Piper Lau­rie was abused by Ron­ald Rea­gan, bed­ded by Mel Gib­son and turned off by the Os­cars even though she was a nom­i­nee three times. She tells Nicki Gostin about her life as a dis­il­lu­sioned movie star

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page -

BY THE age of 17 Piper Lau­rie had achieved her child­hood dreams of movie star­dom. She was awarded a seven-year con­tract with Univer­sal Pic­tures which en­tailed chap­er­ones, a beau­ti­ful wardrobe, lead­ing roles op­po­site stars like Tony Cur­tis and Ron­ald Rea­gan, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic­ity stunts con­cocted by the stu­dio, such as the bizarre “Piper Lau­rie — eats noth­ing but flow­ers,” which in­volved her giv­ing in­ter­views while nosh­ing on a plate of pret­tily ar­ranged petals.

But Lau­rie dis­cov­ered that the roles of­fered to her were flimsy and shal­low. Six years into the con­tract she was sent a script for a Western star­ring World War II hero Audie Mur­phy. The fe­male part was a “prop and just barely that, pos­si­bly the worst part they had ever handed me”, she re­calls. It was the final hu­mil­i­a­tion and Lau­rie did the un­think­able. She broke the con­tract and moved to New York in the hope of work­ing on stage and per­form­ing in sub­stan­tive ma­te­rial.

This jour­ney is re­counted in Lau­rie’s mem­oir en­ti­tled, Learn­ing to Live Out Loud. It is a deeply hon­est look back at her life, in­clud­ing love af­fairs, an il­le­gal abor­tion and the sac­ri­fices she made to fol­low a ca­reer on her own terms.

Lau­rie was born Rosetta Ja­cobs in 1932, the grand-daugh­ter of Rus­sian- and Pol­ish-jewish im­mi­grants to the United States. She laughs now at how non-jewish her screen name sounds but says that a name change was some­thing any as­pir­ing star might have to ac­cept in 1950s Hol­ly­wood.

“Be­sides, I never re­ally liked Rosetta,” she adds. “I thought it was very old fash­ioned. To­day it seems ridicu­lous that I changed my name to Piper Lau­rie, but in those days it didn’t.”

She grew up in a tra­di­tional Jewish home with He­brew lessons at the syn­a­gogue, although Lau­rie ad­mits she does not at­tend any­more. “I’m ob­ser­vant in my own way at home; some­times I light can­dles on Fri­day night.”

For a large chunk of her early child­hood her par­ents placed her and her older sis­ter in a chil­dren’s home, which they both de­spised. “I never did find out why they sent us there,” she says. “I could only sur­mise. I think they were un­der a lot of pres­sure, no money, and my sis­ter was sick all the time. I think they just saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to get a rest for them­selves. It caused me to go deeper into my­self to find things, to sur­vive emo­tion­ally. It helped my imag­i­na­tion to flower which ended up be­ing a gift.”

Still a teenager she was cast as Ron­ald Rea­gan’s daugh­ter in Louisa. Des­per­ate to ap­pear ex­pe­ri­enced and worldly she agreed to a date with her older co-star which re­sulted in him tak­ing her vir­gin­ity. It was, to put it mildly, a dis­as­ter. Rea­gan ac­cused the 18-year-old of be­ing “ab­nor­mal” be­cause she didn’t have an or­gasm. “There’s some­thing wrong with you that you should fix,” he said harshly.

“It was ab­so­lutely stupid of him,” says Lau­rie. “He was ig­no­rant of the fact that it was my first time. I wanted to be so so­phis­ti­cated. Ev­ery­one was a vir­gin in those days till they got mar­ried, but I was ad­ven­tur­ous and I was in­fat­u­ated and I didn’t want to say I was a vir­gin.”

Af­ter the mo­men­tous break with the stu­dio Lau­rie moved east and be­gan ap­pear­ing on live tele­vi­sion shows and on stage. Even­tu­ally she landed a role op­po­site Paul New­man in The Hus­tler, which re­sulted in an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion. The nom­i­na­tion, how­ever, was “mean­ing­less” to her. She did not even at­tend the cer­e­mony. “I was an­gry at the whole sys­tem,” she says.

While she was liv­ing in New York she be­came preg­nant. “It was ter­ri­fy­ing,” she con­cedes. “I thought my life was over. I couldn’t talk to my par­ents, they would have dis­owned me. I think if I’d had the baby my life and my ca­reer would have been over.”

Even­tu­ally she found a sym­pa­thetic doc­tor who agreed to per­form an abor­tion in a hospi­tal. In­ter­est­ingly, the event was so trau­matic Lau­rie can­not re­mem­ber where it hap­pened. “I have erased in my mind where that place was,” she says. “It’s gone from my con­scious mind.”

Once again she was un­happy with the roles be­ing of­fered so she ba­si­cally quit act­ing, moved to Wood­stock in up­state New York with her hus­band, Newsweek writer Joe Mor­gen­stern (the two met when he was as­signed to in­ter­view her) and their baby daugh­ter Anna. She be­came an ac­com­plished sculp­tor.

But a se­ri­ous back op­er­a­tion caused her to re-eval­u­ate her life and she de­cided that it might be “fun” to give act­ing a try again. That is when di­rec­tor Brian Depalma called of­fer­ing her a role in a new hor­ror film he was di­rect­ing called Car­rie. Lau­rie re­calls: “I was just laugh­ing be­tween takes. It was fun to play so mean.”

It was an amaz­ing come­back movie that gar­nered an­other Os­car nom­i­na­tion although the pay­check was small — $10,000 dol­lars (the film has grossed around $34 mil­lion). Lau­rie claims that it has never both­ered her ex­cept on one oc­ca­sion. “I do re­mem­ber pick­ing up my daugh­ter from a play date with the daugh­ter of the pro­ducer of Car­rie. He in­vited me into his man­sion and said: ‘Let me show you the home that your won­der­ful per­for­mance built’. That an­noyed me.”

Other juicy roles fol­lowed in­clud­ing one op­po­site a very young Mel Gib­son in his first movie, Tim. The two played lovers and one night af­ter pro­duc­tion wrapped Gib­son knocked on his older co-star’s door and the two shared a pas­sion­ate night to­gether. Lau­rie sounds mys­ti­fied when dis­cussing Gib­son’s tra­vails—histrou­bleswith­al­co­holand al­le­ga­tions of an­tisemitism. “It’s very sad and I can’t re­ally be­lieve it,” she ex­claims. “I don’t know where that came from — some naughty spirit. It’s like he wanted to be a bad boy but I can’t ex­plain it. It’s not the per­soniknew.theal­co­holor­drugs must have re­leased some­thing. It’s very hard for me to be­lieve that’s who he re­ally is.”

In 1981 Lau­rie got di­vorced and re­lo­cated to Los An­ge­les. She re­ceived her third Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for Chil­dren of a Lesser God in 1986. A slew of TV ap­pear­ances fol­lowed in shows like Twin Peaks, Frasier and ER play­ing Ge­orge Clooney’s mother. She de­scribes Clooney as “com­pletely charm­ing. I thought he would have a big ca­reer but I didn’t know how big. That was a de­light­ful sur­prise.”

To­day she still en­joys work­ing but ad­mits the roles of­fered are again bor­ing and one-di­men­sional. Asked to choose her favourite movie, she de­murs. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to choose,” she protests. “I guess the ones that al­lowed me to do my work fully. Those are my favourites.”

Lau­rie with Paul New­man in 1961’s The Hus­tler, for which she re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion


Ron­ald Rea­gan called her “ab­nor­mal”

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