Recently when she was shopping in London, Rosemary Harris says that a
woman approached her, tapped her on the shoulder, and said, "My little
girl says you’re the lady in `Spider-Man.’ I told her you couldn’t
possibly be – what would you be doing shopping in London." Admitting
that the little girl was correct, Harris was amazed to learn that the
child was only four years old. She laughs as she agrees: her
performances as Aunt May in all three Spider-Man movies is probably
her greatest claim to fame. On a recent publicity junket for the third
Spider-Man she traveled with lead actor Toby Maguire and director
Samuel Remy to the world premiere in Tokyo, and then all over the
world with one-night stands in London, Paris, and Rome.
This is a magic time for those who are 80 years old. Almost every
publication, including this one, has noted playwright Edward Albee’s
upcoming 80th birthday. But it’s also the magic 80th year for
award-winning actress Harris and British director Frank Dunlop. Harris
and Dunlop are now ensconced at the George Street Playhouse for the
east coast premiere of "Oscar and the Pink Lady" by French playwright
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, now in previews and opening on Friday, January
18. This production recently debuted at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater.
Harris and Dunlop have worked together several times over their
extensive and remarkable theater careers. They first were together on
the play "The Enchanted" by another Frenchman, Jean Giraudoux, in 1956
at the Bristol Old Vic in England. They have maintained their
friendship since then but did not work together again until Dunlop
created a new theater company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in
1977. Harris appeared in that company’s first season in "The Three
Sisters" and another play called "The New York Idea," a 1906 satire on
divorce by Langdon Mitchell.
Talking recently by phone with both Harris and Dunlop, they told me
how their theatrical paths had crossed yet again for "Oscar and the
Pink Lady." Dunlop’s friend Jean Claude Baker – the oldest adopted son
of the chanteuse Josephine Baker and the owner of the New York
restaurant Chez Josephine – gave him a copy of the novella and
insisted he read it. At that time the actress Danielle Darrieux was
performing the play version in Paris. Reading it overnight, Dunlop
tried unsuccessfully to get the rights to the play. However, some time
later, he was contacted by the playwright when an earlier play option
hadn’t worked out. His first thought was: "Rosemary."
Actually it wasn’t the first time Harris had been approached about the
play. The previous producer had offered it to her. Her initial
response had been "It’s a great part for an old lady but how are you
going to find a boy to play the 10-year-old?’ The producer told me,
`No, you play the boy as well as the lady.’ That was a whole different
matter." However, something about the translation "didn’t speak to
me," she says, so she turned it down. When Dunlop brought the same
play to her, he assured her that this was a new translation done in
collaboration with the author Schmitt. "It’s not often in life that
you get a second chance. I didn’t let it go this time, and there’s the
additional joy of working again with Frank," Harris says.
Schmitt is described by Harris as "the chap who wrote it, a top
novelist and playwright in Europe." Dunlop finds it amazing that
Schmitt is almost unknown in the English speaking world and hopes that
this production will make the proper introduction. "The play is full
of truth about life and aging and dying and laughing," says Dunlop.
"Wonderful, truthful things as seen through the eyes of a child."
According to Harris the Pink Lady of the title is "Granny Pink, a
volunteer at a hospital who visits children, many who are terminally
ill. She wears a pink smock – like a candy striper. She and Oscar
strike up a wonderful friendship and she helps him through the last
days of his life."
Harris says that Schmitt had spent time as a patient in the hospital
when he was a child and also visiting the children’s wards with his
pediatrician father. She adds that Schmitt had been waiting for the
right moment to write about Oscar. In an introduction to the play he
writes, "I just hope that when my time comes, I’ll be able to face it
with the same fortitude and optimism that Oscar does."
Schmitt has written several works that are from the point of view of a
child. This original novella was structured as a series of letters. In
the play, Harris tells me, "Granny Pink suggests to Oscar that he
write to God. Tell him what you’re feeling and you won’t feel so
lonely." She describes the message of the play as the need to look at
the world each day as if for the first time. "It’s beautiful and
inspirational. It’s about faith."
"The play is an event," says director Dunlop, "not really a proper
play – an event coming to life through Rosemary. The character of the
child can say things that we probably wouldn’t say. Oscar is quite a
tyke – like a dog growling at something. It’s full of sentiment but
not sentimental." His admiration for Harris is boundless. "She’s a
professional. Not hit or miss. She’s absolutely spot on. Quite
extraordinary. A real theater actress with a great range. She’s done
all kinds of theater."
Though she was born in England, Harris grew up in India where her
father was stationed on military duty. During her early years the
family lived in what is now part of Afghanistan. She remembers putting
on "theatricals" with her sister – including their version of Salome.
Back in England, she attended convent schools before she began her
acting career with parts in repertory theaters.
She made her New York debut in 1951 in a play by Moss Hart. Then it
was back to England for her West End debut in "The Seven Year Itch."
After the one-year run in that comedy, she began her classical
training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and performed at
both Bristol Old Vic and then the Old Vic. Among her roles were:
Desdemona, opposite Richard Burton in "Othello" and Cressida in Tyrone
Guthrie’s influential staging of "Troilus and Cressida," set in the
Edwardian era, which started at the Old Vic and later came to the
Winter Garden in New York, opening on December 26, 1956 (for 14
performances), where I first saw her perform. Working in the States,
Harris played in roles by playwrights from Kaufman and Hart to
Pirandello to Sheridan ("Lady Teazle") to Pinter to Noel Coward to
Shaw to Edward Albee.
In 2002 Harris appeared in the McCarter production of Albee’s "All
Over." She has received a record seven Tony Award nominations (bested
only by Julie Harris with eight). With her first nomination in 1966,
she won the Best Actress award for "Lion in Winter" though she was
much too young to even be playing that role. "I’m the right age now,"
With Ellis Rabb (to whom she was married for a number of years) she
helped found a theater company, the Association of Producing Artists
(APA) in 1960. She performed a number of roles with them on tour and
then in residence at New York’s Lyceum Theater. Among them was the
role of Natasha in an ambitious production of "War and Peace."
During this time she also returned to England to perform in plays
there, including work for Laurence Olivier’s company at Chichester and
the Royal National Theatre, as well as performing on the West End in
London. She also made movies and television appearances, winning
awards for her TV performances in "The Life of George Sand" and "The
Holocaust." Her first film was back in 1954: "Beau Brummel" with
Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor. She received an Academy Award
nomination for "Best Supporting Actress" for the 1994 film "Tom and
With her husband since 1967, the North Carolina novelist John Ehle,
the couple make their home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and spend
holidays at their historic log cabin home in the mountains of that
state. She proudly says, "It has a historic plaque." Additions have
been made to the original three rooms, which date pre-Civil War. They
still spend holidays there with their daughter, actress Jennifer Ehle,
her husband, and their young son." Total warmth comes over the
telephone line as she says, "My grandchild. A little boy about to be
five and full of vim and vigor." He doesn’t know about the actress
part of his granmother, not even Spider-Man. "We’ve kept it quite away
– I’m just grandmother."
Jennifer Ehle is also an acclaimed actress. Both she and her mother
were nominated for competing "Best Actress" Tony Awards in 2001:
Rosemary for "Waiting in the Wings," Jennifer for "The Real Thing."
Jennifer won, much to her mother’s relief. Last season Jennifer picked
up her second Tony Award for Supporting Actress in "The Coast of
I ask Harris what roles she still wants to play. Ruefully she admits
that the only one she can think of is Cleopatra. She was offered the
part several times but had other obligations and couldn’t do them. Now
she feels that age-wise, it’s too late. I remind her that Sarah
Bernhardt played Hamlet when she was relatively old, and with a wooden
leg to boot. She laughs and tells me that she recently filmed a movie
with Michael Caine called "Is Anybody There?" "It’s about old bats in
a retirement home – and I have an artificial leg in that."
In "Oscar and the Pink Lady," Granny Pink suggests to Oscar that they
play a game, "that each day is 10 years long." Oscar says: "In 12
days, I’ll be 130." Playing that game, Harris is 800 years old. And
what a record of work. Harris says: "As Frank says, `We’re still on
the twig.’ That a Britishism – still perched on this twig and holding
on for dear life. Just keeping on." And so she is. Magnificently.
"Oscar and the Pink Lady," previews Wednesday and Thursday, January 16
and 17, opening night Friday, January 18, 8 p.m. George Street
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Drama starring Rosemary
Harris. Through February 10. $28 to $62. 732-246-7717.