While I was away last weekend on a whirlwind trip to our nation’s capital, I attended a play (Mrs. Warren’s Profession) at Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company starring today’s featured actress, Miss Elizabeth Ashley. Intending to meet the raspy-voiced stage legend in person, I was thwarted by a staff member who said that such a thing would be “unlikely.” This was hard news to someone who had driven almost nine hours and who will almost crawl through broken glass to meet even the least impressive celebrities! More about this show later.
Born Elizabeth Ann Cole in 1939, she started out in Ocala, Florida, but the family soon relocated to Louisiana where she developed a throaty drawl of a voice. Within a few years of completing school, Elizabeth headed to New York City to pursue a career in acting. Her first job was in an off-Broadway play called Dirty Hands. By the next year, though, she was on Broadway in a play called The Highest Tree (as Elizabeth Cole.)
When she appeared in Take Her, She’s Mine as the daughter of Art Carney (and now using her stage name of Elizabeth Ashley), her career received a major boost when she was nominated for and won both The Theatre World Award and The Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play. (A film version the following year starred James Stewart and the surprising choice of Sandra Dee in Ashley’s role!) During this period, Ashley did occasional TV work on the then-popular anthology series as well as The Defenders and Ben Casey.
Neil Simon was so enamored of her that he wrote his play Barefoot in the Park with her in mind. Soon, she was starring in that show on Broadway, opposite Robert Redford as the stuffy newlywed husband to her idealistic, but trying, wife. (In ’67, a film version of this play was done with Redford, but not Ashley. Her role was given to Jane Fonda, though she says there was talk of using her amongst some of the powers that be. An all-black sitcom of the story aired briefly in 1970 with Scooey Mitchell and Tracy Reed and it was remade for television in 1981 with Richard Thomas and Bess Armstrong!)
Ashley would have to wait until 1964 to make her big screen debut, which was the colorful, expensive, but trashy and tacky The Carpetbaggers, based on a novel by Harold Robbins. A roman a clef that drew inspiration from the lives of Howard Hughes, Tom Mix, Jean Harlow and others, it was considered very racy in its day, though now it is incredibly tame.
George Peppard plays a driven, troubled man who begins his career in aviation, but eventually winds up in the movie business. His wife is played by Ashley and she begins the film as a flighty flapper, but swiftly starts to crumble under the weight of Peppard’s drive to succeed and his inability to remain faithful to her. She attempts to settle him down and hang on to him, but he is maniacally attracted to success in every field other than marriage.
The presence of a sexily dressed and sultry acting Carroll Baker along with an all-star cast including Alan Ladd, Martha Hyer, Martin Balsam, Lew Ayres and Leif Erickson helped make this Paramount’s number one money earner that year and Ashley came out of it with considerable popularity. Her build-up consisted of shots of (the then very slim actress) done up in a very Audrey Hepburn-esque way, though they shared very little personality-wise.
Next up was another all-star drama, this time with some major heavyweights on board. Ship of Fools concerned a pre-WWII era passenger liner filled with disparate types who seem to be falling apart at the seams due to fear, alcohol or depression. Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner and George Segal (as Ashley’s husband) made up some of the names involved. Nominated for eight Oscars, she was in auspicious company this time.
She was reunited with Peppard for her next movie, The Third Day. The suspense drama had little impact at the box office despite a cast that also had Roddy McDowall, Herbert Marshall, Robert Webber, Sally Kellerman and Mona Washburne in it. She and Peppard played spouses (with him battling suspicion of murder) and the couple, who had been seeing each other for some time, married in real life as well.
Though they were clearly very drawn to one another, there were problems practically from the start. Ashley gave up her burgeoning film career to become a Hollywood wife (and eventual mother to their son Christian) and Peppard’s drinking began to become a serious issue. (Frankly, for much of the 60s and 70s, Peppard was considered, especially by a lot of his female costars, to be a first class JERK!) Elizabeth Ashley’s face would not be seen in another big screen feature film until 1971 when she took on a supporting role in The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker.
Though movie acting is highest on the pecking order to many executives (and actors) in the profession (and this was especially so then), it was almost always a secondary consideration to Ashley who really wanted to be a leading stage performer and concentrate on the craft of character research and discovery. Still, a gal’s gotta eat! So it was TV guest roles on everything from Love American Style, Medical Center, The Virginian and a little police show called Hawk, which starred Burt Reynolds. Ashley had known Burt from their days in NYC (when he, Rip Torn and Bruce Dern all shared a tiny apartment.) Her association with him, as it did for many a pal of his, would eventually lead to good things.
In 1971, she made the memorable TV movie Harpy, all about a handsome architect (Hugh O’Brian) who is terrorized by his obsessive ex-wife Ashley. His collection of birds plays into the story and the plot shares some similarities with Play Misty For Me, which came out that same year.
By now, Elizabeth had mastered a sort of cool, detached, yet driven, sort of quality, an intensity, that lent itself well to portraying neurotic or troubled characters. When she made The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker following a hiatus from films, she played the sexy, but devious, sister of Joanna Shimkus, whose marital union with Richard Benjamin is on the rocks.
Benjamin has a predilection for peeping at girls, either though windows or in other situations. Ashley condemns him while simultaneously wishing he’d take a peek at her! It’s a savvy, arresting, somewhat audacious performance. Her own henpecked husband in the film is a surprisingly attractive Adam West, himself trying desperately to break away from the Batman mold he was stuck in after that successful series was canceled.
She continued to find work in the television movie arena at a time when that format was experiencing its zenith. In The Face of Fear, she played a terminally ill woman who hires a mob hit man to do her in only to find out that she isn’t sick! In When Michael Calls, costarring Ben Gazzara and a young Michael Douglas, she’s getting phone calls from a nephew that died fifteen years prior. So it continued for several years (and it’s such a shame that most of these films are unavailable for viewing these days, though Michael has appeared on the Fox Movie Channel recently.)
She guest-starred twice on Mission: Impossible, one of the eps being particularly grueling emotionally as she played a deeply troubled alcoholic (and also portrayed another character disguised as her.) In 1973, she worked on the racy Canadian-made film Paperback Hero. Kier Dullea portrayed a hockey player who daydreams about a life in the old west and his wife in the film, Ashley, appears in the dreams as a saloon girl. She and Dullea also appear in a revealing shower love scene in which Miss Ashley left practically nothing to the imagination!
This pair would have even greater impact the following year when they costarred in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Brick and Maggie. This rendition had revised dialogue that brought out the plot details that had previously been handled a little more obscurely. Williams was involved in the revisions himself and allowed Ashley to have input as well. The result was provocative and landed Ashley another Tony nomination. Ashley remained on the stage throughout the 70s, even playing Cleopatra to Rex Harrison’s Caesar in 1977.
She appeared in a martial arts action comedy called Golden Needles, all about an idol pricked with many needles that, when the arrangement is duplicated on a man, gives him incredible sexual power! This being 1974, star Joe Don Baker could still lie on top of a female costar without crushing her into dust, as shown here. Veterans Burgess Meredith and Ann Sothern also had roles in this now-obscure film.
Ashley had played a cowgirl in Needles and next took a role with that same aspect, Rancho Deluxe. She played the neglected wife of a wealthy cattle rancher who shares an encounter with rustlers Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston (who plays an Indian!) The low-key, quirky comedy also featured cult stars Harry Dean Stanton, Clifton James, Slim Pickens and Patti D’Arbanville.
Now juggling TV movies and feature films, she made One of My Wives is Missing, a twisty thriller with Jack Klugman as the sleuth when James Franciscus’ new wife goes missing and Ashley shows up claiming to be her! She also made 92 in the Shade and then the awkwardly titled The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday, which reunited her with Lee Marvin from Ship of Fools. She played a madam who got to do something I’ve longed to do for years, which is yank Kay Lenz by the hair.
In ’78, she had a small supporting role in one of my favorite films, her contribution to it accounting for no small amount of my enjoyment! Coma (see the individual posting here on the film for more info) concerned an idealistic doctor (Genevieve Bujold) who is noticing that some patients at her hospital with minor procedures being done never wake up from surgery. She digs and digs, against much opposition from the sexist male administrators, and finally finds herself at a creepy institute run by the icy, severe Elizabeth Ashley.
If Ashley blinks five times in this movie, it’s a miracle. She is so stern and dry and taciturn. (Come to think of it, Liz would have made a good Stepford Wife.) Her manner and method of speaking is so amusing to me! She isn’t in the movie very long, but once seen, she’s pretty unforgettable.
Now came one of Ashley’s most horrifying personal traumas. Having returned to the US from an extended sailing trip, she was trying to figure out a self-service pump at a nearly deserted gas station when she was taken by some thugs and brutally beaten and raped. The horrendous incident was shattering to her, but she never reported it or discussed it until many years after the fact in order to support a woman who’d undergone a similar crime. Ashley suffered a nervous breakdown in this decade as well, but survived both imposing challenges to reclaim her life and career.
It’s strange, considering what she’d just gone through, that she would make her return to films in a role like the one she took in Windows. Famed cinematographer Gordon Willis directed the moody (and, as it turned out, heavily reviled!) thriller about a reserved, demure woman (Talia Shire) who is terrorized by a demented lesbian portrayed by Ashley. Shire suffers an agonizing rape near the beginning of the film.
Notorious as an exercise in bad taste that was condemned by various groups and yanked from theaters rather swiftly, it signaled the last time Willis would direct a movie. Ashley provided an audacious and intense, knife-wielding performance that many described as over-the-top. (It's likely she was working off a lot of pent-up anxiety.) For obvious reasons, this film has rarely been shown on television and is pretty difficult to find these days. (Interestingly, Cruising was also released in 1980 to much hubbub, making it a controversial year for the gays!)
Next, on a lighter note, Ashley went to work with Burt Reynolds again in his comedy Paternity, about a single man in his 40s wishing to have a child by surrogate (at the time, a fairly outlandish idea!) She got some nice reviews for her smallish role as one of his sexy lady friends, but the bigger role went to Beverly D’Angelo as the baby maker.
She and Brian Dennehy played Michael O’Keefe’s parents in Split Image about a boy who is lured into a religious cult run by Peter Fonda and she got to work with Peter O’Toole in the TV film Svengali (which also starred Jodie Foster.) She worked in projects both beneath her (a TV remake of Stagecoach, starring several country music stars) and in ones with a degree of elegance (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, featuring long-retired Claudette Colbert.)
In 1985, another damaging incident occurred when she was injured in a sailing accident and had to have her shattered jaw re-set. This was an excruciatingly painful experience, one that her friend Reynolds endured at a similar time when he was injured while filming City Heat. It took a long while for her to fully recover from the accident.
She played quite a glamorous police commissioner in Dan Ackroyd’s Dragnet redux. Later, she portrayed a psychiatrist in the Nicholas Cage gross-out Vampire’s Kiss. Her association with Burt Reynolds continued with a guest appearance on his private eye series B.L. Stryker.
In 1990, she made the somewhat surprising choice to work on the daytime soap opera Another World, playing matriarch Emma Frame. Shortly thereafter, she was handpicked by Burt to play in his new sitcom Evening Shade, a program that included many of his long-term pals, most of whom had extremely respected careers on stage and in films. Charles Durning, Ossie Davis and Hal Holbrook enjoyed working together and Ashley was twice nominated for an Emmy for her work on the show, staying with it until 1994.
She relocated to New York in 1999 to make herself more accessible to Broadway, but was met with disaster almost from the start when she let a partially lit cigarette fall into a trashcan. The fire that grew from this burnt her apartment and destroyed a trove of mementos and materials from her long career.
Before that and since then, Miss Ashley has continued to do small roles in feature films, such as Shoot the Moon and Happiness, and guest shots on Caroline in the City and Law & Order: SVU among others. She had a role in Labor Pains, a Kyra Sedgwick-Rob Morrow pregnancy comedy that had the unfortunate distinction of putting Liz in dark raccoon eye-makeup and featuring a bewigged Mary Tyler Moore (as Kyra's mom) reciving oral sex from her husband Robert Klein! However, she’s also done quite a bit of stage, some on Broadway, like Enchanted April and (as a replacement) August: Osage County, and some in other cities. She has become associated with Tennessee Williams’ work, having later played Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, once she was old enough (and big enough?), as well as Mrs. Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth.
I saw her June 18th in Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw at Harmon Hall in Washington, DC. She took the title role when the wife of her old Evening Shade co-star Hal Holbrook (Dixie Carter) withdrew early on due to illness. Carter passed away not too long after. Now a heavier presence on and off the stage, she still dazzles with spunk and effective movement and that ever-present growl of a voice, now lower than the bottom of The Potomac River!
Her brash character had raised from afar a daughter with all the best manners and opportunities, never letting her know that the money came from her career as a brothel owner. Some theatrical sparks came to life during a couple of significant scenes between the characters along with Mrs. Warren’s dealings with other characters in the story. It was a play that had once been banned due to its subject matter, but is now, of course, acceptable for nearly everyone.
I really wanted to meet Miss A., and was dejected when they told us that she was most likely not going to exit the stage door. However, I’m going to chalk it up to the fact that she is somewhat wary of strangers (even strangers who pay to see her!) and has admitted that extraneous activities related to the business, apart from the work itself, are quite difficult for her (politics, schmoozing, etc….) But I’ll always have Coma and her series of Slim-Fast commercials (a relationship that has long since ceased) in which she would beguilingly and raspily announce, “You know what they say… a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips? Well not these hips. Not any more ‘cause I’m on the new Ultra Slim-Fast plan!”
Here’s hoping we’re in for more dynamic work from Miss Ashley. I don’t think it takes a clairvoyant to predict that we are.