Can a Broadway actress find success in film? My gosh!
October 21, 1985
BY DON SHEWEY
Photo Editor Karin Silverstein
You can hear them screaming as soon as you get off the elevator, the crash‑and‑tinkle of incipient domestic violence, then a pause followed by some unmistakably lewd his‑and‑hers giggling. You ring minutes before the actress comes to the door, slightly breathless and tugging her halter top down a little too late to hide a peekaboo nipple. "Come on in and help yourself," she says, pointing to a coffee table littered with beer cans, an open bottle of Jack Daniel's and a variety of recreational drugs. A hairy‑chested lunk appears from the bathroom, tucking in his shirt. After a lingering farewell kiss and some furious whispering, she slams the door, leans against it and gazes meaningfully. "Now, I'm ready for you."
That's the scenario you might imagine for an interview with Judith Ivey if she were anything like the parts she plays. Both as a New York stage actress and as a budding movie star, she has earned her stripes by playing a succession of trashy‑talking lusty ladies. As Josie in the Broadway play Steaming, her compulsive sexual boasting while lounging poolside in the altogether won Ivey her first Tony Award, in 1983. Her second Tony came last year for David Rabe's Hurlyburly, in which her go‑go dancing Valley Girl character stole the show from such heavy‑duty co‑stars as William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Sigourney Weaver and Harvey Keitel, with lines like, "I'm a normal person ‑ I need my drugs."
In the first of several cameo movie roles, Ivey slept with both Harry and Son, snaring a seduction scene with Paul Newman after kissing Robby Benson. In her latest picture, Compromising Positions, she plays a suburban slut, a married woman who justifies working her way through the local police force with an explanation that goes something like, "I'm a normal person ‑ I need my sex."
Then there's NBC's two‑part remake of The Long Hot Summer, in which Ivey undergoes a shocking role reversal. She plays a virginal schoolteacher, and she doesn't utter the F‑word even once. Nevertheless, she does end up rolling in the hay with hunky Don Johnson ‑ they play the parts Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had in the 1958 movie version ‑ thereby keeping at least a slim hold on her cherished reputation as a liberated comic wench, a cross between Eve Arden and Germaine Green. "It was a nice switch to move into playing brassy women," she says, "because I'd been the ingénue for as long as I could stand it."
Ivey lives with her dog, Chloe, in a plush Chelsea apartment, decorated with Tony Awards and other such spoils of long-awaited victory.
The funny thing is, the offstage Judith Ivey is more like an ingénue ‑ a simple, down‑home girl ‑ than the horny hussies she's been playing lately. She meets you at the door of her tiny, plushly decorated Chelsea apartment wearing enormous pale‑pink‑framed glasses, shorts and a white blouse. On her walls and shelves, the spoils of victory ‑ her Tonys, her Drama Desk Awards, her Al Hirschfeld portrait ‑are nestled discreetly among family photographs and sentimental knickknacks.
She introduces you to her dog and her cat and offers you a club soda, so sweet and unflappable that you'd never guess she'd spent the previous day doing twenty‑six eight‑minute TV interviews in a row to promote Compromising Positions, or that she'd contracted food poisoning the night before from eating some bad chicken liver. Her idea of an epithet is "Gosh" or "Wow" or "Jeemineez. " Although she's had plenty of boyfriends ‑ mostly actors, including co‑stars Bill Hurt and Steve Martin ‑ she's apparently not seeing anyone right now: there are no jockey shorts hastily kicked under the sofa, no hickeys on her neck. Why, if you'd never seen her work, you might get the idea that she's a rather dull girl.
It probably has to do with her upbringing. Born in El Paso, she grew up in West Texas. "Oil, sand and tumbleweeds ‑ that's all that I can remember. I learned to blow my nose before I was potty‑trained, because I was so allergic to the sand." Her parents, Nathan and Dorothy, were both academics. Her father's career took the family from Odessa to Michigan ‑ where cruel Yankee children laughed at Judy Lee Ivey's hick accent, which she quickly learned to disguise ‑then to Colorado, back to Michigan and finally to Illinois. Her mother taught English, Latin and journalism in high school ‑ in fact, Judy had her for English in ninth grade and eleventh grade. "We got along. I got A's," she says, grinning.
Her folks would have liked it if she'd gotten a teaching degree ‑ "something to fall back on, as they say." But when Ivey went off to Illinois State University in Normal, she became one of the stars of the drama department ‑ "the star ingénue," she says with a wicked Janis Joplin laugh ‑and then she was hooked.
However, there was a moment of doubt. When she graduated from college and moved to Chicago, she spent a year unemployed. "I did temporary secretarial work, answered phones in a theater office, and I thought, 'My gosh, if I can't even get them to look at me for a TV commercial, maybe I've made a mistake.' So I decided to take the LSATs," Ivey recalls. "This was in 1973, and they were encouraging women to go to law school. But when I took the test, I realized I had no business there. I couldn't even understand the questions! I literally went through and just started marking, and I thought, Well, there went fifty bucks…"
Luckily, she landed a couple of TV commercials (Gerber baby food, StaPuf fabric softener) that were lucrative enough to subsidize her non‑paying acting roles for several years. She was also married to an English professor (they've long since divorced) whose salary kept her afloat until she started to get regular work at the better theaters in Chicago.
At the beginning, of course, it was ingénue city. "What does an ingénue do? She just stands there and lets the plot revolve around her," Ivey moans. "I've never met an ingénue in my life, have you?" Tired of being considered just a pretty young blonde and losing good roles to New York City actresses, Ivey eventually migrated east, making her Broadway début in Bedroom Farce, by Alan Ayckbourn, the British Neil Simon. But after doing Piaf and Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi, two plays by English playwright Pam Gems, along with some Shakespeare and Noel Coward in summer stock, she discovered that she wasn't being invited to some auditions because casting directors thought she was British. Pigeonholed again!
Directors and casting agents, she says, "don't seem to have their own imaginations. Whatever you're doing is what they think you do," Ivey philosophizes. "After I took my clothes off in Steaming, I got sent every script where you take your clothes off. I wanted to say, 'Look, it's not that hard to do. There are a few other actresses who could handle it.' "Ivey had played a number of flashy floozies Off Broadway ‑ most notably Melanie in Deborah Eisenberg's hilarious Pastorale, a character who decorated her Christmas tree with cigarette butts and colorful underwear ‑ but Josie in Steaming was by far her splashiest role. That performance was directly responsible for her being hired by Paul Newman for Harry and Son, by Steve Martin for The Lonely Guy and by Gene Wilder for The Woman in Red.
Compared to the increasingly meaty roles Ivey had been playing onstage, her first few movie parts were pretty skimpy, little more than walk-ons, but that doesn't bother her. "It's dues‑paying," she says. "Just because you can act on a stage doesn't mean you can act in a movie, and vice versa. So it seems right that you'd have to do a little apprentice work." Besides, much of her stage work had been in ensemble pieces, which instilled a there‑are‑no‑small‑parts‑only‑small-actors mentality. Indeed, Ivey is part of a whole crowd of excellent young stage actors (the entire cast of The Big Chill, for instance) who have made their way to stardom through ensemble acting. What she does find frustrating, though, is that movie people pay so little attention to the theater.
"On my last day of shooting for Long Hot Summer, this cameraman said, 'So how was your first film experience?' I said, 'It was great. That was 1979. Why are you interested?' If they haven't heard of you before, they assume you haven't done anything, because they don't keep up with theater." Even a remarkable accomplishment like winning two Tony Awards in three years doesn't necessarily penetrate the consciousness of Hollywood. "Both times I won, I was shooting something in L.A., so I flew directly back to the set, and everyone was thrilled to death, but I still had to explain to certain people what a Tony was."
She sighs. "I look forward to the day when I don't have to read my resume to people all the time." How do you do, I'm Judith Steaming Hurlyburly Ivey? "Exactly. And carry my Tonys with me. With a sign saying, 'This is a Tony.'"