by Susan King
Not too many performers become a star at the age of 72. But that’s exactly what happened to the diminutive spitfire, Ruth Gordon. She earned the best supporting actress Oscar for her indelible performance in 1968’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby” as the Satanist Minnie Castevert, who chooses a young woman (Mia Farrow) to become the baby mama of Satan’s spawn.
A 2020 Tribecafilm.com article weighed in on the brilliance of her performance: “Gordon’s real triumph as the mouthy, malevolent Minnie Castevet is all about fashioning a character whose lasting memorability has little to do with what is on the page and nearly everything to do with how much deliciously diabolical detail Gordon manages to invest in every single second of her screen time….She, of course, gets to recite a line as ripe for camp as ‘He chose you, out of all the world-out of all the women in the whole world, he chose you,’ which Gordon delectates in like she’s squeezing out the meat from a still-breathing lobster.”
Whenever clips of the Oscar’s greatest moments are shown, Gordon’s Oscar acceptance is nearly always included. When her name was called, Gordon sashayed her way up to the podium at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and addressed the cheering crowd: “I can’ tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this is. The first film that I was ever in was in 1915 and here we are and it’s 1969. "Actually, I don’t know why it took me so long; though I don’t think, you know, that I’m backward.”
The actress was born Oct. 30, 1896, in Quincy, Mass. Her father, Clinton, was initially a sea captain and then a factory worker. He wanted his daughter to become a P.E. teacher. “But I hated all those serge bloomers and dumbbells and Indian clubs.” Gordon said. She knew she had to become an actress when she saw Hazel Dawn in Boston in the musical “Pink Lady.”
At 18, she headed to New York and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her father gave her his beloved spyglass if she needed something to hock.
Gordon wrote about her early life in her 1946 play autobiographical play “Years Ago,” for which Fredric March won the Tony Award. She also adapted her play for the charming 1953 release “The Actress,” starring Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright and Anthony Perkins, in his film debut, directed by George Cukor.
(Gordon also penned two acclaimed autobiographies: “My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon” and “Ruth Gordon: An Open Book.”)
Initially, she was told she had no talent — Gordon only lasted one term at acting school — but she never gave up. She was an extra in a 1915 film and made her Broadway debut in a revival of “Peter Pan” with Maude Adams where she caught the attention of critic Alexander Woollcott — the inspiration for “The Man Who Came to Dinner”— who became a friend and mentor.
Gordon worked hard to improve. She strengthened her voice. Gordon had bowlegs and
went so far as to have a doctor break her knees and reset them.
She appeared in such plays as “Holding Helen,” “Seventeen,” “Saturday’s Children” and “Ethan Frome.” Gordon also was the first American actress to tread the boards at the Old Vic in England.
Helen Hayes, who was a good friend of Gordon, told the New York Times that the actress was “a total original. There was no one else like her, and no one had the courage to try to imitate her.”
Gordon signed a contract with MGM but the only film she did for the studio was Greta Garbo’s swan song, 1941’s “Two-Faced Woman.” She had much better luck at Warner Bros. most notably starring as Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey’s Honest Abe in 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.”
She married her first husband, actor Gregory Kelly in 1918. But he died six years later. She had a child, Jones Harris, by famed Broadway producer Jed Harris. Ever the free spirit, Gordon didn’t hide the fact she had a child out-of-wedlock and was more than open as to the identity of the father.
The trajectory of her career changed when she married writer/director Garson Kanin, who was 16 years her junior. As a writing team, they earned three Oscar nominations for their screenplays. Two of those — 1949’s “Adam’s Rib” and 1952’s “Pat & Mike” starring their good friends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and directed by Cukor — were smart, sophisticated comedies. But their first nomination was for 1947’s film noir, “A Double Life,” also directed by Cukor, for which Ronald Colman won his only Oscar as a famous stage actor who goes mad and murderous playing “Othello” on Broadway.
She did a lot of Broadway in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, most notably as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s 1955 comedy “The Matchmaker” — the basis of the musical “Hello, Dolly!”— earning a Tony nomination.
After 20 years, she returned to films with the 1965 Hollywood drama “Inside Daisy Clover,” with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. Gordon received her first Oscar nomination as an actress for her performance as Wood’s eccentric mother who is sent to a sanitarium.
Gordon relished the stardom that came with “Rosemary’s Baby.” And so did the counterculture who looked upon her as a hip, cool Nana.
“I don’t care who remembers me, or for what,’ she said in a 1984 interview “I love it. I never get over it. I never get used to it.”’
After winning the Oscar, she made 22 films including the quirky and wonderful 1971 love story “Harold and Maude,” also starring Bud Cort and directed by Hal Ashby. “There was such an elegance about her, such a brilliance about her,” Cort told the New York Times after her death in 1985. “I’d leave lunch with her feeling like I’d been with a statesman, a diplomat.”
And she was fearless as the senile Jewish mother of George Segal in Carl Reiner’s 1970 comedy “Where’s Poppa?” who, at one point, pulls down’s Segal’s pants and bites him on the tushy. Of course, she played Clint Eastwood’s cantankerous ma in the low-brow comedy hits 1978’ “Every Which Way but Loose” and 1980’s “Any Which Way You Can.’’ No tush biting in those but she was kissed on the lips by an orangutan named Clyde.
She hosted “Saturday Night Live” and even tried to outwit “Columbo” in the 1977 episode, “Try and Catch Me.” Gordon also appeared on “Newhart” and played the mother of the doorman Carlton on “Rhoda.” She won an Emmy for her guest starring role in the 1979 “Sugar Mama” episode of “Taxi” in which she plays a feisty, wealthy and elderly woman who tries to buy cabbie Alex ‘s (Judd Hirsch) companionship.
She had unstoppable energy even in her late 80s. In fact, when she died in August 1985 at the age of 88, Gordo had recently completed four films -“Maxie,” “Delta Pi,” “The Trouble with Spies,” and something called “Voyage of the Rock Aliens” with Pia Zadora.
“Pan me, don’t give me the part, publish everybody’s book but this one and I will still make it,” Gordon noted in “My Side” autobiography. “Why? Because I believe I will. If you believe, then you hang on. If you believe, it means you’ve got imagination, you don’t need stuff thrown out for you in a blueprint, you don’t face facts-what can stop you? If I don’t make it today, I’ll come in tomorrow.”