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THE STARLET WHO BECAME A RED HOT MOMMA

The transformation from gardenia-nibbling airhead to luminous, Oscar-nominated actress was not achieved without heartbreak. But Piper Laurie made it through. And, as she made clear to me in this 1976 New York Times interview, she was eventually able to laugh at the whole damned star-making sideshow. --GUY FLATLEY

 

“It was so much fun,” says Piper Laurie, recalling the shooting of “Carrie,” Brian De Palma’s bloody sleeper, in which she plays the wild-eyed, rabidly religious mother of Sissy Spacek, a pathetic wallflower with supernatural powers of destruction capable of being set in motion without warning and with deadly precision. “We all roared with laughter at the end of the day, especially the day I got it with all those knives.”

Laurie chuckles at the thought of the battery of blades whizzing weirdly through space and piercing her body. Obviously, she has traveled a vast stretch from her days as a prettily pouting, scantily clad starlet on the Universal lot, where she obediently posed for photographers while inexplicably eating gardenia petals. She now feels that she took the foolishness too seriously, trying desperately to inject an ounce of conviction into her flimsy roles opposite the coltishly dashing Tony Curtis in “The Prince Who Was a Thief” and “Son of Ali Baba.”

Today, she is the 44-year-old wife of Joseph Morgenstern, mother of a 5-year-old girl named Anna Grace and a sensibly serious actress at peace with her past. “For a long time, I felt a real hostility about the things that happened to me in Hollywood,” she says, “but now I look back on the person I was then with a kind of affection. I was inexperienced and lost, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be a movie star or a really good actress. I wouldn’t say that I had a breakdown; I just had disgust. But I survived.”

In the process of surviving, Laurie managed to earn the admiration of skeptical critics with her performance as a doomed alcoholic in “The Days of Wine and Roses” on TV, then as a crippled nymphomaniac in Robert Rossen’s film “The Hustler”--a performance for which won a Best Actress Oscar nomination--and finally as the fragile Laura in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' “The Glass Menagerie.”

“For a long time, my personal life was very strange,” she recalls. “My need to prove myself to the world as an actress was so immense that I couldn’t relax. And then there came a time during the 60’s, during the Vietnam War, when I suddenly became aware of the rest of the world. I had this slow, creeping sense of bewilderment at what I was doing with my life, and it seemed incredibly stupid to be spending my time play-acting. It was a long while before I realized that it is important to entertain people, important for them and important for me. Now I’m eager to play in anything that is interesting, creative and fun. I don’t care how big or how small the part is.”

In “Ruby,” a low-budget thriller set in the 1950’s and directed by Curtis Harrington, Laurie’s part will be large. “I play Ruby Claire, the head of a gang of a dozen or so men. I’m very flamboyant and sexy and tough, but vulnerable, too. I live in an old roadhouse and always wear red. I even get to sing a song.”

No doubt, Ruby Claire and her gang will also get to commit a murder or two.

“Well, actually, we’re a retired gang,” says Laurie, unable to control her laughter. “Now we operate a drive-in movie theater.”

 

FOR AN INDEX OF GUY FLATLEY'S INTERVIEWS WITH MOVIE AND STAGE PERSONALITIES, CLICK HERE AND BROWSE "OUT OF THE PAST."