Why I had to reject Hollywood
Piper Laurie was abused by Ronald Reagan, bedded by Mel Gibson and turned off by the Oscars even though she was a nominee three times. She tells Nicki Gostin about her life as a disillusioned movie star
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By the age of 17 Piper Laurie had achieved her childhood dreams of movie stardom. She was awarded a seven-year contract with Universal Pictures which entailed chaperones, a beautiful wardrobe, leading roles opposite stars like Tony Curtis and Ronald Reagan, and participating in publicity stunts concocted by the studio, such as the bizarre "Piper Laurie - eats nothing but flowers," which involved her giving interviews while noshing on a plate of prettily arranged petals.
But Laurie discovered that the roles offered to her were flimsy and shallow. Six years into the contract she was sent a script for a Western starring World War II hero Audie Murphy. The female part was a "prop and just barely that, possibly the worst part they had ever handed me", she recalls. It was the final humiliation and Laurie did the unthinkable. She broke the contract and moved to New York in the hope of working on stage and performing in substantive material.
This journey is recounted in Laurie's memoir entitled, Learning to Live Out Loud. It is a deeply honest look back at her life, including love affairs, an illegal abortion and the sacrifices she made to follow a career on her own terms.
Laurie was born Rosetta Jacobs in 1932, the grand-daughter of Russian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants to the United States. She laughs now at how non-Jewish her screen name sounds but says that a name change was something any aspiring star might have to accept in 1950s Hollywood.
"Besides, I never really liked Rosetta," she adds. "I thought it was very old fashioned. Today it seems ridiculous that I changed my name to Piper Laurie, but in those days it didn't."
She grew up in a traditional Jewish home with Hebrew lessons at the synagogue, although Laurie admits she does not attend anymore. "I'm observant in my own way at home; sometimes I light candles on Friday night."
For a large chunk of her early childhood her parents placed her and her older sister in a children's home, which they both despised. "I never did find out why they sent us there," she says. "I could only surmise. I think they were under a lot of pressure, no money, and my sister was sick all the time. I think they just saw it as an opportunity to get a rest for themselves. It caused me to go deeper into myself to find things, to survive emotionally. It helped my imagination to flower which ended up being a gift."
Still a teenager she was cast as Ronald Reagan's daughter in Louisa. Desperate to appear experienced and worldly she agreed to a date with her older co-star which resulted in him taking her virginity. It was, to put it mildly, a disaster. Reagan accused the 18-year-old of being "abnormal" because she didn't have an orgasm. "There's something wrong with you that you should fix," he said harshly.
"It was absolutely stupid of him," says Laurie. "He was ignorant of the fact that it was my first time. I wanted to be so sophisticated. Everyone was a virgin in those days till they got married, but I was adventurous and I was infatuated and I didn't want to say I was a virgin."
After the momentous break with the studio Laurie moved east and began appearing on live television shows and on stage. Eventually she landed a role opposite Paul Newman in The Hustler, which resulted in an Academy Award nomination. The nomination, however, was "meaningless" to her. She did not even attend the ceremony. "I was angry at the whole system," she says.
While she was living in New York she became pregnant. "It was terrifying," she concedes. "I thought my life was over. I couldn't talk to my parents, they would have disowned me. I think if I'd had the baby my life and my career would have been over."
Eventually she found a sympathetic doctor who agreed to perform an abortion in a hospital. Interestingly, the event was so traumatic Laurie cannot remember where it happened. "I have erased in my mind where that place was," she says. "It's gone from my conscious mind."
Once again she was unhappy with the roles being offered so she basically quit acting, moved to Woodstock in upstate New York with her husband, Newsweek writer Joe Morgenstern (the two met when he was assigned to interview her) and their baby daughter Anna. She became an accomplished sculptor.
But a serious back operation caused her to re-evaluate her life and she decided that it might be "fun" to give acting a try again. That is when director Brian DePalma called offering her a role in a new horror film he was directing called Carrie. Laurie recalls: "I was just laughing between takes. It was fun to play so mean."
It was an amazing comeback movie that garnered another Oscar nomination although the paycheck was small - $10,000 dollars (the film has grossed around $34 million). Laurie claims that it has never bothered her except on one occasion. "I do remember picking up my daughter from a play date with the daughter of the producer of Carrie. He invited me into his mansion and said: 'Let me show you the home that your wonderful performance built'. That annoyed me."
Other juicy roles followed including one opposite a very young Mel Gibson in his first movie, Tim. The two played lovers and one night after production wrapped Gibson knocked on his older co-star's door and the two shared a passionate night together.
Laurie sounds mystified when discussing Gibson's travails - his troubles with alcohol and allegations of antisemitism. "It's very sad and I can't really believe it," she exclaims. "I don't know where that came from - some naughty spirit. It's like he wanted to be a bad boy but I can't explain it. It's not the person I knew. The alcohol or drugs must have released something. It's very hard for me to believe that's who he really is."
In 1981 Laurie got divorced and relocated to Los Angeles. She received her third Academy Award nomination for Children of a Lesser God in 1986. A slew of TV appearances followed in shows like Twin Peaks, Frasier and ER playing George Clooney's mother. She describes Clooney as "completely charming. I thought he would have a big career but I didn't know how big. That was a delightful surprise."
Today she still enjoys working but admits the roles offered are again boring and one-dimensional. Asked to choose her favourite movie, she demurs. "It's impossible to choose," she protests. "I guess the ones that allowed me to do my work fully. Those are my favourites."