Photoplay Movies and Video (British magazine)
How Mary Kay Place Fulfilled Her
Still bubbling over the recent success of
The Big Chill, the actress-writer talks to
Lisa Dawson about missing out on the
Sixties, her hopes for marriage and a family,
sexism in Hollywood, and being a worried writer
Although well-known in American, the name Mary Kay Place is none too familiar to British filmgoers. However, judging by the recent acclaim which greeted The Big Chill, it’s a situation which will more than likely change.
Within seconds of meeting the diminutive actress-writer-singer-composer, one instinctively knows that the warmth of her greeting is genuine, and that here is someone whose engaging personality not only acts as a springboard for her talents, but also complements them. Although she has appeared in a number of films including More American Graffiti, Private Benjamin, Modern Problems, Starting Over, and New York, New York, Mary Kay considers working on The Big Chill one of her most cherished experiences to date.
“It was just one of those instances that I find to be rare. I mean I always have a nice time on a film, I always meet new people and new friends, but this went way beyond that. The atmosphere was very family-like, we all fell madly in love with each other.
“Some of us live in New York and some in L.A., but we have a reunion every other minute. We all get together and do a lot of social stuff: we have parties, we dance, we go to films together. It’s been a consistent gathering of friends – more than on any other film I’ve worked.”
In the film Mary Kay plays Meg, a young woman whose legal career and past relationships have thwarted her plans to marry and have kids. When she and her friends gather for the weekend, Meg engages the help of Kevin Kline in order to fulfil her maternal urge to get pregnant before it’s too late. Unlike Meg, however, Mary Kay claims it is not an act she would ever contemplate.
“Absolutely never in a million years! Would never do it, never even consider it! It’s certainly very credible though because I have a girlfriend who’s been considering it, she’s had tests, the father picked out, everything. I have also met, and know, several women who have done it. But I wouldn’t ever pass moral judgment myself.
“The thing that was interesting about playing Meg is that I did deal with a lot of things that I hadn’t dealt with before in terms of career, babies, and in fact whether I would do what she did. But for me personally, I believe in the full family unit.”
At 36, Mary Kay remains single but says she definitely plans on being married at some point. As for children, she says, “I love kids, crave for them, and dying to have them!”
Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma (“the Tulsa of Susie Hinton’s novels, but not that of Francis Coppola’s Rumblefish”) Mary Kay has a fierce independence which she says is deeply rooted in her background.
Unlike the once vigorously idealistic baby-boom generation of the Sixties, as portrayed in The Big Chill, Mary Kay grew up in an atmosphere of isolated lethargy where moderation seemingly prevailed.
In Oklahoma we had the Fifties during the Sixties and we were always about ten years behind. I was raised in the American Dream and my parents actively supported it. I didn’t rebel until much later, and even then it wasn’t so much a question of rebelling as a question of saying to my parents: ‘You think that, and I’ll think this; you go do that, and I’ll go do this’.
“I was idealistic about many things, as everyone was, but I must say I was not on this big Sixties bandwagon at university. I was not a flower child, I was not into drugs, I was really not like a typical Sixties hippie at all...not out of choice, but out of not being exposed to it. It was something in the media, something that happened in New York and L.A. I observed it, but I was never in the thick of it, it was just something we read about in the papers.”
After graduating from university, Mary Kay left Tulsa for L.A. Offering only minimal secretarial skills she got a job in television as a writer’s secretary and although found it initially rough, she had got a foot in the door and never once looked back.
“It was like graduate school. I was there 18 hours a day, seven days a week typing out thousands of scripts and attending production meetings, buit that’s how I learned to write for television.”
Indeed, it was in L.A. that Mary Kay found her place.
Her first job as a writer was a small piece for Lily Tomlin, after which Mary Kay rang up a female journalist friend and told her of an idea she had for an episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
“We weren’t given the job, it was done on speculation. We handled it in to our agent and suddenly we were writers! This was a time when, because of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” people became very open to women writers. They saw the other side of them, the side that looked at behavior.”
Having scored with one of the most influential programs on American television, it was not surprising that all her subsequent writing assignments emanated as a result of that one script, including the plum offer of writing episodes for “M*A*S*H.”
“I was very fortunate because here was this very male show and what did they do but ask my co-writer and I [sic], who were at that time 25 or something, to write for their show! We were the only women writers in it.”
Although Mary Kay arrived in L.A. at a time when a door was being opened to women writers in television it was, and still is, a profession very much dominated by men. Even so, the actress claims to have come across very little male chauvinism.
“You can’t say Hollywood’s chauvinistic because on “M*A*S*H” I had a great opportunity and they taught me some real craft writing. The area I will say that Hollywood is sexist in, is acting. When it comes to casting in TV it’s very much what a person looks like as opposed to what they can do. Television is filled with bodies and faces and less acting ability.”
In all Mary Kay spent three years writing for television, including series such as “Phyllis,” “Maude,” and “Rhoda.”
Her next film role will be opposite Charles Grodin in a production scheduled to start shooting in September. Meanwhile, she continues to write, even though she says: “I find it difficult and torturous. I never feel I’m getting it right and worry about it way too much.”
Mary Kay’s latest screenplay is co-written by Tricia Brock, who produced a TV documentary called The Rush. Filmed at the University of Mississippi, it focused on the local campus sorority. Sororities are an institution peculiar to American colleges and universities which are almost like miniature clubs. These exclusively female fraternities are usually associated with girls of wealthy status who dress alike, often date only boys from equivalent male fraternities, and who are predominantly interested in social climbing.
The term “Rush” applies to the period when sorority girls invite newcomers to try out as potential candidates for sorority membership.
“I was in a sorority college in the early Sixties before they became tragically unhip,” says Mary Kay. “These fraternities have existed for over a hundred years and now they’re stronger than ever, and have once again become a phenomenon.”
Tentatively called The Daughters of America, Mary Kay and Tricia Brock have worked on their screenplay – based on The Rush – for almost three years.
“We’ve been to hell and back on this script,” says the actress, “but we recently turned in our last draft and I think we’re finally there. It will be an ensemble piece about friendship, love, and the need to belong to something larger than yourself. I mean, how can people maintain individuality and still be part of a group which must then have rules and a structure?”
No doubt Mary Kay’s film will help enlighten the issue, but in the meantime casting is due to begin in earnest.
“We’re gonna go on a barnstorming session across the country to places like Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville, and to all the university theater departments. We do not want New York or L.A. actresses because you can tell they’ve never lived that kind of life. We want the fresh...daughters of America.”
[The project described above seems to never have been made. However, Ms. Brock and Ms. Place did finally work on a project together when Ms. Brock wrote and directed the film Killer Diller, due out in 2004. Mary Kay has a small role in the movie about a group of misfits who form a band at a small Missouri Baptist college.-CW]