“Hello, my darlings!” chirps Marian Seldes through the box office grille at Lincoln Center, where last season she reigned onstage as a miserly partygiver in Chekhov’s Ivanov. A welter of voices responds.
“Hello, Marian!” “Congratulations!” “No one deserves it as much as you.”
That “it” is the Tony nomination Seldes has received as leading actress in the revival of Ring Round the Moon. It’s a recognition that just a few weeks ago would have seemed impossible. Then, Irene Worth was taking the part of Mme. Desmermortes, the imperious invalid in Jean Anouilh’s 1947 comedy, and Seldes was to play the role only on Sundays, when Worth wanted to rest. An odd arrangement, to be sure, but, says Seldes, “I have such a deep feeling for [director] Gerry Gutierrez that just to be here, just to be at the rehearsal, would have been enough for me.” She went to London to finish a film role, and while she was there, Worth had a slight stroke, and Seldes became the primary Mme. Desmermortes.
“I flew back from London on a Friday, and I rehearsed with Gerry all day Saturday,” she says, sitting high in the balcony of the Vivian Beaumont and lunching on a ham-and-cheese on pumpernickel, “and I opened on Sunday.” The resulting nomination, her third, is the first in 28 years for Seldes, who has been a stalwart of the New York theater for half a century. Her last nomination was for Oliver Hailey’s Father’s Day, a play that closed on opening night. “It was a terrible shock and a great lesson to see that, because it was so poorly reviewed, it had absolutely no future,” she recalls.
“It was sad, but I adored doing that play.” Her first nomination, and only win, was for featured actress in 1967 in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, playing the daughter Julia. The vicissitudes of a life in the theatre are nothing new. “It just fell in my lap,” she says of her latest triumph. “The whole thing is a series of events that could not happen, that happened.” As anyone who has read her 1978 memoir The Bright Lights knows, it’s not the first time Seldes has gone on for Worth. Back in 1964, she was Worth’s understudy in Albee’s Tiny Alice, and she played three performances opposite John Gielgud during the Broadway run. This time, though, Worth’s illness was more critical.
“Thank God she’s well,” says Seldes, who has spoken with her old colleague since her hospitalization. “And she’s been so friendly, so approving. I think you’d almost have a sense of guilt if you felt the other person was not happy for you.”
That sensitivity is typical of Seldes. The daughter of the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, she was raised in a genteel East Side environment that emphasized a code of manners that she has surely drawn on for recent roles, such as the spinster socialite Flora Van Huysen in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, and Fanny Cavendish, the grande dame of three acting generations, in The Royal Family, along with Blythe Danner and Victor Garber, three years ago at the festival. But that upbringing is also reflected in her approach to her art. In her childhood milieu, pushing and shoving to get ahead were unseemly. "I thought ambition was an unattractive quality," she says. "I couldn't see the positive side of it. And I think it held me back, and I wish I'd been more ambitious." Perhaps she should have shortened her marathon runs in Equus and Deathtrap? “I have to admit to you that I was not offered anything,” she says. “There again, should I have gone and looked for something else, or should I have made more of an impression on my own agent? I don’t know. And yet, I’m content.” She has, after all, worked with virtually everyone. She made her Broadway debut as a chorus member in John Gielgud’s 1947 production of Medea, starring Judith Anderson. She followed up with That Lady and The Tower Beyond Tragedy, both starring Katharine Cornell, who became her mentor. She even played The Royal Family in the 1960s. Then she was the middle generation, daughter of Florence Reed’s Fanny, sister to Christopher Plummer’s John Barrymore character and mother once again to Blythe Danner, in the ingenue role. In Bermuda!
And there are the playwrights. “When you think that I have worked with Tennessee Williams (The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore), Peter Schaffer (Equus) and Edward Albee (A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women) -- to have the playwright there, it’s absolutely wonderful. It came out of that mind!”
For 22 years, until 1990, teaching at Juilliard also enriched her life. She gave it up when she married writer-director Garson Kanin, who died in March. “When my life changed and I could share it with Garson Kanin,” she says, “I realized I’d never get those hours back, and they were his. I miss it. I loved it.” But, she adds, “it’s coming back to me in a thousand ways. The play I’m in is directed by one of the first students I ever taught," Gutierrez. "My companion in the play, Frannie Conroy, was one of the most remarkable students I ever had. The young man who dances the tango, Derek Smith, is a student. I almost never go to the theatre without seeing someone I’ve taught or known at Juilliard.”
She first noticed Kanin, who was 15 years her senior, when she was a teenager. “I cut out some pictures of him from Life magazine when I was about 12, 13, 14. When he was a director in Hollywood, there were two spreads about him. The way he looked at the actors, and his look, just fascinated me.” In the 1960s, she understudied Olivia de Havilland in his play A Gift of Time, about a man dying of cancer, which failed. “It was hard for an audience to accept at that time,” she says, but, in the era of Wit, “I think it could be done again and be acceptable.”
Her loss is too fresh to discuss, but asked if she plans a sequel to The Bright Lights, she replies, “What Garson wanted, and probably wants still, is for me to write. This event, the whole Ring Round the Moon experience.... Equus gave me the courage to write The Bright Lights, and maybe this will give me the courage to write another [memoir].” Perhaps, as her daughter has suggested, she will write about TV and film: “I’ve suddenly done some movies -- small parts, but interesting ones.” She is in the upcoming romantic comedy Town and Country with Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn, and the remake of The Haunting. “It’s sort of my homage to Judith Anderson, because the character is quite like Mrs. Danvers.”
In spite of TV and film opportunities, her passion is still the theatre. In Ellen McLaughlin’s Tongue of a Bird at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year, she played a Polish refugee, “an uneducated displaced person, with no life at all in the present, and a rich and amazing and terrifying life, because of the Holocaust. I think I had six scenes spotted through the play,” all with Cherry Jones as her granddaughter. “It was a marvelous experience, and I love the Mark Taper. I feel about the Mark Taper the way I feel about Lincoln Center. We don’t have repertory in America, but we do have these theatres. It sounds silly to say this, but theatres that really believe in theatre.”
Jones is one of the younger generation whose work she admires: “She’s so true, she’s so real, that you believe everything she does. And, of course, the thrill of it is, you believe it in rehearsal, too.” She also mentions Tate Donovan, “whom I got to know at Williamstown”; Robert Sean Leonard (“such a wonderful actor”); Gretchen Egolf, who plays Isabel in Ring Round the Moon (“she’s like a dream to me”); and Toby Stephens, who plays the twins in Moon. “Toby is fearless,” she says. “He’s daring. I think people feel I’m confident, and I’m a bundle of anxieties. But I feel Toby is confident.”
When Tongue of a Bird came to New York, she wasn’t able to perform in it because she had that film commitment in London. “And if I’d played it in New York, I couldn’t have done this.” The pieces, like a cosmic jigsaw, somehow fall into place.
“There’s a wonderful line in Shakespeare that Katharine Cornell used to say: ‘The readiness is all.’ If things happen and you panic, or you’re not ready, or you’re not able, it doesn’t matter. It goes for nothing. And the preparation, not only to play a part, but to live a life in the theatre, is half of it. The performance, I guess, is the other half.
“And I can hear myself saying when that call came in London, ‘I’m ready.’ Isn’t that funny? That’s what I said, because I wanted the people at Lincoln Center not to worry. If they were waiting for me, when I got there, I’d be ready.”