Thursday, August 16, 2007

2. Helen Hayes, first lady of the American theatre

HELEN HAYES, 1900-1993. Triple crown achieved at age 52 in 1953 with an Emmy for best actress for a variety of TV appearances, including "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars," "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" and "Robert Montgomery Presents." Preceding it were a best leading actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and a best actress (dramatic) Tony for "Happy Birthday" (1947). Following it were a best actress (dramatic) Tony for "Time Remembered" and a supporting actress Oscar for Airport.

Hayes was and is the pride of Washington, D.C., where she was born to a poultry salesman and an actress, where she made her professional debut at age 9, and where she is immortalized as the namesake of the region's theatre awards. This five-foot, 100-lb dynamo worked in every decade of the 20th century and was to the stage as Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep is to the cinema: deeply and broadly talented, capable of striking any tone, with a virtually unassailable legacy.

Alas, I wasn't around to catch her on stage, though there was ample opportunity. Hayes was on Broadway 60 times before making her talkie debut in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and followed that role with 40 more appearances. One hundred performances on the Great White Way. Impressive. It's not surprising that she won her first Tony the year they were created -- for the comedy "Happy Birthday," which Anita Loos wrote specifically for her when Hayes complained she was sick of playing noble queens.

In addition to a regional theatre award, Hayes also has a Broadway house named after her. When it was dedicated in 1982, The New York Times reported that Hayes made a point of showing disdain for the use of microphones in the theatre by standing to the side of the lectern and speaking without amplification.

"Even though I couldn't be on the stage, I took comfort that I was still represented on Broadway,'' she said. ''The theater has been my whole life. It has given me every great thing I ever had. I hope this theater will have many long runs and outlive me."

When she had her first starring stage role as a flapper in 1920 in "Bab," the reviews weren't so glowing. Heywood Broun dismissed her as "cute," which a term that tailed her for years. "On opening night, I gave one of those shrill, tense performances that became a hazard in my career whenever I was not in top form," she admitted later. So she worked to get better. She improved her voice and delivery and concentrated hard on seeming taller. "My posture became military," she said. "I became the tallest five-foot woman in the world."

She followed her writer husband Charles MacArthur to Hollywood and was polished enough by 1931 to win an Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, in which she aged 30-some years in 76 minutes. Hayes plays Madelon, a woman who is abandoned by her husband and left alone to care for their infant son. Madelon sends her son to be raised by friends in the country, marries a rich man in order to provide for the son, gets caught up in the second husband's malfeasance, goes to jail for 10 years, is released, seeks out her son but tells him his mother is dead, tries to find a job to surreptitiously pay for his schooling and ends up becoming a whore to finance her son's dream to become a doctor. Keep in mind the son has no idea she's alive, even though they've met face to face.

"Let's face it," said producer Irving Thalberg. "We win Academy Awards with crap like Madelon Claudet."

And Hayes did. The movie is rather silly, but Hayes is fun to watch. With her wide-set eyes, apple-pie voice and spritely manner, her appearance and acting feel surprisingly contemporary and unaffected for a 1931 movie. She's an unconventional beauty in a bullseye of an Oscar role: Madelon is pretty, then ugly. Young, then old. A chaste mother, then a whore with a heart of gold. She gets to flit around in a lacy dress early in the movie, and then skulk around in old-lady makeup at the end. It set the Oscar mold for all the future pretty ladies who would uglify themselves for a decent part. Hayes won the Oscar over two competitors, Marie Dressler and Lynn Fontanne (also a first lady of the theatre). Despite the senseless plot of the movie, Hayes deserved the honor. Her performance exists on its own plane and somehow remains free of the movie's contrived logic. Why? Because she's so damn charismatic and likeable.

Adequately prepared by Madelon Claudet, Hayes played over 80 years of Queen Victoria's life in the 1935 Broadway production of "Victoria Regina," which was considered her greatest stage triumph (no Tony, though -- they had not been created yet). "Tremulously magnificent," wrote critic Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times. "Since the Queen is dead, God rest her soul. Let the cheers go to her actress, who deserves all the homage the town contains."

She made a fifth as many movies as she did pieces of theatre, but struck Oscar gold again 40 years after Madelon Claudet in the ridiculous, shameless disaster movie Airport. Hayes, then 70 years old, plays Ada Quonsett, a serial swindler who sneaks onto airplanes without paying. She shows up 23 minutes into the film to hop a flight to Europe. She's wearing a brown hat with a brown pompom and a tweed coat with a black velvet collar. She is white-haired and cute as a button, but is nevertheless caught by security and sent to the office of the airport general manager (played by Burt Lancaster).

She charms him, saying that she was taking the trip her husband had always wanted to take. "He always said, 'See Rome, and die,'" she simpers. "But he died while we were packing."

Jean Seberg, who plays another airport official, sees right through the act and encourages security to be on the lookout for a "sweet-looking innocent old lady" after Quonsett sneaks out of Lancaster's office. What if she gets onto the plane after all? "She deserves it," Lancaster says. "She's fabulous."

She is fabulous, isn't she? Hayes is the welcome comic relief in a too-serious movie, the cheery antidote to Maureen Stapleton's potent grandstanding. Quonsett does get on the plane and is conveniently seated next to a would-be bomber (ah, there's the plot!).

Eventually she is enlisted by the flight crew to act as an abused passenger to distract the bomber. As part of this ruse, we get one of cinema's great moments: Jacqueline Bisset (playing the stewardess) slaps the first lady of the American theatre.

Hayes is in command of a decent role in a shoddy movie (like she was in Madelon Claudet). She plays a geriatric con artist, so she gets to perform within a performance. Look at her fake-weep in the above clip, and that awful face she makes when she wails "You hurt me!" Delightful. Selfless. Somewhere along the line, the bomb goes off and we last see Quonsett huddling under a fur coat with a nun, taking pulls on a bottle of airport brandy. So it's funny. It's kitchsy. But an Oscar? Sure, the competition wasn't extreme (Hayes faced Stapleton, Lee Grant, Karen Black and Sally Kellerman), but still...

Hayes became the first person to have both a leading and supporting Academy Award on her mantle. She wasn't at the ceremony. Rosalind Russell accepted on her behalf (it was the closest Roz got to an Oscar).

The next year, Hayes guest-starred on "Here's Lucy" in an episode called "Lucy and the Little Old Lady." You guessed it: Hayes plays the Little Old Lady, who looks and acts an awful lot like Ada Quonsett, and who also happens to be a con artist. The episode is a yawn -- you can tell Lucille Ball's time had passed -- but Hayes is a gas. Her entrance is met with canned applause. Even the fake audience is aware of her stature. But Hayes isn't afraid of getting goofy. The seance scene -- in which Hayes tries to summon the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte -- is pretty great. Even though she won her Emmy nearly 20 years before, I'm mentioning this television appearance because it's the only one I could find on DVD. So sue me.

Helen Hayes, Helen Hayes. If we look at Madelon Claudet, Airport and "Here's Lucy," what are we to make of her? A young lady who could play old, and an old lady who could play goofy. I wish I could've seen her on stage, which obviously filled in most of her greatness. The theatre side of her triple crown weighs heaviest.

Hayes's view of her eminence was modest. "Without the compensation of glamour, I am hard put to explain the durability of my career and the loyalty of the audience," she wrote in a 1968 memoir titled "On Reflection." "Perhaps it is just identification. I was once the typical daughter, then the easily recognizable wife, and then the quintessential mother. I seem always to have reminded people of someone in their family. Perhaps I am just the triumph of Plain Jane."

The is part two of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Check back soon for part three, featuring the second most beautiful woman in the movies. The collage at the top of this post is from, and is used without permission. Forgive me.


Anonymous said...

she's a gem

Paul T. said...

And let's not even get into Herbie territory.