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Laurie takes readers to bygone era

Piper Laurie is a truly wonderful actress and personality, but let's just be honest and admit she is a complete unknown to anyone born after, oh, 1980.

She is best remembered for the 1970s horror favorite "Carrie," in which her performance as the title character's religious fanatic mother earned her an Oscar nomination, and yes, "Carrie" has had a prolonged afterlife -- including the legendarily wacky "Carrie: A Musical." But Sissy Spacek is barely known to younger moviegoers, let alone Piper Laurie.

Too bad, since Laurie's autobiography "Learning to Live Out Loud: A Memoir" will likely draw interest from only devoted watchers of Turner Classic Movies. What everyone else will miss is an insightful look at an era in Hollywood that is long, long gone.

Laurie hooks the reader from sentence one -- "When I was fourteen, a mustachioed middle-aged agent took me to meet Howard Hughes." And from the follow-up, we know she can guess what we're already thinking: "Mother didn't come along. She believed there would never be hanky-panky if I were alone with a truly successful man."

Her meeting with Hughes is riveting, and a telling example of how men like Hughes had "nobodies" like the young actress at their disposal:

"They told me to sit in the chair close to the desk. I sat. The mustachioed man who had delivered me quickly disappeared, saying, 'This is Rosetta. She's not quite fifteen -- and doesn't she have beautiful red hair?'"

After a half an hour of silence, it was time to go. "Not for a moment," Laurie writes, "did I sense the sordidness."

What she hints at in this opening, but does not fully explain, is that the youngster's road to this odd meeting was long and hard. At age 5, she and her sister were sent to a "children's sanitarium" in the San Fernando Valley, and the separation from her parents was devastating. ("I had no idea what was happening with my parents," she writes.)

Despite a debilitating shyness, Laurie "longed to be part" of the world of movies, and by 1949 she signed a contract with Universal-International. The days of studio "contract players" have a wistful nostalgic air about them, yet for a thirtysomething cinephile such as myself, the concept seems as old-fashioned as room-sized supercomputers and unlocked doors. Her firsthand account, then, is fascinating.

In Laurie's first film, "Louise," she played Ronald Reagan's daughter. Offscreen, she lost her virginity to "Ronnie," and it's an experience she describes in often-humorous detail. He was "a bit of a show-off. He made sure I was aware of the length of time he had been 'ardent.' "

Being "owned" by a studio from age 17 had its good and bad points (among the films she made during this time were "The Mississippi Gambler" and "Ain't Misbehavin.' "), but her first truly classic film was 1961's "The Hustler," in which Paul Newman first played pool shark "Fast" Eddie Felsen.

While the film, and her work in it, drew great praise, the final cut disappointed the actress greatly -- "I couldn't understand people's reactions," she writes -- and she didn't make another film for 15 years.

She was busy on Broadway, but her return to the big screen was a doozy. "Carrie" remains a modern genre classic, and her story of the process of being cast, and, ultimately, being nominated as Best Supporting Actress, is delightful.

Her final great success -- and the section of the memoir I looked forward to most -- was on "Twin Peaks." She starred as Catherine Martell in David Lynch's iconic TV drama, and while she breaks no new ground in her discussion of the "Peaks" experience, fans will still enjoy this section immensely.

Much of the book is spent on her relationship with the late director John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate"), the man she calls the "love of my life." While never husband and wife -- she was married to critic Joe Mogenstern from 1962 to 1981 -- Laurie still feels his loss. Hearing of his death, she "wanted to shout out, 'No! There's unfinished business!' "

And that, in a sense, is as good an indicator as any of why Laurie's story matters. It seems writing "Learning to Live Out Loud" was an essential step in Laurie's life, a way of "finishing" some of that unfinished business. It offers a look at a cinematic world that does not exist anymore, and it explains how its author went from nothing to great success. It's also as charming a read as she is a personality. That's saying a lot.

Christopher Schobert is an editor at Buffalo Spree and a frequent film and book critic for The News.

***

Learning to Live out Loud: A Memoir

By Piper Laurie

Crown Archetype

357 pages, $24.99

By Christopher Schobert