When Viveca Lindfors enters as Queen Margaret in the production of Richard III now at the Kennedy Center, puffing on a cigarette, her hair fluffed out in a white aureole, draped in yards of gray velvet, the audience knows a presence has arrived.
Her Queen is sort of a sane bag lady: disheveled and unattached, fierce, disregarded as a mad old coot by some characters, yet respected and somehow in control. She reaches out often with her hand stretched above her head grabbing at air, a gesture both dramatic and tormented, appropriate for the fallen queen whose husband and son have both been slain, and who sees all too clearly the evil of the power-mad Richard.
"It [the role] was very slow coming," Lindfors said in a recent interview. "I tried being a Jew and for some reason not being killed, coming back and telling the Nazis . . . I also thought of Martha Mitchell. But then I thought in a way that would make her weaker, because Martha Mitchell was in a way hysterical. In this play the only one who is not hysterical is [Queen] Margaret."
It's a difficult part, not just because it's Shakespeare, but because there is about an hour and a half between her first scene and her second scene. The play, which stars Michael Moriarty, opened last week and continues through Sept. 27. The reviewers didn't care for director Andre Ernotte's Napoleon-era interpretation, complaining of the mix of styles and Moriarty's performance. Lindfors got a mixed response; some felt her performance was self-indulgent; others found her powerful. She feels there is work still to be done.
It is another part in a long career for Lindfors, whose ability to communicate a kind of intense, female rage seems particularly suited to the role. Her screen career included such forgettable items as "Moonfleet" and "The Raiders," as well as the more recent "The Wedding," directed by Robert Altman, and on the stage she has played parts ranging from Anastasia to Mother Courage.
Once the "Marilyn Monroe of Sweden," she is at 59 a small, slim woman, gifted with a strong chin and cheekbones.She was wearing a camisole top and long flowered skirt that would have been demure if it hadn't been slit up to the thigh; clothes that might seem more appropriate for a younger woman but on her seem merely comfortable. She stopped dyeing her hair a few years ago -- "it poisons your blood, you know," and unblushingly popped in a hearing aid halfway through the interview.
"I really believe in the challenge to deal with and live out what's really going on," she said, her Swedish accent unbudged after 33 years in the U.S. "If your hair is gray, it's gray . . . I think I look pretty good in gray hair."
Her voice, normally husky, was hoarse after opening night. The part is almost all raging, and it takes its toll, evidently.
She was brought to the U.S. in 1947 by Warner Brothers because she was a very big star in her native Sweden. Her film career, which never blossomed into the stuff of which legends are made, began with something called "Night Unto Night," and her costar was Ronald Reagan.
"Everybody's asking me now, what was he like? And I don't really remember. He was a cheerful man. I didn't really get to know him. He was very left wing, very radical. I don't think we ever even had dinner together. I fell in love with the director, so I had a good time . . ."
When she left Sweden, "to get to someplace where I could be freer," she was a beautiful young woman who thought that talking about "political stuff or intellectual stuff was dangerous for me as a woman. It would get me into trouble with a man, take away my seductiveness. I thought I shouldn't really have a brain. I listened to them talk. Whatever they said was okay with me."
Anyone who has had even a passing acquaintance with her now might find that hard to believe, for Lindfors is nothing if not outspoken. She is a feminist, and devised a show called "I Am a Woman," which caused quite a furor when it played at Arena Stage here in 1972. After an acerbic review in The Post there was a small march in front of the building by outraged fans, and a page of dissenting letters to the editors was printed.
Her feminism is somewhat muted now.She thinks "we've taken a back step . . . the excitement is gone, there's more anger. I'm judging a lot from men my generation. They are more threatened and less apt to want to change. There are more women than men and they know it."
Sweden has a lesson to offer, she suggested, in that despite the authoritarianism she rebelled against there, "they are freest when it comes to the relationships between men and women. They have never lost that primitive instinct, that man needs woman and woman needs man. Even though the women are very independent, they've never lost that thing about needing each other, which I think we fool around with a lot. And it's very dangerous -- once you fool around with the idea that you can live without each other you're in trouble."
Women have a harder time with love than men do, she said. It takes them longer to commit themselves, and thus longer to un-commit themselves. "But we have other advantages," she said. "We are mothers. And I think we must go back to being mothers. We have to be their [men's] mothers, too. There was a long period where we said, 'I don't want to be his mother.' I used to think it was condescending. But I don't think it's possible not to be motherly. I don't think about it in a condescending way anymore. It's strange."
"People say you have to learn to live alone. Bull----. It's much harder to learn to live with another person." Three times married herself, and the mother of three grown children and grandmother to three more, she now lives alone in New York. "I don't like it," she said.
She has written the story of her life in an autobiography due to be released this year by a new publishing house, Everest-Quest. She works on it during the hour and a half she has to wait between entrances in Richard III.
As a young woman, she was beautiful and success came quite easily -- perhaps too easily, she thinks now. Now things are not so easy; there are too many parts she's too old for, and others that she sees going to other actresses.
"They're doing 'The Seagull' at the Public Theater this year with Irene Worth, and 'The Bacchae' with Irene Papas. I'd do anything for those parts. And that means they won't be doing those plays for another four or five years . . ."
Getting her book published was another trial; as one who has experience in both the theater and publishing worlds, she can say conclusively that publishing is worse. "I used to think that my profession was rough," she said. "But the indecency, the immorality in the publishing profession is unbelievable. They've always got you by the b---- because they always own the material."
Everest-Quest is her third publisher. The first one decided her manuscript was unacceptable after accepting each chapter individually, and forced her to pay back a $13,000 advance. Her lawyer told her if she fought them it would take five years, cost a lot, and in the meantime the book could not be published. The second publisher told her it was "marvelous, passionate, practially no changes," then assigned it to a new editor who decided to drop the book.
"It was very painful. I'm telling you this because I think it is a good book, I'm not worried about it . . . In the theater you are face to face, you can always work things out. In the publishing world, they write you a letter, then they tell the secretary they aren't in and not to take your call. And I think editors are the most scared people, and women editors are really frantic. I tell you something, I don't think women feel comfortable working with each other yet."
She teaches acting at Sarah Lawrence College, and wants to direct plays. She has also devised an evening called "My Mother, My Son," with her son, actor Kristoffer Tabori, which they have performed in New York. She's in a television drama that is going to be shown soon. She's tired of the gypsy life -- "the first thing I have to do in a new apartment is find a place by the door for my key, my glasses, and my hearing aid. I stay in so many it gets confusing" -- but puts up with it.
As she talked, a young bespectacled man sitting alone at a neighboring table in the nearly empty restaurant seemed to be paying close attention to what she was saying. Suddenly she turned to him.
"Are you enjoying this conversation?" she asked him.
"Ah, yes, sure," he said, somewhat embarrassed. "I like that part about woman needing man. Are you especially qualified?"
"What did he say?" she asked a reporter. "Am I especially qualified? Yes. I'm wise, I've lived so many years. That makes me especially qualified." She laughed. "I like to think that each year you get older you have one more year's experience. It's fabulous . . ."