Actress Files: Marsha Mason
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1973 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class)
Why I Waited: Mason won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama) for this film, and it's her only nominated turn that has nothing to do with Neil Simona welcome and intriguing break in pattern.
The Performance: If you've been following this recent spate of Best Actress nomination profiles, you may have read my dual summary of the odd, successful, truncated, and presently somewhat mystifying careers of Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason. Her IMDb page is currently headlined with the information that Marsha "has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame," and though we shouldn't make any mistake that I'd be delighted to earn a star on any city's Walk of Fame, something about this particular badge of distinction points toward the unfortunate air of the ersatz that has generally clung to Mason, not least because her success was often and cynically chalked up at the time to her marriage to Neil Simon (an eight-year union that coincides precisely with the span in which Mason racked up her four Best Actress nods). I recently read that Mary Astor, one of my absolute favorite stars of early Hollywood, summed up the five stages of a popular actor's career this way: "Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?" Mason, a "who's that?" target to many people these days, was undeniably in demand for a healthy tenure, but it's doubtful whether anyone ever asked for a young Marsha Mason, or for a Marsha Mason type. Four leading nominations in your first ten movies is nothing at all to scoff at, but in lots of her roles, Mason herself seems to be playing "the Marsha Mason type," either because she seems self-conscious and proud of her punchliney mannerisms (The Goodbye Girl) or insufficiently challenged by the script (Chapter Two), or because her appealing qualities do not encompass the kind of distinctive personality that would make her believable as anyone's irreplaceable vessel or muse.
Cinderella Liberty is not my favorite Mason performance, a tag that I'm sure will always affix itself to her tart, funny, lived-in, and very ably shaded star turn in 1981's Only When I Laugh. (She's nowhere close to Diane Keaton in Reds, but otherwise she's my runner-up vote for the trophy that year.) If Laugh finds Mason giving her most mature, intriguing rendition of a "Marsha Mason type," then her Cinderella performance as a sexy, pool-playing barfly who takes sailors to bed for money is unquestionably her least characteristic. She pipped Barbra Streisand for the part, or at least, she got the part from director Mark Rydell and his casting agents despite the studio's voiced preference for Streisand. Who knows if Babs wanted to play it; one might reasonably wonder whether she's an ace with a cue stick, but given that Rydell cuts away from Mason's billiard-playing as assiduously as Rob Marshall elided Renée Zellweger's dancing, I doubt this was the concern. Given the nature of the role and the context of most early-70s Streisand vehicles, I suspect that she'd have tilted Cinderella Liberty into much more comedic territory. For her part, via her popular association with Simon, Mason is often pigeonholed as a comic actress, but I think Cinderella Liberty exposes that comedy is not her exclusive or automatic disposition. Nor, though, does she approach Maggie as an opportunity for dour social realism, or for showing everyone how amply she can swing her hips or suffer. (A note about "Maggie": I was relieved that the character had this name, having presumed for years that "Cinderella Liberty" was the moniker of the female lead, which wouldn't do well for a biopic of a famous drag-ball queen, much less for a low-end Seattle streetwalker.)
Imagining a presence like Streisand's in the part immediately exposes how comparatively anonymous and ordinary a performer Mason can be, though this is not in every way a drawback. Cinderella Liberty gives her a fair amount to work with: the pool-hall acumen, suggestive of years of practice and a knack for strategy; a 10-year-old son by an absent black father; a completely non-generic but striking beauty, care of a long, loose, sexy hairstyle that softens those famous Mason brows, plus a flattering but believably inexpensive wardrobe; a seaport setting in which she would have seen and experienced quite a lot, especially given her vocation; and a tentative, slightly mystified affair with James Caan's very introverted off-duty sailor. Despite his taciturnity and her blowziness, he takes the lead role in building a real relationship between the two of them. A social worker assigned to Mason and her boy reveals an additional, important bit of context for the characterI won't reveal it, but no, she isn't dying, and no, she isn't really a man. Still, not all of these premises are easy to know what to do with. The whole conceit of the uniform-wearing gallant who takes an instant, chivalrous shine to a hooker he picked up in a bar and to her surly, beer-drinking, back-talking child feels like fantasy even by the standards of an industry that dreamed up Pretty Woman.
The movie is wise to foreground the smudged but colorful widescreen photography by the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond as a heavy, believable patina of atmospherics, since the script would otherwise be exposed as a rickety construct, often at the cliff-edge of giving offense, certainly past any frontier of coherence or common sense. In that regard, Mason seems similarly wise to avoid a lot of the specifics that are presented or half-presented to her by Darryl Ponicsan, adapting his own novel. She doesn't act like she's been swept off her feet so much as given pause by a new, rare possibility. She doesn't oversell or overthink her setbacks, doesn't dig too deeply into the psyche or the look or the gestus of this prostitute who, apparently, would love to be a Navy wife. She sticks instead to pretty broad emotional statessauciness, low-key sparkle, guardedness, gladness, sadness, pensiveness. The affective beats of the scenario thus come through pretty well, and unimpeded by dubious particulars. She communicates feelings amply and carries her weight on screen, albeit without breaking any molds. My favorite aspect of this style is that, for lack of a better word, it feels European, as though Mason understands her job as one of blending into an atmosphere, a world-picture, and an ensemble, however small. Her acting eschews showy gestures, and in a part like this, particularly at the hopeful beginning of a mainstream career when seizing attention is the name of the game, her fundamental modesty is refreshing and engaging. I'd never thought of Mason as remotely Continental, but in a movie that doesn't turn much on dialogue (another huge departure from her Simon vehicles, obviously), her comfort in her body, her confidence in unusual looks, and her seeming indifference to the camera show a sophistication I'm not used to in young American screen actresses. Moreover, her final series of actionssuggesting either a plane in Maggie's psychology that has recently lost its balance or one that has remained latent in the story thus farfurther authorizes Mason's choice to cloister the character behind a curtain of reserve, even when she's naked, or confiding, or laughing.
Nonetheless, I don't think Mason's Maggie aligns perfectly with what my drama teacher meant when she urged us, daily, to "leave them wanting more." I wanted her to want more, especially in regard to how little connected she seems to the actor playing her son, or to the idea that her character has a son. Again, Maggie has reasons, and Mason could point to some narrative developments to "explain" her blurriness on this question, but the same factors might serve as state evidence for requiring more complexity in the mother-child interactions than Mason remotely attempts. Caan isn't stellar in Cinderella Liberty but he's solid and steady, and he finds a rapport with the young actor Kirk Calloway. Mason, by comparison, often looks like she's either having a laugh with the pair of them in some mirthful behind-the-scenes footage or as though she's inexplicably unaware of her relation to Calloway as indicated in the script.
On the whole, she comes across as intriguing but half-full, ready for adventures into interesting parts but not quite prepared to shoulder a full load. America needs more actresses who can be counted on for understatement, and I sufficiently appreciated Mason's work while I watched Cinderella Liberty to tip toward a three-star rating. It's symptomatic of larger issues, though, that it's hard to recall the work with much specificity, even a day after seeing the film. Whereashark, Oscar-spotters!Sally Kirkland gets about 60 seconds of screen time as the ditzy, self-loving, comically jealous girl that Caan meets in the same bar, just before Mason first catches his eye, and I remember everything Kirkland found to do in that very tiny aperture for entertainment and characterization. I still basically like Mason, as I gather many of my readers do not, and I'd like to see her in a richer part that invited more severe tones in line with her angular looks, while still benefiting from her essentially generous approach to her roles, whether they be hookers or quippers or drinkers or frazzled single moms. I like her ease on camera, and I wonder if her brief, bright career on the A-list derived from how relaxed, how perfectly at home she looks on screen, as early as her first big movie. Still, lines must be maintained between being impressively comfy with one's part and failing to rise completely to its occasion.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 28 to Go