Sunday, May 10, 2015

character counts: elizabeth wilson

Elizabeth Wilson reminded me of my 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 I feel her loss in an acute way - in a way that I've never felt when a  more well-known or more "important" star passed.  She's someone who truly can't be replaced.  I'll miss her simplicity, her reassuring presence.

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 Griffiths, 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 Arkins' "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.

Her work on stage and as guest star on assorted TV series were both 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 aunt was old now.

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

Elizabeth Wilson died yesterday (May 9), at age 94, at her home in New Haven, Connecticut. 


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.

marvin said...

Joe, I loved your tribute to Elizabeth Wilson. And I particularly appreciated all the references to all the obscure (probably forgotten) films in which she was cast. Marvin