universally recognized as a screen classic and which made her immediately famous. Critical and audience acclaim was universal and approximately unanimous. About the only person who wasn't sure about it all was Piper Laurie.

"I was disappointed in my work in The Hustler", she said.

I was astonished to hear her say that. I was a teenager when The Hustler hit the screen, but I immediately recognized the disturbing vigor in her portrayal of Sarah Packard, the crippled, passionate, fragile, extraordinariy complex love interest for pool hustler "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman). The Academy acknowleged her with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress; in fact, just about everyone connected with The Hustler was nominated; but the picture had the misfortune of being released the same year (1961) as West Side Story, which pretty much made a clean sweep at the Oscars.

I have seen The Hustler many times since then, and while it is not without flaws (it ends with a redemptive scene, The Last Great Game of Pool, that to me seems contrived), it is a very important film, a slice of early American neo-realism that came just as were converting from Eisenhower to Kennedy: it was a hopeful time, but we had the presentiment that those hopes might be false. Did we really like Ike all that much? Half the country was on the couch, and the rest belonged on it. The Hustler, suffused as it was the existential rue of the Nuclear Age, perfectly expressed the expansive national neurosis that we have nourished for nearly a half century. It was a movie about false hope. Every character was cripplied in one way or another. Every frame dripped with despair.

For me it was mostly about her. Piper Laurie's performance was so strident and poignant it made you a little uncomfortable. That last time I saw it was a couple of years ago, and I found it even better than I remembered, but still unsettling.

Having lost everything to Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, in his most celebrated role), now humiliated and eager to beat it out of town, Fast Eddie has a chance encounter with Sarah at the Manhattan Greyhound Bus Terminal; this scene, which was actually filmed at the depot, is an enduring two-shot with crackling dialogue.

Sarah. I'm a college girl. Two days a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – I go to college.Fast Eddie. You don't look like a college girl.

Sarah. I'm the emancipated type. Real emancipated.

Fast Eddie. No, I didn't mean that . . . whatever that means.

Well, I had not yet met any college girls, emancipated or not, but I sure as hell knew what it meant. Later, when they go up to her place and Fast Eddie suddenly pulls her close and kisses her, she exclaims, "You're too hungry!" – a sudden eruption of anger, fear, disgust, eagerness and lust – just about every conflicting emotion you can think of, all of them smashing together like electrons in a cloud chamber. At that moment I knew I was watching a great actress at work.

Piper Laurie had poked some corner of my tender adolescent psyche, which was languishing on the darkling plains around Wichita, and made worse by the fact that I was at the time glutting myself on the plays of William Inge. So eager was I to save Sarah Packard from the vagaries and pain of love and life that I actually took up eight ball for awhile. Why couldn't she see? Didn't she realize she couldn't trust anyone? Not Fast Eddie – and most certainly not the sleazy mobster Bert Gordon (George C Scott).

Bert Gordon. You're here on a rain check and I know it. You're hanging on by your nails. You let that glory whistle blow loud and clear for Eddie and you're a wreck on a railroad track. . . you're a horse that finished last. So don't make trouble, Miss Ladybird. Live and let live! While you can.

One or two critics disparaged her style for what they regarded as relying excessively on The Method, but by now this seems like cavil. I mentioned that I had always associated her with Kim Stanley, a similarly controversial actress with whom she studied at The Actors' Studio. But she is impatient with being called a Method actor.

"That's become a kind of metaphor," she said. "There are many 'methods'. Every good actor takes a bit from each character when it's appropriate."

"But I certainly admired her," she said of Kim Stanley.

She is happier to regard herself as a fundamentally classical actress, though she asked what I meant by the term when I brought it up. I explained that I regarded The Hustleras "classic" in the manner of Greek tragedy.

She didn't disagree. "I was happy working in the theater when they asked me to read the script for The Hustler", she continued. "I didn't want to do it at first. The part for Sarah comes in very late. But then one night I sat down and read it. It was written with such clarity."

Her style was informed and intelligent, but there was an ooze of hostility in her talent – which might help to explain why she was so adept at playing troubled personalities. Whatever it was, for Piper Laurie stardom was not enough.

"The parts were the same all over again, and i just didn't have a tolerance for it. I didn't think it was important."

Many producers were eager to work with her, but she found few worthy scripts.

"Good scripts make good actors," she said. "But there's still a shortage of good scripts today."

And she had other things on her mind. Piper Laurie was not merely a star; she was an earnest artist interested in the stagecraft of life.

"The world was changing," she explained. "There was the civil rights movement and the war, and and I just thought it was a stupid, useless way to spend my life," she said. "And I had just gotten married."

She decided to study art. "I had always painted since I was a kid. In a way, when I did go back to work, it was to earn money so I could continue to paint. I had to hire models. That's so expensive."

But she has given up painting. "I no longer have the patience," she said.

Piper Laurie returned to film in Children of a Lesser God. Carrie came in in 1976. In recent years she has been increasingly active, most notably in David Lynch's TV production "Twin Peaks" in which she played "Catherine Packard" – a moniker that can't possibly be concidental. She has appeared on Fraser, in Will & Grace, and many other television shows. And she is an enthusiastic supppoter of independent movies. Recently she appeared with Dakota Fanning in the indie film Hounddog, and in Saving Grace with Tatum O'Neill, which was produced by Connie Stevens.

I just finished Harvest Moon with Ernest Borgnine and Anne Meara and Doris Roberts," she said. She described Borgnine (Marty, 1954) who is ninety, as "a real crackerjack. I think he likes me."

"The good thing for independents is that it means that a younger writer can get really good actors to play in it for not very much money. When I did Harvest Moon we did it pretty much for lunch money."

"These days Hollywood is full of producers and filmmakers," she continued. "Every kid here wants to be a director. But there are very few good scripts. And very few writers will take the time and energy to write anything of quality."

I remarked that the craft of writing seems to have been pretty much forgotten these days.

"I think you're right," she said. "the young people who go to film school today don't want to take the time. I think it would be better to just watch classic movies than go to film school."

Piper Laurie's career has often seemed, like herself, very puzzling.

"If I had stayed in Hollywood," she once remarked, "I would have killed myself. Or someone would have killed me."

Thankfully, neither happened. Still, although she was early on recognized as a major star, Piper Laurie was ready to disgorge herself from the fraud of fame to seek an authentic life. Looking back now, her work in The Hustler must, by any sensible standard, be regarded as one of the great screen performances of all time; maybe it wasn't good enough for her, but it was for me. The part of Sarah Packard is one of those rare and enduring characterizations that seem to leap off the screen and grab you by the throat. The role had seemed perfect for her – maybe too perfect, because she would never read another she liked so well or for which would be so completely suited. And so Piper Laurie came into our fantasy-fed lives for awhile, then left us like an ungrateful lover – not unlike Sarah Packard herself, who, burdened with a heart too fragile to endure being knocked about on an unbalanced plane of green felt, succumbed to a final spasm of indignity, scrawled a desperate epigram on a wall, and killed herself.

"It was a different world then," she said. "We were motivated to succeed, to be excellent."

Like Sarah, Piper Laurie refused to be hustled.


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