Abruptly, Eva Le Gallienne reached up and dislodged the soft mass of gray hair on top of her head. "These wigs get rather uncomfortable," she muttered, and took it off.
With that theatrical sleight of hand, the dear octogenarian of the play "To Grandmother's House We Go" was replaced by an octogenarian of another sort -- cropped gray hair shaved at the temples (the better to glue the wig on), somehat austere, and slightly imperious.
"I don't like talking about myself, I really don't," she said. "I don't want to dwell on the past. I'm interested in now, and whatever future there is."
At 82, Le Gallienne has gotten her first Oscar nomination, for her first film role, that of a wise old lady in "Resurrection." This comes after a legendary lifetime in the theater, starting at age 16, which has included about 85 differently roles, the founding of a successful repertory company, radio and television, the authorship of two volumes of autobiography, translation of plays and fairy tales, and dozens of honorary degrees and awards.
But Le Gallienne is more than just an actress who's kept working. Her career has been a beacon of excellence and feisty, even dogmatic independence, a standard that defines the goals of others. She is one of the few remaining links to a noble artistic tradition and history. How many other actresses saw Sarah Bernhardt perform and as a teen-ager copied by hand all 800 pages of her memoirs because they were out of print? Who else was the receipient of the legendary actress Elenora Duse's last telegram, "tres heuresue vous retouver en pleine bataille: ("Very happy to find you again in full battle"), and set for five nights by her coffin?
Le Gallienne can write about "truth" and "beauty" and it doesn't sound like pompous posturing. Her definitions of "art" are broad enough to prevent preciousness -- after all, in addition to a career filled with ibsen and Chekhov, she joined a French circus incognito at the age of 32, did Shakespeare scenes in four-a-day vaudeville, and wept at seeing The Rockettes.
She manages to avoid quaintness, although her style and resume' are reminiscent of an earlier era. Perhaps it is her crustiness, her refusal to accept old age as a mantle of kindliness. Physically, she seems at once frial and remarkably agile, crouching and squatting when necessary with an ease acquired during years of gardening. In 1926, the year she found the Civic Repertory Company, she acquired a small farm in Weston, Conn., where she lives, commuting to New York if she's in a play.
"If I thought I could just wobble about on the state I wouldn't do it," she said. "Good Heavens."
Her dressing room at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway, where "To Grandmother's House We Go" ran this season for too brief a time, was a star's dressing room only in its proximity to the stage. There were two mirrors, surrounded by lights, a castoff couch, a three-cornered fake marble coffee table, and an armchair. On the dressing table there was an aged tea cosy, a wig stand, a ceramic rose, and an inscribed picture of Duse. In the corner were newspapers for her dog, a Yorkshire terrier named Tinkerbell. "She's not very pleasant," warned Le Gallienne. She was wearing a black silk kimono acquired some 50 years ago. Her secretary brought in a carton of vanilla yogurt.
"I like being old, I really do," she said. "It has a great many compensations. I mean, there are certain things that are obvious that one doesn't like. Your bones ache, and you can't see as well as you could and all that. But I don't see why people should be afraid of old age. The thing I refuse to be called is a senior citizen. Somebody asked me in a shop one day, 'If you will admit to being a senior citizen you will get a discount.' And I said, 'No I won't. I'll admit to being a senior citizen.'"
She spoke during the respite between a matinee and an evening performance, before the nap she customarily takes. She played the part of "Grandie," a blue-blooded Connecticut matriarch who is confronted with three grandchildren who all want to move back to the family home to repair lives in various stages of disruption. The audience, judging from one matinee crowd, adored her.
"Whenever an elderly performer is allotted a few warm paragraphs of heady praise in the press," wrote drama critic Walter Kerr in The New York Times, "there's usually a feeling among readers that the nice adjectives are offered out of ancient fondness, out of loyalty, out of respect for work past . . . sometimes, though, the praise is astonished praise, honest praise, necessary praise. There are octogenarian performers . . . who actually -- and perversely -- keep on getting better and better, improving with every round of the clock."
It was, for example, a treat to hear Le Gallienne savor the consonants in the word "whale," and to observe her timing in such speeches as when she tells one of her granddaughters that her mother was a passionate woman. "Your father was almost legendary for going home at lunch," she tells the young woman. "And your mother was very good at [pause] . . . that." On one exit, she paused, stage center, as though on the verge of saying something. oIt was a tiny, barely gestated pause; then she said " Good night" and left the stage.The audience broke into applause.
"I get sent a lot of plays," she said. "But I don't like very many of thems. There aren't very many that are any good."
When she is performing, she lives a very circumscribed life. "I don't see a lot of people, I don't go places, I just live very quietly. And I don't have any special routine except that I don't go in much for social life. I go home. It's like when I was a little child and mother used to get so cross with me because I didn't want to go to any children's parties, and when they'd drag me there I'd stand in the corner and glower. Eat ice cream. I've always been very shy about people. It's the nature of the beast."
She was born in London, the daughter of a Danish journalist and the British writer Richard Le Gallienne. Her parents separated when she was a child. She came to New York in her teens to seek her fortune on the stage, and by her early 20s was an established star. She never married, but shared her home for many years with a woman friend.
In her teens she made a list of all the parts she wanted to play by the time she was 35: Hilda in "The Master Builder" and Hedda in "Hedda Gabler" by Ibsen; Peter in Barrie's "Peter Pan," Marguerite Gautier in "La Dame aux Camelias" by Dumas, Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet," and the Duke of Reichstadt in Rostand's "L'Aiglon."
She accomplished her goal, playing some of these roles at the Civic Repertory, which disbanded in 1933 after a successful seven years. The Civic was on 14th Street in New York, and its aim was to provide classics for the masses at "popular" (i.e. cheap) prices, a cause Le Gallienne still champions.
"I think the great trouble with the theater now is the prices," she said. "People simply can't afford to go. I think this is a dreadful thing. There should be a stop to it. It's got to change, it can't go on and on and on like this. There's got to be some sort of rebellion. If somebody really had the guts to come out and say, 'This has gone too far; we're going to cut our prices right down,' I really believe people would be grateful and respond. But you can't get anybody to do it. I would if I were a manager. But then I've always flown in the face of providence."
She once thought of writing an article called "Deaths I Have Lived Through," some of which she described in her autobiography "With a Quiet Heart": "The first one was quite unpleasant. It was in Maeterlinck's play 'Aglavaine and Selysette.'. . I had to throw myself from the top of a high tower, and I shall never forget the suffocating clouds of dust that rose from the mattress on which I landed. I shot myself in 'La Vierge Folle'; died of a broken heart in 'Sandro Botticelli'; was burned at the stake as Jeanne d'Arc; died of starvation in Hauptmann's lovely play 'Hennele'; committed suicide, again by shooting, many hundreds of times in 'Hedda Gabler'; by dagger thrust as Juliet; was treacherously killed in a duel by Laertes' poisoned foil in 'Hamlet'; guillotined as Marie Antoinette; hanged for murder in 'Uncle Harry'. . ."
She has not done many plays by American playwrights, a lapse she attributes to her background. "I don't think I give the impression of being an American," she said. It would seem she was well suited to Eugene O'Neill's works, but, she said, "I don't madly like O'Neill. Isn't that dreadful to say? I know he's supposed to be a very great writer. But I personally think that when he became The Great Brain he wasn't as good as he was earlier."
Tinkerbell began to bark, "Now stop it," ordered her mistress. "Just be quiet. You don't have to go on like that making those noises."
She is barraged with requests from writers of dissertations and such, for details of memory that she finds an unwelcome request. "Young people are so driven by facts! Facts, facts, facts -- when was it, how many people, how much. It's such a bore. What's interesting in life is the essence, not all these computerized bits of knowledge."
Yet she wrote a memoir of Duse, which was published in 1965, and freely hands out copies of it to the "young people" who want -- and need, in her view -- to know more about the past.
"Sometimes I've thought of writing a book called "Saturday's Child," she said, "Because I've worked so hard all my life. . . I am a bit tired at my age, I wouldn't mind admitting. There's something quite difficult about playing eight times a week. That's one reason I would like to do more work in pictures. . . I think they're getting a bit more interested in old people now." CAPTION:
Picure, Eva Le Gallienne and Ellen Burstyn in "Resurrection"