Why play Big Edie in the ‘Grey Gardens’ musical? Betty Buckley loves ‘raw, naturalistic’ characters
By David Ng
Los Angeles Times
July 1, 2016
“Cats” — and cats — seem to follow Betty Buckley wherever she goes.
As Grizabella, the raggedly forlorn Jellicle from the blockbuster Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the actress delivered a rendition of “Memory” that routinely brought down the house at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, solidifying her place in the early 1980s as a bona-fide Broadway deity.
“The job assignment was daunting — to stop the show,” Buckley recalled in a recent interview at a restaurant in downtown L.A. “I didn’t know why or how to make that happen.”
“Memory” is still a reliable Buckley standby, a musical trump card that she keeps in her back pocket for concert and recital encores. The nine lives of Grizabella are also palpable in her latest role in “Grey Gardens” — and not just because of the feral felines who haunt the ramshackle estate in East Hampton, N.Y.
In the musical that opens at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, the actress plays Edith Bouvier Beale, the former society lady (and aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy) who along with her daughter the elder Edith, known as Big Edie, is the caterwauling shadow of her former glory, physically broken down but defiantly dignified in spirit.
“These are frayed and fractured human beings,” Buckley said. She points out that Norma Desmond from the musical “Sunset Boulevard,” in which she starred in London and New York, represents another unhinged soul.
“That’s the kind of part I aspire to play — a raw, naturalistic human,” Buckley said. “Not just some …” The actress trailed off and gave a sarcastic imitation of a smiling musical ingénue.
No one who has seen Buckley on stage or screen would mistake her for a dramatic lightweight. The actress, who turns 69 on Sunday, has a soaring, high-belt singing voice that is grand yet idiosyncratic, capable of going from tremulous Southern belle (Buckley hails from Texas) to Broadway diva in just a few bars.
It’s telling that her idols aren’t singers but dramatic actors known for their mastery of on-screen lunacy. “Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Gena Rowlands,” she said. “I wanted to learn to be that kind of actress.”
In conversation, Buckley is garrulous, punchy and stubbornly opinionated — especially when talk turns toward the presidential election. (“A fraud in every way, shape and form” is how she describes a certain candidate.)
Buckley performed in “Grey Gardens” last year at the Bay Street Theater in the Hamptons, about eight miles from the formerly dilapidated, cat-infested mansion where mother and daughter Beale holed up in resplendent squalor.
The actress said she was approached for the role by director Michael Wilson after they worked together in an off-Broadway production of “The Old Friends” by Horton Foote in 2013.
“He kindly asked who I wanted to work with and I got to recommend Rachel York,” she said.
York is reprising her dual role at the Ahmanson, playing a younger Big Edie in the first half of the show, set in 1941, and then Little Edie in the second chapter set 30 years later. (Buckley plays the aged Big Edie in the second half.)
Growing up, York watched Buckley in the ABC series “Eight Is Enough,” in which the latter played stepmother to a brood of eight on the comedy that ended in 1981. “I remember thinking as a young girl that she was the nicest, prettiest stepmom in the world with the most beautiful speaking voice,” York recalled. “To this day I think she has one of the most beautiful speaking voices, not to mention her singing voice.”
“Grey Gardens,” based on the enduring documentary by brothers Albert and David Maysles, premiered in New York a decade ago in a different production with a different cast.
Buckley’s approach to Big Edie is rooted in practical considerations. The mansion “was the one thing she had,” she explained. “I think basically in patriarchal systems, repressive systems, what else was there for them to do? They couldn’t make a living.”
The actress recalled her own experience growing up in an old-fashioned Texas household with a military father whom she described as a “Victorian fundamentalist.”
“He was a tough guy,” she said. “We went to war because he didn’t want me to go into acting.”
Buckley initially studied journalism but switched to drama. After arriving in New York she landed her first Broadway job almost immediately: the role of Martha Jefferson in “1776.” She later starred in “Pippin” for nearly three years before landing “Cats.”
During previews for “Cats,” Buckley felt she was in danger of losing her job because “Memory” wasn’t getting the show-stopping response the creators were looking for.
She eventually found inspiration in a couple of homeless women she encountered on the streets of New York. They both radiated a “self-possessed dignity and desire to share, not to get something from you,” the actress recalled. “That really worked.”
She won a Tony Award for her performance and stayed with the show for more than a year. “Cats” is being revived on Broadway, opening later this month, following a run in London.
Throughout her career, Buckley has worked regularly in movies and TV, bringing out sharply etched detail in even the smallest parts. She landed her first movie role in the 1976 horror favorite “Carrie” after working with director Brian De Palma as a voice-over actor in his earlier films, looping dialogue for young actresses who had been hired for their looks.
In “Carrie” she played the kindly gym teacher who takes Sissy Spacek’s title character under her wing. For her character’s gruesome death during the climactic prom scene, she recalled that De Palma’s direction was, “Squirm. Like a bug on a pin.” She later starred in the ill-fated musical version of “Carrie,” playing the heroine’s crazed mother.
Buckley has fond memories of working with Roman Polanski on the 1988 thriller “Frantic,” in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife, who is kidnapped on a trip to Paris. But she said the director could be unyielding when it came to getting the performances he wanted.
“He wants it exactly the way he wants it. … He didn’t want my feminist perspective, for sure,” she said, though she added, “I would love to work with him again.”
She put her vocal and dramatic talents to work in “Tender Mercies,” in which she played the ex-wife country singer to Robert Duvall. And she had one big scene in Woody Allen’s minor-key drama “Another Woman” — though what she remembers most was the opportunity to share a car with the movie’s star and her idol, Rowlands.
Buckley said she especially valued her four seasons on “Eight Is Enough” because it taught her about screen acting and how to navigate Hollywood. At the time, she lived at the Chateau Marmont and counted John Belushi as a friend. One of her pets — a Yorkshire terrier — is buried in the gardens of the storied hotel.
For the actress, “Grey Gardens” represents a break from her rural home in Texas, an hour outside Fort Worth, where she runs a ranch for horses and rescue animals, including many dogs and, yes, cats.
After living in New York for decades, she returned to her home state nearly 15 years ago to pursue her passion for cutting horses. She is divorced and has no kids, but she keeps busy teaching, singing and acting. (She recently wrapped the next M. Night Shyamalan movie and is scheduled to perform a recital series at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa in October.)
These days, Buckley’s fans perhaps know her best from her voracious social media habit. Her brother, Norman Buckley, the prolific TV director, got her addicted, and she now spends a good amount of time each week on Facebook and Twitter.
Many of her tweets are lately directed at a certain presidential candidate whose name she declined to speak, as if it would conjure an unwanted spirit. “This person who will remain nameless,” was how she described the candidate before launching into impassioned invective.
“Are you going to turn me into a Twitter addict in this story?” the actress asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
But like a good cat, she landed on her feet and brushed it off, laughing gently at herself.
“Grey Gardens,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Previews begin July 6, opening night July 13, ends Aug. 14. $30 to $130 (subject to change). (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org