Looking Back at TCMFF 2022: A Conversation with Piper Laurie
January 19, 2023
Screen legend Piper Laurie was among the honorees at the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival. In addition to film screenings like The Hustler (1961), the star was on hand for a lively conversation with TCM co-host Dave Karger in Club TCM.
From being an extremely quiet child – “I was almost silent…maybe I was just paying too much attention to everything else, and I had no time to talk,” she said – to landing three Oscar nominations throughout her 70+ year career, Laurie discussed some of her work highlights, what it was like acting alongside film legends, and what she still gets out of her career today.
“It’s a good thing that I was as young as I was,” she remembered of becoming a Universal contract player while still a teen and appearing in so many different films during the 1950s. “Because it was like a long, long game, and I’m still doing it, and now I’m playing the part of the 90-year-old lady.”
Below are a few snippets from her conversation:
The cutest photo: Piper Laurie with puppies.
On working with Dana Andrews
“He was an idol of mine,” Laurie said of Andrews, who she worked with on the Western film Smoke Signal (1955). “My girlfriend and I went to see Fallen Angel three or four times, and I was looking forward to it. And I can say this because he changed his ways and became sober and an outstanding citizen and contributed a great deal, but during the period that I knew him, he was not, and it was difficult.”
On breaking her contract with Universal
By the mid-1950s, Laurie grew tired and frustrated with the roles Universal gave her, feeling the studio didn’t take the scripts seriously. One day, after she experienced many changes in her personal life, including moving out of her parents’ house and a broken engagement, she decided to leave Universal. It was a difficult move, she remembered. To break a contract, an actor has “to be at the end of their rope to know there’s no other choice." Though she made it out with her career relatively unscathed, the star recalled that she had to agree to do a certain number of movies for basically no money to ultimately get out of the deal.
Paul Newman and Laurie in The Hustler.
On The Hustler, Paul Newman, and the Oscars
After spending a few years learning her craft in New York, Laurie returned to Hollywood for a plum role in The Hustler. “There was just something so… clean and thought out,” she said of the script, “Page one, I just immediately knew where I was, and I stayed with it, and I think my part entered on page 40, and much earlier I knew I wanted to be part of it.” She didn’t dwell on the tragedy of her character, Sarah, when reading the script – she thought of her as alive and human and let herself feel what Sarah would be feeling. On working with Newman, Laurie told the audience he was “an honest man who was gifted, grateful for his gifts and didn’t squander them or betray them in any way… a good person.”
That said, it was such a long production that by the time she got to see the finished product, it ended up being so different than what she remembered when reading the script and filming that she actually disliked it! After seeing the film many times over the years, she’s changed her opinion and come to enjoy it.
Laurie's performance in The Hustler landed her the first of her three Oscar nominations. The competition was stiff: she was up against Sophia Loren (who won), Audrey Hepburn, Geraldine Page, and Natalie Wood. But… she didn’t attend the ceremony. At the time, Laurie lived in New York. Since she didn’t think she’d win, she decided to save some money and watched the ceremony on TV. (She said her face got so hot when they announced her name as a nominee that she felt like she was sitting in the auditorium!) Karger asked if she attended the show the other times she was nominated, to which she answered yes. “Did you have fun?” he asked. “No. It’s ridiculous to compare performances one against the other. Get the actors to play the same roles and see how they do!” she replied. That comment received quite a bit of applause from the TCMFF crowd.
Laurie in Carrie.
On the 15-year gap between The Hustler and Carrie (1976)
“The offers I got were scripts that were trying to imitate The Hustler, and it was pathetic,” Laurie declared of the opportunities that came her way after her first Oscar-nominated role. Time went on, and eventually she got married, moved to upstate New York, and had a daughter. She was happy being a wife, and she started hobbies like baking bread and sculpting. “I had a really lovely life, made good friends, lifetime friends,” she shared. “So it was a shock to get a call out of the blue from someone wanting to send a script.” That call led to Carrie.
Karger asked Laurie if she had ever encountered anyone in her life like her character, someone who possessed such religious fervor. “I don’t think I really did, no. My mother was a passionate person, but she was never that way,” Laurie reported. But she remembered one moment that rivaled the character in intensity. When she was eight or nine living in LA, she went to a market with her mom and sister. When they walked out, the manager ran out accusing her sister of stealing something – and they found it on her. Laurie recalled her mother being in so much pain over this moment; it was embarrassing and shameful for her, and she was very vocal about that: “That’s part of Carrie’s mother, I think.”
On working on Children of a Lesser God (1986) with Marlee Matlin
She remembered Matlin, in her film debut, as being great but anxious; when Laurie got to know her later, she was much more relaxed and happy. Laurie was quite aware of the affair that was going on between Matlin and leading man William Hurt and recalled that they would frequently bring that emotion – the anger, the love – to set. “We didn’t discourage it, because it probably helped performances,” she said. (Karger asked Laurie how she feels about the film now, especially in light of Matlin’s longstanding abuse allegations against Hurt, though she didn’t really answer the question.)
Fun fact: With this film, Randa Haines became the first female director of a movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Laurie had fond memories of collaborating with Haines: “She was terrific, and I worked with her again.”
Laurie in Twin Peaks.
On appearing on Twin Peaks (1990-1991) – as two different characters
After co-starring on the show as Catherine Martell, Laurie was asked by creator David Lynch to come back – as a brand new character. “I spoke to David on the phone – I was in the middle west doing a play somewhere – and he said, 'I want you to think about when we come back, I want you to sneak back into town in disguise and I want you to pick the kind of character you’ll be disguised as.'” She chose to undertake the character of a Japanese businessman. “I was thrilled. It was childish, I can invent my own character, and I was going to get to play it on television. It was a wonderful gift, and he accepted my idea.”
But the whole thing was done quietly – no one, cast and family included, was supposed to know it was her; Laurie's name was even taken off the credits and a pseudonym was used. (The cast was told to leave the actor alone, with Lynch going so far as to make up a story that the actor had worked with the legendary Akira Kurosawa.) So, instead of going to the studio to get made up, Laurie had to travel a few miles away and spend hours in the makeup chair; on set, she had her own office so she could be by herself. Karger asked if there was a Tootsie-like moment where the ruse was revealed, but Laurie divulged that the truth came out over time.
On always being a movie star
While filming a movie in England some years ago, Laurie made a trip to Scotland by herself. She stayed in a tiny inn with an equally tiny pub, and the only other guests were a man with two sons. After dinner one evening they began talking, and the boys asked Laurie why she was there and what she did for work. When she replied that she was an actress, they wanted to know her name; she obliged. “Oh, no no no, that’s the name of that ancient movie star,” one of the boys replied. “This was a great moment for me,” Laurie laughed. “The simplest thing I could think of to say – you know, get about six feet tall – and say, ‘I AM that ancient movie star!’”
On what she gets out of her career all these years later
“I guess it’s just… it’s like a childish dream just to play act, be somewhere else, to live in a fantasy for a short time,” Laurie replied. “It’s fun, and occasionally, you’re lucky and you get to do something that’s really worthwhile and has something to say.”
On her favorite parts of her life today
Her daughter was the first thing Laurie mentioned, who is starting to take care of her now. The actress confirms that she doesn’t carve stone anymore, but “I always find things to build with my hands and I do work with clay,” she said. “My life seems very full, and I enjoy it.”
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