Ruth Gordon: The Power of Intention
"Don't you ever--I mean ever--face the facts."
That was Ruth Gordon on the telephone, talking to me in 1984 about Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder and life and love--and anything that came up. She was in New York; I was in Baton Rouge, but that didn't matter. "We are wherever we are supposed to be, don't you see? Make life--make every situation-- what you want it to be."
Tenn and Ruth did not have a close relationship, but they loved each other, respected each other, sought out the company and the opinions of the other. "I needed to always know," Tenn told me, "that her face would be out front when a play of mine opened. And it always was."
"Oh, he was great," Ruth told me. "Such a talent. Such a gift. Such a mess! I wanted to see, read, hear, memorize everything he wrote or said, and I wanted to help him live well and long to realize what he had done for us. But I'm not going to be sad--not for a minute--because look what he gave us, what he left us. Fuck sadness!"
That was Ruth Gordon at eighty-seven on a beautiful day in New York, looking out over Central Park, taking the time to speak to a young man who wanted to know if Tennessee Williams had ever mattered.
Ruth Gordon spoke in bullets, and they were difficult to track, to contain, to escape. Ruth loved Tenn's description of the thoughts in his head sometimes being like leaves in the wind. "Perfect! That's me, too! I wake up some days and I think I'm never going to do everything I want to do, need to do, have to do. You have to keep hustling. Life rewards the person who keeps trying, keeps dreaming, keeps avoiding what the 'real' world tells them. You think anyone believed I could be an actress? No! But I believed, and I trained and I dreamed and I got better and now I'm an actress. Who's gonna deny me now?"
I loved Ruth, and when she died, at the end of summer, 1985, my good friend Marian Seldes went to look after her husband, Garson Kanin, and never left: They eventually married in 1990.
Here are some notes from my talks with Ruth.
I'm old now, and I ask myself, 'Do I have to do it? Everything that comes up?
'Do it if you like to,' I tell myself.
How far does that go?
To make anything work, I braced up my intentions. I intend to make it work. Intention has been going for me a long time, I got it started in 1912, but what counts is what you decide on today. Decide to have intention. I'm a believer in today.
Do you believe you get there on American Airlines or do you believe you get there on intention? American Airlines is good, so is TWA, so are the friendly skies of United, so is a Lincoln Continental, so is a Chevy, so is walking, but for getting there, count on intention.
Notify your built-in confidence.
Work on it.
Do not face the facts.
Keep your bowels moving.
Where are you? Maybe you're there.
Thornton Wilder said 'The dreaming soul of the human race believes life will come out right.' I think it has; I think it always has and always does.
You can't be a stupid dreamer. You don't have to face the facts that you look odd or that you're voice isn't right: Make them like the face you've got and improve your voice. You don't have to face the fact that this isn't your time, that your style isn't right: Wait it out. Keep working, keep improving, and soon you are the style. Anybody who's good, who's gifted, is in style. Don't forget that.
Here are the facts you have to face: If you don't show up and do the work well; if you lack concentration; if you lack kindness and patience; if you don't keep believing in the dreaming soul of the human race. Those are facts you have to face, and you may have to get out of the scene and fix yourself, or find a new scene.
Give people whatever you can whenever you can: Time, advice, money, friendship. You can always do something. I borrowed so much money over the years! A thousand dollars from Helen Hayes during the Depression! That must be like ten thousand dollars now. And she lent it to me. I hate to tell you how long it took me to pay her back, but I did. I believed in Ruth Gordon and so did Helen Hayes. So did Edith Evans and Lillian Gish and Thornton Wilder. Their faith meant as much as the money and the time and the advice and the friendship they gave me. I think my intention was so strong because I had their faith and I had their cash! I could live and work and train. Be the inspiration to other people--help them bolster their intention. That would be a great person. Be a great person! It's easier than you think.
I fully believe what Dolly Levi says about money--that it's like manure and no good unless you spread it around. Take care of your needs and then look where you can help. It makes for a good life full of dreaming souls with good intentions.
It's also true with kindness and attention and patience and care: Spread them around, too.
Everything in the world takes courage. It takes believing in it, whatever it is. It takes rising above it. It takes work. It takes you liking me and me liking you. It takes the dreaming soul of the human race that wants it to go right. Whatever you do, never stop dreaming.
Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, on the set of A Double Life, with its star, Ronald Colman.
I was lucky to have Gar to work with. We work so well together because we believe in and dream about the same things. We had a lot in common when we met, but now we've merged into some strange unit of thought and dreams. I'm very lucky.
I have to write. I don't even know if something has happened or mattered fully to me until I write it down and re-write it and think about what really went on. I don't believe for a minute that I'm a writer like Tennessee or Chekhov or Ibsen or Thornton or any number of great minds, but I have a gift: I can get my thoughts across and connect to people.
I think it's about sharing yourself and your experiences and asking the reader 'You feel this way, too? You get anything out of this?'
As long as people are reading what I write and talking back and asking questions, I can face the fact that I'm okay.
Patsy Kelly, Ruth Gordon, and Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968).
I'm what you call a made actress. You know Carrie Nye? Oh, she's great. I saw her early in her career and said to everyone 'Get her!' and I did. We worked together several times. She's a born actress--she came out with all the necessary goods. I had to make myself into an actress. I'm like Kate Hepburn, another made actress. The two of us are tough women of strong intention who made it happen, and now it's impossible to imagine us doing anything else. Well, can you?
Carrie Nye was dithering one day about whether or not she should play Lady Macbeth, and my jaw dropped. She looked at me like I was having a seizure or something. 'What's wrong?' she asked. 'Listen,' I said, 'don't piss on Lady Macbeth. You get offered it, you play it. You fail or your fly, but you're bound to learn something.' She played it. She was good. She got better. Don't pass up opportunities. Don't think you know everything. Don't think there's going to be a better deal or a better team down the road. You don't know the road, but you know what's happening today. Stick with today.
Ruth Gordon, winning her Oscar for Rosemary's Baby, in 1969.
You shouldn't be cocky, but you also shouldn't be surprised when you succeed. Part of having intention is having the belief that you belong and that you're doing good work, so when someone pats you on the head and tells you you're good, you shouldn't duck your head and pull on a hair shirt. You shouldn't be amazed that you got it right: You've worked your whole life to get it right, to get every damn thing right. Why be surprised?
Better to be grateful. And I am. The right deal came down the right road with the right people several times for me, and I got to be good. That makes me happy and it makes me grateful, but it doesn't surprise me. It's what I was working toward!
When I won the Oscar for Rosemary's Baby, I had to point out that I had made my first film in 1915, and here it was 1969, and I don't know what took me so long, and I didn't! I always thought I had intention and was working hard and well. I also meant it when I told them how encouraging it was--at 72 to win an Oscar. Well, it did re-invent me, give me a boost. Great! I intended it that way.
Kate Hepburn won that night as well [for The Lion in Winter, her third Oscar], and she called me a few days later and marveled that the two Yankee girls no one believed in had won the prizes. Can you think of two actresses who were fired more often than Kate and me? Can you think of two actresses who were derided as odd more than the two of us? Don't even bother: you won't find any. We win.
We didn't marvel that it had happened. We didn't marvel that some mistake had been made. We marveled that the dreaming soul and the power of intention had worked!
Never let anyone stop dreaming, and never let anyone misplace their intention. So many people deserve their great, golden moment.
Intend for it to happen for other people.