Marsha Mason: A Conversation for Women's History Month

Last in a three-part series.

From 1973 to 1981, no actress was nominated for more Academy Awards than Marsha Mason, who earned Best Actress nods for Cinderella Liberty, The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two and Only When I Laugh. But Hollywood turned out to be just a temporary detour for Marsha Mason, stage actress. She started out in the theater—acting on and off Broadway in such plays as Happy Birthday, Wanda June, The Indian Wants the Bronx and Richard III in the early ’70s—and has been working primarily in theater since the mid ’90s, when she packed up and left southern California altogether. Mason is currently performing in New York in the Keen Company’s revival of I Never Sang for My Father, starring Keir Dullea and Matt Servitto.

In addition to acting, Mason has had a whole other profession since leaving L.A.: proprietor of an organic/biodynamic herb farm and of its retail line of bath and body products. Mason’s New Mexico farm, Resting in the River, grows medicinal herbs, which are used in lotions and sprays that heal, refresh and soothe. The products are sold in stores nationwide, including some Whole Foods.

Mason’s farm and home are in Abiquiu, a town on the Chama River in northern New Mexico, about 50 miles from Santa Fe. She was in New York last spring in the cast of Impressionism on Broadway, and had roles in the recent off-Broadway productions A Feminine Ending and Wintertime. She’s also worked repeatedly with L.A. Theatre Works, which stages well-known comedies and dramas as radio plays. Her latest project with them, California Suite (by Neil Simon, Mason’s ex-husband), was recorded during a five-performance run in February for broadcast on public radio and the LATW website.

Mason and Simon met when she was in the 1973 Broadway production of his The Good Doctor and married just months after his first wife, Joan, died (his daughters Ellen and Nancy were adolescents at the time). He wrote several movies that Mason made in the ’70s and ’80s, including three of her Oscar nominations. The biggest hit was The Goodbye Girl, which won an Academy Award for Mason’s costar Richard Dreyfuss and Golden Globes for both of them. She’s made only a handful of movies since the 1980s, but has had a number of guest roles on TV series, most notably her hilarious turn as John Mahoney’s brassy girlfriend Sherry on two seasons of Frasier. More recently, Mason played Kim Delaney’s mother on Army Wives and filmed a part on an upcoming episode of the ABC sitcom The Middle.

Mason, who turns 68 next week, has not remarried since divorcing Simon, her second husband, in 1984. We spoke one afternoon last week at the Clurman Theater on 42nd Street, the day after the first preview performance of I Never Sang for My Father (it opens April 4).

Did you get disillusioned with Hollywood?
I wouldn’t say disillusioned. It’s just that the business changed, and it wasn’t as interesting or challenging in terms of the kinds of roles that I was being offered. Also, at that time—it was around 1993—I’d been divorced from Neil and I didn’t really feel comfortable in Los Angeles, so I began to think maybe I could live somewhere else and continue to work when they called me. 

Why werent you comfortablethere?
I think it’s just my own personal journey, or odyssey, if you will. Also, the business had changed dramatically from the time when I was shooting a lot of movies in the ’70s and early ’80s. It had become much more youth-oriented, there were less roles. So I just decided that maybe the best thing for me would be to sort of throw up the pieces of my life like a kaleidoscope and see how the pattern would come down. Too, I think, because I had worked so much for an intense period of time, when the work stopped, I realized a lot of my own personal sense was wrapped up in my work, so without work I was feeling very insecure as far as a kind of understanding of my own identity. I thought it was important for me to see work as work and find know...I mean, my identity has to be bigger than my work. 

Theater is where youve always felt you belonged?
Yeah. I came to New York right after college. As a matter of fact, the movies were a complete accident. I never planned that. That just sort of happened in a really magical and wonderful way. Neil and I moved to Los Angeles about a year after we married, to kind of start a new life with the girls. 

Are you still friendly with him?
Oh, yeah, and with the girls. And now I have grandchildren. Nancy and Ellen are dear to me, and I think of them as my daughters. We all grew up together! 

Whats some of the stage work youve done regionally in recent years?
I worked for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater about four or five years ago: I did the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’ translation of Hecuba. I did The Cherry Orchard in Santa Fe—we opened the renovation of the Lensic. I love Chekhov, and had a lot of fun doing that.

You play a lot of mothers, including in I Never Sang for My Father. How do you differentiate them?
The text usually indicates something about the character that will make it unique; the material itself gives you clues. And yet there are archetypal types, too: the good mother, the bad mother, the loving mother, the hateful mother. Like when I did the movie Drop Dead Fred—she was an ice queen, not very likable. Sometimes those are the more interesting roles.
What intrigued me about this part is she’s a very aware and knowledgeable woman who’s beset with a lot of physical problems, and I always feel that when people are tested physically, with illnesses—how does that shift your perception of relationships and behavior? That was the reason I thought it would be interesting to do. And to be perfectly honest, also just to keep working. Because I find that the more I work, the better my instrument is. It’s important to stay honed and flexible, in terms of memorization, in terms of acting choices and creatively and intuitively thinking. I like playing all different kinds of characters. I played a mass killer in Amazing Grace, Michael Cristofer’s play.

Are the TV guest roles you do written with you in mind?
No. When I did Frasier, for example, that was supposed to be only one show. But because we all got along so well and it was good, they immediately wrote more. I remember one of the issues that one of the producers had was they weren’t sure that I could actually play that kind of role. They thought of me as, the way it was expressed to me is, “She’s the kind of woman who wears Armani suits.” And the character was a Las Vegas showgirl who owned a bar. Fortunately, they hired me anyway. 

Do you get a lot of film offers that you turn down?
I haven’t been called for a film role in a really long time. There just aren’t that many parts around for a woman my age, or however Hollywood chooses to see you. Also, a lot of the industry out there is much younger now, so they don’t have a historical concept. The movies are very different now. I think the independents are the most interesting, obviously. My agents look for that. I have on occasion taken a role that somebody’s talked me into, or somebody said would be good for my career, or the money’s good or whatever, and invariably I found that it would be an unpleasant or an unsatisfying experience. I had to learn that lesson the hard way, and now I trust myself more. I have been offered some parts I didn’t think were very interesting. If I don’t feel it’s right for me on a creative level, then I can’t do it. 

How else has Hollywood changed in the last few decades?
The way the studios, or even the distributors, choose their films and market them. In the ’70s and early ’80s, we had rehearsal time, you didn’t shoot a script until it was ready, it was based on the script. Whereas nowadays—I remember Sherry Lansing telling me, when she was running Paramount, they have a roster and let’s say they’re going to do 10 movies. Well, then, they’re looking at: “Mel Gibson, when is he available?” And then they see he’s got a slot in November/December, so they go and look for something for him, and they may even start shooting without a finished script. So it’s a completely different situation now.
I’ve taught master classes at Carnegie Mellon and a couple of other places, and one of the things the kids are running up against now is they have to package themselves. When I got started—and Bobby De Niro and Redford and Jane Fonda, all of them—we didn’t have to worry about that. You just had to be good and hope for the right breaks, blah blah blah. Now, these kids have such a narrow window...they’re thought of it in a sort of stereotypical way: She’s this kind of person, and he’s that kind of person, or a cross between. So that kind of preconceived, packaged thing is problematic. And, of course, an actor doesn’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again. Look at Matt Damon. I think he is one of the most interesting actors, and so talented. I watched him in The Good Shepherd and a bunch of other films. They’re so good, and the character work is so wonderful, even in the comedy one he had recently [The Informant!], I thought he was just spectacular. But if it weren’t for the Bourne Identity and Green Zone kinds of action pictures, would he be able to do those parts?
When I was working, a lot of the studios were still independent. Or if they were owned—say, Gulf + Western owned Paramount—it was pretty much independent. That’s not true anymore. They have a whole corporate structure, so pictures are chosen to be produced completely differently than they were back then. Also, in terms of the finances, it’s all different. Let’s say you have a two or three million dollar independent movie: A distributor knows that it can probably get its money back if it’s halfway decent. And if you have a $200 million picture, they know pretty much they can get that money back based on the kind of movie it is, with a certain star in it. But in that whole midrange—20 to 30 or 40 million—they don’t know if they can make that money back. And those were the kinds of pictures that we were doing in the ’70s. Actually, The Blind Side is probably one of the first films, I thought, that was the kind of picture we would have done in the ’70s. It almost is like a very glamorous television movie. Maybe there will be a shift now. 

Do you think Kathryn Bigelow winning the directing Oscar will have a lasting impact as far as women in Hollywood?
I hope so. I hope so. It’s very upsetting: I was talking with Sarah Treem, a young writer—I did her play A Feminine Ending—she was telling me that she had a meeting once with a woman executive who said, “Don’t write about women, because nobody will do that material.” So I think there’s an idea out there that needs to be broken, and hopefully Kathryn Bigelow winning the award [will lead to change]. I’m positive a lot of women in the Academy voted for her. It’s well deserved, and the movie’s brilliant, and it proves a woman director can direct anything.
I was a board member of the American Film Institute for almost 25 years, and one of the big projects that [CEO] Jean Firstenberg started that I helped with was the directing workshop for women. The whole idea was to give women within the business the opportunity to explore directing. And yet I remember having a conversation with [producer] Suzanne de Passe, who told me that when she would go to try and set up a project, the shortlist never contained a woman director. And yet they would take a young male director just out of film school. So I think there was a prejudice there—a philosophical misogynistic attitude in Hollywood—that was absolutely real and needs to be changed. 

Youve done some directing. Tell us about those experiences.
I directed for television, an afternoon school special. I did a play for Second Stage, called Junos Swans, that was written by an actress, E. Katherine Kerr. Mary Kay Place and Betty Buckley were in it. I’ll always be grateful to Carole Rothman and Robyn Goodman for giving me that opportunity. I also learned how to direct on One Life to Live, when Robyn Goodman had left Second Stage and was by then a managing producer on the soap. She gave me the opportunity to learn how to call the show and everything, and I got to direct scenes within the hour.
A lot of actors will think they can direct, and then they quickly find out that the biggest problem they have is, they want the actor to do it the way they might have perceived it. I would always see what the quality of the individual was and how to make that work. And of course the big mystery when you audition somebody is: Is this 80 percent of what I’ll get, or is it 20 percent of what I’ll get? What’s the potential, or is this what it’s going to be? I think good directing is often in casting. And then helping create the environment that an actor can flourish in. 

Youre also an author. Howd you come to write your 2000 memoir, Journey?
I was doing a play here for Naked Angels, and I ran into an editor at a restaurant one afternoon and we were chatting, and she said, “If you ever decide to write a book, let me know.” I mentioned it to my friend Shirley MacLaine, ’cause she by then had written, and Shirley said, “I think it’s the best thing in the whole world. I think it’s the most important thing you’ll ever do.” When I came home [at night] while I was doing this play, I’d sit there and still have plenty of energy, so I just started to put some stuff down. At that time I was being handled by ICM, so I went to the literary department there and gave it to them, about 30 or 40 pages. But then I forgot about it. A few months went by, and I suddenly got a call, and they said Michael Korda [of Simon & Schuster] was buying it. I had a wonderful time doing that. I keep thinking I’m going to write another book, about the farm. 

Whyd you choose New Mexico when you left L.A.?
It was a complete surprise. I would not have planned it necessarily, but that’s what happened. My first husband was from New Mexico, so I had made one trip, like, in the late ’60s. And then strangely enough, Neil and I did have a second home in New Mexico. Didn’t use it much. He surprised me with it, because I would not have thought that he would like it there. I was working and he went out [to N.M.] and looked at something, and he came home saying “You put a down payment on a house.” This was a little before we got divorced, and I toyed with the idea of keeping that house, but then we decided to sell it. Then, friends of mine—my first husband included—were looking again in New Mexico, and Shirley MacLaine called me and said she was moving to New Mexico, so I started making trips out there to see it. I was concerned about being landlocked, because I was used to being near water. My first husband said to me, “You ought to look along the river.” And then Shirley told me she had seen some property that she thought would be terrific, so I went out and looked at it. It was in the same area where she was buying; she was buying in the mountain, and I bought along the river. Abiquiu is where Georgia O’Keeffe lived. I just bought the land—250 acres—there were no buildings on it or anything. I rented a house that was south of town, of Santa Fe, while I figured out what exactly [to do with it]. The land was overgrazed—the way the water comes in from the river, all that had to be upgraded, trees planted, and slowly the buildings came into being, and now it’s this big compound. 

Howd you end up with the type of farm you have?
It started just wanting to take care of the land; I never intended to become a farmer per se. I took classes in permaculture, and I went to soil fertility conferences in Minnesota, and I did all kinds of stuff like that. I’d always been an avid organic gardener in California, but just with a rose garden and some fruit trees. So it started with fields, and one thing led to the next. Out there, I noticed an unusual thing almost immediately—I can understand why people say New Mexico is sort of a vortex, or one of those special places on the earth—because I would have a question, or a situation that I needed an answer for, and within 48 to 72 hours somebody came along and gave me direction as to where I should look, or who I should talk to, or what I should do next. Like, the permaculture guy would say to me, “You know, you should really try and grow some stuff.” Then I went back to California for work, and I saw my Chinese doctor and he said, “If you ever try and grow anything, you ought to try medicinal herbs.” Then I got back to New Mexico and someone said, “There’s this woman in Arizona and she’s growing chamomile.” So everything just kept unfolding. The permaculture guy [told me about] this wonderful Peruvian grower, and we met, and then I sent him off to learn about biodynamic farming. 

What is that?
Biodynamic farming is a form of farming that Rudolf Steiner started in the 1900s, and basically you plant by the lunar calendar and the position of the planets. At that time it was a little woo-woo and very esoteric; now it’s not really. In Germany and even in France and Italy, biodynamic farming is very common. At that time, I tried echinacea, astragalus, ashwagandha, a couple of medicinal herbs, just to see what I could grow and where I could find organic seed. There was a biodynamic grower in Brixey, Missouri, Vinnie McKinney, that I went and met. It was just so fascinating to me to enter this—what I euphemistically call—spiritual agriculture, and I began to really get into it. We started some control plots with the echinacea: one plot as is, the next with organic compost, and the third with some of the biodynamic preparations. When we harvested, in the biodynamic plot, the root was deeper and longer, and the color on the flower was much more intense, as well as the scent. 

Tell us about your products.
It was basically stuff I needed. For example, my hands were getting really messed up because it’s very alkaline soil, heavy clay. So we developed a salve using most of the herbs that we were growing. Then we did the tinctures and wellness sprays, and that was again what I needed: Throat Therapy. I was going on a book tour, so I needed what I labeled Chill Factor—something that could keep me relaxed, because I had to talk in front of people, and at the same time wouldn’t make me drowsy or unfocused. Then I did the Boost Juice because I was going off to London to do a play, and I knew I was going into a completely different environment: 500-year-old theaters and God knows the mold and so forth. So we did the Boost Juice and the Superior Support for the immune system. And then I thought, Maybe we could take the salve and put it into a different delivery system. So we did the Body Butter with shea butter. And then the lotion that has some aloe in it. Spilanthes is our signature herb—it’s in everything.
It [the product line] was just a way to keep the farm afloat, because you can’t make any money farming unless you are really, really big. The biggest problem with medicinal herbs is the harvesting. If you talk to various herbalists, they will want, for example, maybe just an inch of the stem and the flower and they want it at a certain time. There are herbs that secrete at a certain time, like rhodalia, so you have to pick it at that time—it’s very labor-intensive. 

You recently put your New Mexico property on the market. Why?
I am selling the farm to transition to moving back east to stay in theater. I want to downsize and simplify my life after having two separate careers. I’ve always kept some kind of living situation in New York, because I love New York. [Ed. note: Mason says she will continue making the herbal products, relying on ingredients from other organic growers in New Mexico.]
My next big challenge is I’d really like to do a musical. I’ve been taking singing lessons, after years of not doing it. I want to get in shape for that. I have no idea if I’ll ever do one, but at least I’ll be ready. 

You havent worked with Shirley MacLaine. Howd you get to be good friends?
You know, when you’re sort of in our world... Also, we became much closer once we moved out to New Mexico and were neighbors. She would come for Thanksgiving dinner, and I would go up to her place. She literally is the mountain right behind me; we’re on the same road. I’ve also read her books, and I’m intrigued with a lot of the stuff she writes about. 

When Steel Magnolias was done on Broadway in 2005, you played the part Shirley had played in the movie. Did you two talk about the role?
Oh, yeah! And I deliberately [pursued] that when I heard they were going to do it. It was Shirley who gave me the idea. We were bemoaning the fact that it was very difficult to find roles, and she said the key for her was she started playing parts older than herself early on—she mentioned Madame Sousatzka—and so that’s what gave me the idea when I heard about Steel Magnolias that I should play something older and very much against my own natural type. There again was a situation where they weren’t sure I could play that kind of role. So I did go in and audition, to show that I could be my grumpy self. 

Do you ever watch your movies?
I tend not to. I did watch The Goodbye Girl once a couple of years ago, to see if it still held up. And that one really does. 

Yeah, thats a movie I can watch over and over. Why do you think its held up so well?
It’s got to be in the writing. And I think the chemistry that Richard and I had is just palpable on the screen. And we still have it, whenever we see each other. I did Prisoner of Second Avenue with Richard Dreyfuss at the Royal Haymarket in London, in 1999.

Is The Goodbye Girl your personal favorite?
I love Only When I Laugh. You don’t see it very often, I don’t know quite why. I like my work in that movie. All of them were fun and interesting to do, but certainly The Goodbye Girl is by far the most popular. But a lot of people like The Cheap Detective, and Drop Dead Fred has a whole cult following. And now they’re going to remake it.

Photos of Marsha Masons performances, top to bottom: with Richard Dreyfuss circa 1977 in a Goodbye Girl publicity shot; with Keir Dullea (left) and Matt Servitto in I Never Sang for My Father; with Kim Delaney in Lifetime TVs Army Wives; in 2007s A Feminine Ending at Playwrights Horizons, with Gillian Jacobs; with Michael Cerveris in the McCarter Theatre production of Wintertime, which later played in New York at Second Stage; with Phoebe Cates in the 1991 movie Drop Dead Fred. [Photo credits: The Goodbye Girl, The Kobal Collection; I Never Sang for My Father, Suzi Sadler; Army Wives, Fred Norris/Lifetime Television. A Feminine Ending, Joan Marcus]

Want to read the earlier interviews in our Womens History Month series? Click here for actor/director Judith Ivey and here for singer/activist/author Judy Collins.

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