Friday, May 18, 2018

character counts: elizabeth wilson

Elizabeth Wilson reminded me of a favorite aunt. I would like to think that was her appeal - that she reminded everyone of their favorite aunt.  It's an attraction that's difficult to pinpoint, but she was maternal without being motherly - a trusted relative you could confide in without judgment.

And so, when she passed in 2015, I felt her loss in an acute way - in a way that I've never experienced when a more well-known or more "important" star passed.  I knew that I'd miss her simplicity, her reassuring presence.

She's someone who can't be easily replaced.

My earliest recollection of Elizabeth Wilson on screen was her performance as one of Rosalind Russell's teaching cronies in Joshua Logan's 1955 film version of William Inge's "Picnic," a recreation of the role she originated in her Broadway debut on stage two years earlier.  She followed that with memorable bits in John Cromwell's "The Goddess"(drama) and Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love" (comedy), both from 1958.

Then there was her role as one of the waitresses in the wonderful restaurant sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963), a scene that's dotted with other terrific character actors - Lonny Chapman, Ethel Griffies, Charles MacGraw, Doreen Lang, Karl Swenson, Malcolm Atterbury and Joe Mantell, among them - who wittily debate the notion of birds gone wild. Wilson has little to do in the scene, but neither does anyone else.  They are all simply part of a jaw-dropping ensemble.
Wilson became an in-demand character actress during the exciting New Wave of American filmmaking in the late 1960s and early '70s, appearing in Arthur Hiller's "The Tiger Makes Out" (1967), Alan Arkin's "Little Murders" (1971) and Melvin Frank's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975).  She made three films with Mike Nichols during this period - "The Graduate" (1967), "Catch-22" (1970) and "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973).
And in the early 1980s, Wilson made two back-to-back films with Lily Tomlin - Colin Higgins' "Nine to Five" (1980), in which she played Roz, Dabney Coleman's evil office henchman, and Joel Schmacher's "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" (1981) as a character named Dr. Ruth Ruth.

But her most enduring role, inarguably, remains Mrs. Braddock, Dustin Hoffman's status-conscious, trend-conscious mother in Nichols' "The Graduate." She and William Daniels made perfectly awful parents.

Meanwhile, there was her work both on stage and as guest star on assorted TV series, which was vast.  Wilson's final screen role was in 2012 as Sara Delano Roosevelt, President Roosevelt's mother, opposite Bill Murray in Roger Michell's "Hyde Park on the Hudson."  She was 91.

My beloved aunt was old now. Elizabeth Wilson died three years later on May 9, 2015 at age 94, at her home in New Haven, Connecticut.

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(from top) 

~Elizabeth Wilson, circa 1955

~Wilson in scenes from "The Birds" with Tippi Hedren and Ethel Griffies (top), Hedren and Dale McKennon (middle) and Darlene Conley (bottom)
~photography: Universal-International 1963©

~Wilson with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in "9 to 5"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1980©

~Wilson with Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate"
 ~photography: AVCO-Embassy 1967©


Sheila said...

Wilson was a treasure. Yes, she will be missed.

Alex said...

I loved Wilson as the benumbed wife of Vincent Gardenia in "Little Murders." Her last scene in that film is priceless.

Charlotte said...

I really like the first picture from "The Birds" that you printed. That pose - hand on waist - is the definitive Elizabeth Wilson. She's what my mother would call a blouse-and-skirt gal.

Vanessa said...

Joe, I loved your tribute to Elizabeth Wilson. And I particularly appreciated all the references to all the films in which she was cast.

Joan said...

She was one of those actors who shone in, like the secretary in Regarding Henry and Uncle Fester’s imposter mother. I also liked a short lived tv series about a hometown doctor (Doc?). Love how you pay homage to lesser known folks.

Daniel said...

Wonderful appreciation. They don't make 'em like her anymore

joe baltake said...

Joan- Yes, "Doc." Wonderful series, starring Barnard Hughes as Doc. Mary Wicks was also a regular. -J

wwolfe said...

A quick check of Wikipedia shows she had an impressive list of Broadway credits:

"Wilson made her Broadway debut in Picnic in 1953. Her stage credits include Desk Set (1955), The Good Woman of Szechuan (1970), Sticks and Bones (1972), Uncle Vanya (1973), Threepenny Opera (1976), The Importance of Being Earnest (1977), Morning's at Seven (1980), You Can't Take It with You (1983), Ah, Wilderness! (1988), and A Delicate Balance (1996)."

The mention of "Morning's at Seven" made me smile. I was attending City College in New York when that play was running on Broadway and the posters for it seemed to be at every bus stop in town. I knew Teresa Wright's name from "Mrs. Miniver" and "Best Years of Our Lives," and I'd *seen* Elizabeth Wilson in "The Graduate" and "The Birds," but I didn't recognize her name. It's nice to learn, long after the fact, that she was having a nice run in a hit play while I was studying film at CCNY.

joe baltake said...

Bill! I saw that production of "Morning's at Seven" in 1980 - with Wilson in it - and again in 2002. The casts of both productions were a-mazing. Piper Laurie, Estelle Parsons, Frances Sternhagen and Steven Tobolowsky were in the '02 version. Wonderful play by Paul Osborn.

kiki said...

Terrific tribute to a terrific actress -- about the only "character actress" I can think of working now is Patricia Clarkson but she'd never be your "favorite aunt." You'd always suspect her of having it off with your dad. I watched part of a movie (small movie--small cast) where she was sort of the "lead" but it just didn't work. Just like Wilson wouldn't work in the lead of the movies she did so well supporting. k.

Adrian said...

Just loved her!

Melania T said...

Thanks for bringing this fine actress some much-deserved attention.

Kennedy Marshall said...

I've seen Elizabeth Wilson on stage a few time and on film many times and have always welcomed her company. A wonderful actress.