Mia Farrow on the cover of People 39 years ago: March 4, 1974.
Quick! Who was the subject of the very first People cover story? Why, it was Mia Farrow, of course. Spring of 1974, a whopping 39 years ago. Don’t ask me how/why I actually remember this, but I do, and I’m right. Mia is the answer to a trivia question. Btw: K.D. Lang is the first cover story on Entertainment Weekly; Tom Hanks & Dan Ackroyd were the first cover story on Premiere. I remember this. I do not need to look it up online. Anyway, when Farrow was on People, it was part of the promotional push for the lavish adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic The Great Gatsby starring the then hot-hot-hot Robert Redford as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. That movie is widely considered a flop though I think its reputation as a stinker has been over-reported, but I won’t go into that except to say that Theoni V. Aldredge deservedly won that year’s Oscar for Best Costumes. Really, the point of this article is to simply take advantage of all the hype surrounding director Baz Luhrmann’s super-splashy 3-D version of Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (number two over the weekend with more than 50 million in ticket sales), in order to pay tribute to Farrow, perhaps the most sadly under-appreciated leading film actress of her generation.
The lovely long-haired ingenue of TV’s Peyton Place, already pals with Salvador Dali, would soon marry Frank Sinatra (30 years her senior), hang out with the Beatles and the Maharishi, and make a bold fashion statement–and headlines–by chopping off most of her hair.
Farrow is second-generation Hollywood. Her dad was writer-director John Farrow, a 1956/57 Oscar winner for his Around the World in 80 Days screenplay (and a Best Director nominee for 1942’s Wake Island); Mia’s mom is lovely Maureen O’Sullivan, perhaps best known as “Jane” from the well-loved Tarzan films (w/Johnny Weissmuller). Childhood friends included Liza Minnelli, also second-generation Hollywood. Mia’s parents suffered a rocky marriage before John Farrow passed away in early 1963. When she was 18, Mia and her mother not only scored the deal of a lifetime on an apartment overlooking Central Park, they also starred in separate theatrical productions: O’Sullivan in the popular Broadway play Never Too Late (running for over 1,000 performances beginning in 1962), and Farrow in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Soon enough, Mia was auditioning for the role of Liesl in The Sound of Music, alas not to be, though she hit her early career stride when she was cast in the ingenue role of Allison MacKenzie in the long running prime time TV spin-off of Grace Metalious’s best selling Peyton Place, which ran continuously, sometimes as many as three nights a week, for almost five years. The role helped Farrow score her first Golden Globe, for Most Promising Newcomer (for which she tied with Mary Ann Mobley and Celia Kaye); moreover, Peyton Place no doubt paved the way for Farrow’s breakthrough big-screen role in Rosemary’s Baby.
^ Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Polish director Roman Polanksi made his American debut with the phenomenally successful adaptation of Ira Levin’s best seller about a young woman, the wife of a struggling actor, whose pregnancy has terrifying (satanic) implications. Rosemary’s Baby shook up the conventions of the typical horror film by focusing on suspense and the psychological aspects of the story rather than graphic depictions of gore and violence. Plus, the spookiness was not situated in a big dilapidated haunted house. Instead it was set in an apartment building in contemporary New York City. Also, there is something disturbing in the way that occultists are portrayed as everyday folk rather than obviously evil nutjobs. Farrow was willing to go to the mat for the film, to the degree that as production began to run long, she made the bold choice to drop out of her next project, The Detective starring her then superstar husband Frank Sinatra, who ultimately filed for divorce as a result of Farrow’s defiance. In spite of the havoc the movie wreaked on her personal life, Farrow’s dedication was not unappreciated by audiences or critics. Writing in the New York Times, Renata Adler praised Farrow thusly: “Miss Farrow is quite marvelous, pale, suffering, almost constantly on-screen in a difficult role…” The Hollywood Foreign Press Association followed through with a Golden Globe nomination; however, an Oscar nod was not forthcoming. On the other hand, veteran actress Ruth Gordon, as one of the improbable neighbors in on the plot against Rosemary, won an Oscar–at last–for Best Supporting Actress. When Gordon, fresh from her victory, spoke to the press the night of the ceremony, she downplayed Farrow’s snub, asserting: “She’ll be back next year. She’s going to win for John and Mary” (Wiley and Bona 427).
^ John and Mary (1969) – It seems odd, almost other-worldy, that in the current era of seemingly unending colossally budgeted comic book epics and a plethora of doomsday scenarios, often in 3-D, a major Hollywood studio, such as 20th Century Fox, would have ever released a character study about a man and a woman who meet in a bar, sleep with each other–without even knowing the other person’s name–and then spend a day actually getting to know each other, but that’s exactly what happened when Fox signed on to distribute this one. I’m sure if it were remade today, these two strangers’ “relationship” would be undone by a twist in which one of them was revealed to be a serial killer, a mad stalker, a spy, or one of the following: vampire/werewolf/zombie/transsexual. Well, despite Ruth Gordon’s optimistic take, John and Mary, no box office biggie on the order of Rosemary’s Baby, did not even secure Farrow an Oscar nod much less a statuette though she and co-star Dustin Hoffman (also hot, hot, hot at the time with Midnight Cowboy) each earned Golden Globe nominations as well as attention from the British Academy. For the latter, Farrow was collectively recognized for John and Mary as well as both Rosemary’s Baby and the controversial The Secret Ceremony opposite Elizabeth Taylor.
Farrow was reportedly approached about playing the role of Mattie Ross in the hit 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne in an iconic–Academy winning–performance. She turned down the role which eventually went to Kim Darby. Per the IMDb, Farrow claims it was one of the biggest mistakes in her career. (This story is at least partially corroborated on page 128 of Farrow’s What Falls Away.)
For much of the 1970s, after Farrow settled down to raise a family with her second husband, Oscar winning composer-conductor André Previn, she continued to act in projects of varying quality. The Great Gatsby, as noted, was positioned as a blockbuster, but it fell as flat as last New Year’s leftover champagne, or at least that’s the widely held perception. Between 1978 and 1979, Farrow appeared in such high profile offerings as Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (w/longtime family friend Bette Davis), Robert Altman’s A Wedding, and producer Dino de Laurentiis’s ill-fated remake of Hurricane. During the period, she was often acting onstage, including the leading role in Bernard Slade’s Romantic Comedy. No, really, that’s the name of the play.
Anyway, as the Previn marriage waned, Farrow kept reasonably busy and soon met the man who would change her personal and professional destinies. I’ll skip over Farrow’s performance in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night Sex Comedy because I wrote about it last year, and I’ll move past Zelig because as good as Farrow is in it, she’s not the draw, the element that gives it its uniqueness.
^ Broadway Danny Rose (1984) – Farrow’s first great performance in a Woody Allen film was as a tough talking decorator, with mob connections, who’s also the sometime squeeze of a married lounge singer in Broadway Danny Rose. In this rapid fire 84 minute B & W romp about resiliently optimistic showbiz hopefuls, Farrow is virtually unrecognizable with her mountain of bleached hair, dark glasses, and thick Jersey accent. Now, skeptics might argue that all those superficial elements are gimmicks that do all of Farrow’s acting for her, but I disagree. First, she still brings smart delivery and emotional shading to the role. In other words, she finds the core of the character and makes her believable even while hidden by, and working against, the obviousness of the costume. (Right? She can’t use her eyes to express emotion.) Furthermore, Allen performs a neat trick late in the film when Farrow’s Tina appears at last without her glasses. The effect is startling, and, fortunately, Farrow has the kind of face, flush as it is with exquisite planes, to hold the camera’s focus. Additionally, Farrow’s characterization is so strong that Allen can film a key scene from quite a stunning distance, and without audible dialogue, and the audience doesn’t miss a beat. Tina is already so vividly rendered that audiences don’t need to see and her hear speak each and every word in order to understand what she’s saying and feeling. That’s magic. Farrow scored a Golden Globe nod for this one, and no less than the Today Show’s Gene Shalit (as I recall) swooped in to praise Farrow, and other actresses who had given strong comedic performances that year, when Oscar looked elsewhere. The 1984/85 Oscar race spotlighted the Academy at its most earnest and high-minded as the Best Picture race was devoid of anything remotely resembling popular entertainment, and the Best Actress race included three previous Oscar winners (Sally Field, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek) in movies about the struggles of farmers (one during the Great Depression) along with Vanessa Redgrave (another previous winner) and Judy Davis in adaptations of literary works by Henry James and E.M. Forster, respectively. Meanwhile, Farrow and other top comedy stars of both sexes (Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone and Steve Martin in All of Me, to name two) were cast to the sidelines.
^ The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – Farrow’s next great role was as a sweet-natured woman struggling through the Great Depression by seeking solace, escape, in the movies. Well, we’ve all been there. Cecilia is a bit of a scatterbrain, and she loses
her waitressing job as a result; plus, her husband is a brute. Over and over again, she takes in the latest flick at her neighborhood movie house. Her presence so moves one of the film’s dashing male characters that he magically walks out of the film and into Cecilia’s life, leaving the rest of the characters in an onscreen limbo. Meanwhile, the actor who plays the character (Jeff Daniels in both instances) is dispatched to handle the matter. It sounds complicated, but Allen makes it fairly easy to follow, and, of course, the whole thing moves at a clip. Oh, and it’s funny. This was only the second time that Allen did not appear in one his own films. The first was 1978’s starkly solemn Interiors in which there was clearly no place for his familiar nebbish persona. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Farrow’s character functions as Allen’s mouthpiece–in the same way that John Cusack would eventually do in Bullets Over Broadway and as Owen Wilson did recently in Midnight in Paris. Of course, Farrow gets the pathos just right, but she’s also a hoot, an unexpected delight, as she puts a fresh spin on those well-worn Allen cadences. It’s a nifty trick the way she sometimes sounds so much like him. Plus, even with Jeff Daniels in two roles, Farrow has to carry the picture. If the audience doesn’t care about what happens to Cecilia, the movie has no reason to continue. Furthermore, this actress has everything she needs to help sell what Allen has in mind in the final scenes. Farrow snagged her second consecutive Golden Globe nod for an Allen film, and she’s listed among the honorable mentions in Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars (276), but Oscar voters faced some tough decisions during the 1985/86 Best Actress race. This was a race so jam-packed with likely candidates that it was featured on the cover on People in early 1986. Farrow wasn’t just an also-ran that year, she was an also ran in the same company that included Cher (Mask), Norma Aleandro (The Official Story), and Coral Browne (Dreamchild) as well as a least a dozen more high profile entries.
^ Mia Farrow (l) in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) co-starring Barbara Hershey (center) and Best Supporting Actress winner Dianne Wiest (r). Per Farrow’s memoirs, What Fades Away, Allen presented her with the completed script and told her she could play any of the sisters she wanted though Hannah is clearly the sturdy pillar of one of Allen’s typically wealthy Manhattan families. Luckily, that is the role Farrow chose, and the rest is history. Allen even filmed many of the scenes in Farrow’s own apartment with her real-life children often in the background–and her mother on board as Hannah’s mother. Hannah and Her Sisters was clearly Allen’s most acclaimed film of the 1980s as well as a box office hit and a major Oscar contender. As the seemingly perfect yet still anxious and/or vulnerable sister, Farrow makes a strong impression though this is more of an ensemble piece. Even so, Wiest, in the role of the plucky, neurotic sister, gets all the best lines. Farrow was passed over for an Oscar nod, not surprisingly, and she was also overlooked at the Globes though she was a nominee for the British Academy award.
After Hannah and Her Sisters, most of Farrow’s films with Allen were a mixed bag. I adored the actress’s turn in Radio Days (1987) as a ditzy cigarette girl who ultimately reigns supreme as a radio star with impossibly refined diction. Once again, Radio Days is a massive ensemble pic, with a cast that includes such notables as (in no particular order) Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Wiest (again), Jeff Daniels, Kenneth Mars, William H. Macy, Diane Keaton, Wallace Shawn, and no less than Kitty Carlisle Hart of all people. Allen has written a character that takes full advantage of Farrow’s vast range, but she’s just one among dozens and dozens of actors with speaking parts.
Allen followed Radio Days with the dreadfully serious September (1987), a movie that uneasily blends Chekhovian elements with the sensationalistic slant of the infamous Lana Turner/Cheryl Crane/Johnny Stompanato murder from 1958. Filmed within the confines of a single set, September was an unusually–legendarily–troubled-plagued production which Allen repeatedly rewrote, recast, and even refilmed after the project had seemingly wrapped. Farrow gives her all in the role of a deeply tormented woman whose whole life has been defined–and undone–by a murder case involving her larger than life domineering mother, played by bold and brassy Elaine Stritch. The latter repeatedly praised Farrow’s performance as Academy Award caliber in scads of TV and print interviews, but the overall effect was too self-conscious, too much of a muddle, to make much of a favorable impression beyond the most stridently loyal fans of either Allen or Farrow.
Farrow was pregnant during the production of Another Woman (1988), which I happen to think is a movie that approaches the level of a true masterpiece. That noted, it’s really Gena Rowlands’s show. It’s her character’s story. Farrow’s part is absolutely essential to the plot, but the role, an enigmatic pregnant woman named ‘Hope,’ is more of a type than a fully developed character. I aim to write about this one at length one day.
^ Farrow in Allen’s Alice (1990) – This is the one performance that absolutely should have garnered Farrow, at the very least, an Oscar nomination. She shines, exquisitely so, in this modern update of, well, Alice in Wonderland. Or something like that. In this case, Alice is an Upper East Side neurotic mess. Is there any other kind in an Allen film? At any rate, Alice is married to successful yet starchy William Hurt, and she does her best to say, do, and buy all the politically correct things. She also knows how to shop at the best stores and pamper herself at the poshest salons, yet, somehow, she feels unfulfilled–and her back hurts. Luckily, a friend recommends an herbalist (Keye Luke) who knows how to blend a remedy for almost any condition. What happens after that is a fantastical journey of self-exploration. Thematically, Alice covers much of the same territory as Another Woman but does so with warmth, whimsy, and wonder. And, oh yes, magic. Thanks to her herbalist’s talents, Alice can become invisible, can fly across the evening sky, and into the past, with the ghost of a long lost love, charming yet just a tad forlorn as played by Alec Baldwin at the peak of his masculine beauty. Alice also drops her reserve long enough to take a walk on the wild side with Joe Mantegna’s sexy saxophonist. Allen gives Farrow plenty of leeway to try on a variety of emotions in many scenes; moreover, she gets to evince spectacular emotional changes, sometimes without a lot of fussy camera movement and/or editing. Allen just points the camera at her amazing face, and Farrow lets her talent guide her. An early encounter with Mantegna, right after Farrow has gulped down one of her herbal mixtures, is breathtaking as it depicts Alice’s gradual transformation from mousy to smoldering. Just close your eyes and listen to the satisfied purr of her voice. In his book Alternate Oscars, author Danny Peary “takes away” Kathy Bates’s Oscar for Misery and instead awards it to Farrow: “…[her] best performance to date has never received due recognition” (303). I love Bates, but I agree with Peary. Farrow might only be second to Joanne Woodward’s in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge as that year’s cream of the crop. The 1990/91 Oscar lineup also included Angelica Huston (The Grifters), Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman), and Meryl Streep (Postcards from the Edge). Yeah, I know Roberts’s film was an unexpected blockbuster that worked as well as it did because of its leading lady’s big personality and even bigger smile, but, that aside, I don’t think this many years later any of these ladies’ performances register as significant. When was the last time you settled down to watch The Grifters? On the other hand, if I ever turn on my TV, and Alice is playing on one of the movie channels, I stop and watch. Even though the Academy overlooked her, Farrow did receive a few accolades for Alice, most notably a Golden Globe nod, natch, and Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review. Even if you’re not an Allen fan, I implore you to put this one on your Movie Bucket List.
^ Widows’ Peak (1994) – After a rather public, not to mention devastating and humiliating, breakup with Allen, Farrow found recourse in this delightfully creepy yarn co-written by playwright Hugh Leonard (Da) and co-starring Natasha Richardson (r) and Joan Plowright (l). Farrow, paying tribute to her Irish heritage, portrays the perennial village misfit; Richardson plays a manipulative American newcomer, and Plowright reigns as the domineering dowager. These three women keep trying to top each other in a deadly game of “outplay, outwit, outlast” (like on TV’s Survivor), but there are quite a few laughs–the dark kind–along the way. I remember Farrow visited David Letterman as this movie was being released in the spring of 1994, when Letterman was less than a year into his then “new” home at CBS, and the host could not praise the movie, or Farrow, enough. (Note: it was the first time Farrow had ever appeared on Letterman at either CBS or NBC, so it was kind of a big deal.) I have to confess that after I saw this movie for the first time, I was so tickled that I was ready to immediately watch it again, and because I was working at the same theater where I saw it, and it was free, I probably did stay and watch it again. In early 1995, as first round Oscar ballots were being marked, no less than Hollywood icon Charlton Heston reportedly lamented the dearth of worthy performances by leading actresses, but Chris Hewitt, writing for Knight-Ridder News Services, responded with an article, carried in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, that praised Farrow in Widow’s Peak as one of the best of the best–along with Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), who was nominated, and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), who, like Farrow, was overlooked yet again.
After Widows’ Peak, Farrow’s big screen output tapered noticeably. She earned good notices in Miami Rhapsody, a saucy Allenesque comedy that featured Antonio Banderas and marked the first collaborative effort of Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker and writer-director-producer David Frankel. Farrow also starred in the disastrous adaptation of Craig Lucas’s quirky play, Reckless. This one was so ill-received that I don’t think it ever made it out of limited NY/LA engagements. She later scored a Golden Globe nomination ( her ninth) for a TV movie about Alzheimer’s, Forget Me Never. She also had a recurring role in Third Watch, which ran on NBC from 1999 to 2005. She also had a jokey bit in the the 2006 remake of The Omen–about another demonic child.
Of course, Farrow is well positioned enough that she does not necessarily work constantly. Well, that’s how it seems from the outside. I do know, however, that the woman is passionate about human rights and has devoted a lot of her time and energy the past few years to various causes, and I applaud her for that. Mia Farrow has endured a lot of high profile scandals and intense media scrutiny, but in spite of all that, as well as an upbringing seemingly buoyed by wealth and privilege, I’ve always thought of her as basically “good people” and only wish her well.
Okay, still not convinced that this actress hasn’t been given her due? How about this? Watch any two of the seven movies featured in this article–especially the Allen films–back to back and see what you think after that. Farrow so thoroughly disappears inside her characters that you might find it hard to believe you’re actually watching the same actress from one flick to the next. How often does that happen? Yeah.
Please feel free to add any comments about your personal fave Farrow performance.
Thanks for your consideration….
Update (Fri, 10/04/2013): Skip to the following links if you must, but first let’s play the hottest new guessing game about Farrow. In a current Vanity Fair article, Farrow alludes to the distinct “possibility” that her grown son, and activist lawyer, Ronan (26 in December) might have been fathered by Ol Blue Eyes himself, that’s right, the one and only Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. Of course, back in ’87 when Ronan was born, we all thought he was the child of Farrow and Woody Allen; after all, Farrow and Sinatra had been divorced for almost two decades at that point. My guess is that Sinatra donated to the cause rather than enlisted to serve on the frontlines; meanwhile, no less than Frank’s famous daughter Nancy allows that Ronan has something on the order of meaningful ties to the Sinatra family though the elder Sinatra’s widow Barbara (the actor-singer passed away in 1998) denies any such thing.
I’ll admit that Ronan bears a strong resemblance to Sinatra–those blue eyes are hard to deny–but, of course, Mia also has blue eyes though not as piercing. Plus, she’s fair-haired and complexioned as is her son. I think Ronan Farrow tends to look like one or the other depending on how compare/contrast photos are arranged. What do you think???
Adler, Renata. “Rosemary’s Baby.” New York Times. 13 June 1968. Web. 12 May 2013. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF1738E271BC4B52DFB0668383679EDE
Farrow, Mia. What Falls Away: A Memoir. New York: Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday. 1997.
Farrow and Human Rights: http://www.miafarrow.org/
Farrow at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001201/
Hewitt, Chris. “Oscar needs glasses: There’s no dearth of actress nominees.” Knight-Ridder News Service reprinted in Fort Worth Star Telegram. (No date available.)
Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta, 1993.
Wiley Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.