July 28, 1996
The New York Times
Her Specialty, Playing the Goofy but Lovable Heroine
By Carol Lynn Mithers
Not every actress can give a character dignity and pathos while hobbling barefoot with a bicycle chain clamped around her ankles. Mary Kay Place pulls that off in Manny and Lo, a black comedy about teen-age sisters, one pregnant, who are on the lam from separate foster homes.
The movie, which opened Friday, tells how the girls (played by Scarlett Johansson and Aleksa Palladino) kidnap and imprison a maternity store clerk named Elaine (Ms. Place) to help deliver the baby and end up creating an unlikely family.
Ms. Place give nuance and depth to the character of Elaine, whose motivation remains a mystery. To the first-time writer and director Lisa Krueger, that was no surprise. When the casting director for the Sundance Institute – where Manny and Lo was developed – suggested Ms. Place play Elaine. Ms. Krueger was immediately enthusiastic.
Like many, Ms. Krueger was “dazzled” by Ms. Place 20 years ago, when the actress played the aspiring country-and-western star Loretta Haggers on Norman Lear’s wacky soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” In fact, the portrayal of the perpetually optimistic Loretta, with her professions of lust for her nerdy husband and admonishments to unhappy friends to “have a one-on-one with the Lord,” made Ms. Place an enormous success.
“She was the kind of person an audience wanted to see,” said Mr. Lear. “She could have been a big television star.”
But in 1977, when “Mary Hartman” went off the air, Ms. Place rejected a proposal to create a show around Loretta. By the time she finished shooting the 1983 film The Big Chill, in which she played a single woman with a loudly ticking biological clock, the actress felt exhausted and considered herself “dead as a person.”
Instead of becoming a big television star, or even a small movie star, Ms. Place, who also writes and directs, has ended up doing what she calls “average television and film jobs that pay the rent,” interspersed with roles in films like Manny and Lo, which she describes as “paying 59 cents” but offering the greatest challenge.
“Stardom is not the point of it to me,” she said, her voice holding only a hint of the Oklahoma drawl she stretched to the limits for Loretta. “The point is, ‘What satisfying work is out there that you have business doing?’”
Ms. Place, now 48 and quite alive as a person, is a slender, fine-boned woman whose appearance has changed very little over the years. In a conversation in the immaculate, sunny living room of her West Los Angeles house, she asks as many questions as she answers. For 13 years, she maintained a moratorium on interviews because, she said, “I had nothing left to say.” She is breaking it now, she says, only because she feels strongly about Manny and Lo.
The movie, which was shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, garnered considerable praise. Caryn James, writing in The New York Times, said it had a “tone so perfectly balanced and idiosyncratic that it is deservedly one of the finds of the year.”
The film’s unconventionality, and the challenge of creating a complex character from very little, were what attracted Ms. Place to Manny and Lo. She went through intense preparation for the part, even inventing elaborate, detailed biography for Elaine. (Elaine has red hair because Ms. Place dreamed it was that color, three nights in a row.)
“For every reference to the past in the script, there was a story created,” she said.
The resulting performance is alternatingly comic, sad and emotionally intense. Like Loretta Haggers, Elaine could be ridiculous but emphatically is not.
“A lot of Mary Kay’s humor comes from letting you simultaneously see the elaborate constructions people create and hold onto for dear life, and how frail they really are,” observed Ms. Krueger.
“That was my greatest wish for Elaine: that she would be goofy and funny, but poignancy would come through. I also wanted some weirdness, and Mary Kay can seem slightly off the beaten path of womanhood. She appreciates oddness. Without any value judgments implied, she divides the world into two groups of people, civilians and Martians. And she’s definitely the latter.”
Ms. Place grew up in Tulsa, Okla.; her father was a professor of art. After graduating with a degree in drama from the University of Tulsa, she moved to Los Angeles, where she eventually found work assisting the comedians Tim Conway and David Steinberg and then Mr. Lear, who was producing “All in the Family” and “Maude.” Ms. Place routinely sat in on story meetings and, she said, “would have had to be a grasshopper not to learn half-hour sitcom structure.”
Soon she got an idea for a script of her own and urged a friend she’d met at a party, a young high school teacher named Linda Bloodworth, to collaborate. The two women worked together for three years, writing for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Phyllis,” and “M*A*S*H.” (Ms. Bloodworth, later Ms. Bloodworth-Thomason, went on to create shows like “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade.”)
After Ms. Place made a guest appearance on “All in the Family,” she was offered her role on “Mary Hartman.” Within two years she had attracted a cult following, won an Emmy, written 75 songs for Loretta and released three albums [sic] (one of which was nominated for a Grammy), been offered parts in two films, and sung with Emmylou Harris at the Grand Ole Opry. She was, in a word, hot.
Mary Kay had all the instincts of a terrific actress, a great sense of humor, and whatever she did carried the full breath of life,” Mr. Lear said. “Everybody wanted her.”
But Ms. Place, who was only 30 and, in her words, “fried” from some 400 episodes of nightly television, was finding that she didn’t want to be wanted.
“Every amazing opportunity under the sun opened up to me,” she said, “even ones I had no business having. I was wired and exhausted and just kept going because I didn’t know how to say no, until every fuse in my system was blown. And I didn’t find the star thing comfortable at all. People approached me with this weird energy that had no reality to it.” She appeared in a number of big-budget but slight films like Starting Over (1979) and Private Benjamin (1980). Her role in The Big Chill brought good reviews, but the malaise persisted.
In 1984, she fled to New York, where she continued to act. Perhaps the only person in recorded history to go to Manhattan to escape stimulation – “I’m an intense person, and wired in a fragile way,” she said – Ms. Place did not return to California until the end of the decade.
Though she has worked steadily in both films and television – she directed episodes of “Dream On” and “Friends” and won a daytime Emmy for her acting in an ABC “Afterschool Special” – she has not had the spectacular career that seemed inevitable in 1977.
Still, she seems content with her life and choices. Perhaps paradoxically, the actress so often cast as a mother (or a woman who wanted to be one) is single and has no children, which is, she says, “something I never could have imagined.” She finds comfort in religion, though true to form, Ms. Place participates in not one, but several denominations.
In recent years, she said, she had found fulfillment working on offbeat independent projects like Bright Angel, a film written by the novelist Richard Ford; “Talking With,” directed by Kathy Bates, which appeared as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series, and the forthcoming Citizen Ruth, directed by Alexander Payne, in which she plays a Christian fundamentalist who tries to reform a pregnant drug user who has been jailed for endangering her fetus.
“The material is what matters to me,” she said emphatically.
“I don’t care whether it’s an acting or directing or singing or writing job that comes next, as long as I can connect to it. Maybe I’d have been better at any of these things if I’d stuck with one. Nevertheless, I seem to go in a circle in my movements. While it may have scattered me, it seems to have been my path.”