Rebecca DeMornay: My Lunch With Rebecca
Twenty-five years ago, Rebecca DeMornay was experiencing a brief comeback thanks to the thriller, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It had been nearly a decade since the actress became a household name opposite Tom Cruise in Risky Business and the road between those two movies had been treacherous. When the actress met with a Movieline writer for lunch, she let it be known that she did not feel that the magazine treated actors fairly. (One can only guess how she would feel about this site’s “What the Hell Happened?” series or her entry in it.)
The interviewer (who unfortunately was not credited in the archives), is struck both by De Mornay’s appearance and her loneliness.
I can see Rebecca DeMornay as Joan of Arc, a role she would love to play. I can imagine her with the armor up to her neck, her squiggle of a mouth poised on a prayer, her eyes filled with a martyr’s rapture. Of course, in the carmelizing, concept-crunching game of film production, Rebecca’s Joan might be envisioned as a zealous blonde coquette with lily-livered Charles VII weeping into her bosom, asking her, “When do I get my egg back?” That brave, defiant Joan would cry out, “I want to be burned at the stake–in the nude!” What I have in mind, however, is a more self-communing Jeanne d’Arc, the Joan whose loneliness was, after all, so acute she needed not only voices from above but the entire army of France to keep her company.
Like Saint Joan, Rebecca DeMornay has done her best work on the march. When she rode the el with Tom Cruise in Risky Business as the token call girl in a schoolboy fantasy, she shed not only her clothes, but the kindhearted hooker stereotype as well–she was smart, nomadic, manipulative and brooding. Straw-hatted and bound up in longing for her conscripted husband, she took a bus ride with Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful and it turned out to be her most convincing journey. It was trains again, hurtling across lonesome Alaska with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, as she played a sooty-faced railroad mechanic in a jumpsuit in Runaway Train, and she held her own with an ex-champ and a scenery-chewer. In a B-52 with a bellyful of nuclear warheads and Powers Boothe headed for the Soviet Union (By Dawn’s Early Light), she sparkled. As long as Rebecca’s on some kind of lonesome road, she’s able to get her footing. The blonde hair and cinematic body may be the obvious commodities, but in the commerce of anxieties actors trade in for profit, the commodity here is loneliness.
The Chariot, Rebecca’s coffee shop of choice, is a genuine, one bustray dive crammed in the slip of fringe businesses under the aging skirt of the Mutual of Omaha building. I became suspicious of the place when I called to ask for directions and received them in broken English with sizzling sounds really close in the background. Still, when I get there I’m counting on seeing the Oliver Peoples and Harley crowd who follow the frontier chefs from one image-correct hideaway to the next. Instead, the place is almost empty. A guy reading the paper sits alone in one booth. Another guy in an oily suit is laying down the law to a timid-looking couple near the window. At the counter, a few cable TV installers are hunched protectively over their plates; an umbra of discolored paint fans out over the wall above the grill.
All this I take in during a brief surveillance, because Rebecca has chosen the first booth in the place, directly in line with the door. Facing me, her presence hits me like a wet kiss, or the zoom of an over-anxious cinematographer. I’ve never really considered her appearance remarkable, so the bracing quality of her looks has me reduced to you-look-so-much-better-in-person platitudes. The eyes especially. The geometry of film must do something to weaken them into the triangular shape I remember. Here, liberated and splashed with their real-life-award-ribbon blue, they’re large and stirring as they follow me into my seat as though I might be a stringless balloon about to land on a thistle.
“Does it bother you that that thing isn’t turning?” Rebecca is pointing at the sprocket on the tape recorder. Most actors become uncomfortable when they see the thing on, not off. Here is one who not only wants it on, but by her body English, at once elegant, tensed, and offhanded, is internally gearing up for something imminent and unsettling. I manage both to press the button of the tape recorder and order from a menu that’s been aged to the wrinkled flimsiness of a cleaning woman’s bus schedule.
“Some of the chances I took as an actress paid off and some didn’t,” Rebecca starts out, her voice a mixture of grade school teacher with a head cold and therapist with a secretive and very dangerous hobby. “You know, I noticed this magazine, Movieline, has this kind of attitude about actors and their careers–they seem to take an uncharitable standpoint towards actors.” I feel an immediate electrical charge run through the rusting mechanism of my conscience. It’s true, this magazine does forego the benevolent pass/fail system in its assessment of film principals. Then again, look what pass/fail did to the public school system.
“And I think it’s really sad,” Rebecca continues, “because it’s really missing the point. An actor is making choices and taking risks that are very personal as his own art and his own arc and his own body of work of the things that he or she explores. You’re trying to push the boundaries of yourself, trying to understand more and more of human nature. The thing about those so-called mistakes that you make, sometimes that’s where you learn the very most. You don’t learn nearly as much from your successes as you do from your mistakes. This is what should charitably be taken into account. Plus the fact that so-called mistakes or failures are sometimes 5 to 10 to 50 years later called masterpieces.”
While it might’ve been gloriously fulfilling for Orson Welles to go to his grave with a glass of wine and a couple of slices of banana cream pie, knowing that after almost a half a century he had been vindicated with Citizen Kane, the smart money says Rebecca will have 200 candles to blow out before Feds makes the rounds in the repertory houses. I hope Rebecca’s understanding of human nature evolved as a result of making this film, because mine didn’t from seeing it. As a theoretically roisterous, got-the-world-by-the-short-hairs young woman, she came across with about as much verve as John Poindexter under cross-examination. She showed even less (while baring much more) in Roger Vadim’s brain-dead And God Created Woman. By her own admission, “It was not a good movie. The character I played, it’s funny because I’ve gotten more fan mail from women about Robin than any other film. She was very beautiful, feminine, but distorted by the director’s perception of sexuality.”
Still, the word “uncharitable” bleats through my brain as if it were spelled out in mustard across my cheeseburger. Even the most educational and benign criticism of my work puts me in a funk rivaling Macbeth’s, and those impositions take place in private. But before my sympathy can fully take shape, Rebecca has me skiing in the Alps.
“When you don’t take into account what the actor or the artist was trying to do, what the body of work is shaping up to be, it’s like– okay, I grew up in Austria. And every year they have the World Cup downhill ski race in my town. And they have these slopes that sometimes become pure ice. They come down these slopes at 80 miles an hour. It’s incredible. Now, when you’re not a skier, when somebody falls you have a tendency to laugh–you know, ‘what a jerk, what a schmuck!’ But when you’re a skier and you watch the thing, your heart misses a beat because you know how much damage you can do. And you know how hard it was and how good you have to be just to go down, I mean, at all. And you’re not in the mood for jeering. But also, I know that if there’s an accident and someone’s lying in the road bleeding, everyone wants to stand around and look. There is a morbid fascination with failure and death.”
What I’m thinking is that Rebecca should hone her ability to pick out which slopes to ski down in the future and which to avoid. What I say is: “When Michael makes love to you, he sees my face, and when Emma cries out in the night, she calls my name. Your baby gets his milk from me. You’re all dried up, Pearl!”
Rebecca giggles. This is one of her speeches from her latest film, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the script of which I’ve gotten hold of. “Really something, isn’t she? I’ve never played anyone deranged or anyone else quite so evil. There’s something about the way I look or the way people perceive me that plays against that. It was a challenge to play someone that gone. I mean, I went through the script the first time and I was thinking, wow, if I do this part, I’m really bad news to the rest of the people in the script.”
Rebecca plays Peyton, a woman traumatized by the loss of her baby in childbirth and the loss of her gynecologist husband to suicide. Posing as a nursemaid, Peyton sets out to inflict several varieties of mayhem on the people she holds responsible, in what ultimately becomes The Nanny meets Fatal Attraction. “I am the bad seed,” she informs me, “but the reason I like this part is that it’s not like, oh, my God, she’s just this terrible villainess–you see the texture of the reason why. Initially, I didn’t really like the script and I felt, well, who cares, and is it really that well written? But at the same time, I couldn’t forget it. It was really haunting. Look, it’s not a sweet movie.”
One of the more loathesome acts committed by Rebecca’s character Peyton has to do with breast-feeding. Rebecca tells me she used her own breasts in the film, and suddenly my eyeballs feel like they’re on a float, since foolish pride will not allow them to fall below her chin. “You never see the breast,” she explains. “I mean, the very first time I breast feed the baby, you see the breast for maybe a half a second.” Given her tone of voice, Rebecca could just as easily be talking about a UFO or some other entity not attached to her body.
“I had the most amazing, sort of metaphysical experience, breast-feeding,” she continues. “Even though we were simulating the thing, it was interesting because we were using these three triplets–Eric, Jennifer and Ashley. Now, I held all of them, but for some unknown reason, Eric and I had this incredible attraction. I mean, really strong eye contact, not to mention that he looked like me. The two girls of the triplets didn’t look like him and they didn’t particularly like me, and it was really obvious right away. I’ve always had a stronger affinity for girl children, girl babies, and not really known what to do about boys. But this little boy, Eric, gave me an incredible insight into boys. Really, for the first time I understood that this little innocent boy, this is where all men come from, you know? All men were once that, no matter what they’ve become.”
And this is what they’ve become: I have followed my own glandular charge of the light brigade and allowed my eyes to drift south into the region probed by the tiny hands of the triplets. (It is in Saint Joan, after all, that someone says, “In my experience the men who want something for nothing are invariably Christians.”)
“Now, the first scene where I’m breast-feeding, we do one take, and I do it with Eric. I’m smiling, and he’s smiling up at me, and my character’s supposed to feel this incredible release, of like, I’ve had this milk and I have a baby and the baby’s responding to me. So I start to cry tears of joy. It’s a really beautiful moment, and the baby’s smiling. But then we have to go in tighter, or adjust the angle, whatever, and Eric’s not into it anymore. So they bring in Jennifer. And Jennifer hates me. Most of the shot is me, you just see the baby’s head a little. But Jennifer is screaming at me the entire take, staring in my eyes, like bloody murder is on her mind. But I look at her and I’m holding her and suddenly it’s the same thing.”
“That this is where all women come from?”
“No, silly. More like, that joy, bliss, anger, horror–it’s the same thing. It comes full circle … Is that your wedding ring?”
Rebecca motions for my hand. When I oblige, it comes down too willingly, on a fork which does a triple half gainer in the air. I am able to catch it before it does any harm to either of us. She runs a tiny, pious-looking finger (she has the little hands of the Maid of Orleans) over the wedding band.
“Maybe that’s the only way to stay married–if you have a ribbon that thin.”
Rebecca’s only marriage–to screenwriter/director Bruce (Force Majeure) Wagner–lasted 10 months. Now she lives alone, up in the Hollywood Hills. “I like men, I like men very much. A lot of women who are intelligent, feminist, maybe have some kind of ax to grind against men. I’m very much into women–the journey–and at the same time I love men, I really do. And I think that’s really great to know for sure. Even though there’s a rape every nine fucking, you know, seconds.” There are dates–in this business you can’t help meeting people, she observes–but nothing serious. And if you’re looking for her bittersweet smile at the usual Hollywood sparkling waterholes, forget it. DeMornay sightings are as rare as Cesar Romero without a tuxedo. “That’s what Bruce said to me. He said, you know, I’ve lived in this town my entire life. And I’ve gone to a number of parties and a number of things and there probably isn’t anyone who I haven’t seen. But I never saw you. Ever. Anywhere.”
Rebecca considers a few good friends to be the closest thing she’s got to a family. She rhapsodizes over a longstanding relationship with Harry Dean Stanton. “The very first thing I did was as an apprentice in a Francis Ford Coppola movie–I was on the set every day and was paid a small salary. Harry Dean Stanton was in the film and we became very good friends and he helped me immensely–he really championed me. Harry Dean’s got the most incredible soul.” There was a two-and-a-half year romance some time ago with Tom Cruise. (“Stand up,” she says to me when Tom’s name comes up. I do. “He’s exactly your height.” I am practically eye-to-eye with Michael J. Fox.)
Although she claims not to have seen him for almost five years, Rebecca has kind words for her Risky Business co-star:
“I don’t know how he got that way, but he has an incredible, innate sense of ethics that was unassailable, true, not hokey–very unusual in a young guy. Tom and I would sit around and read certain scripts and plays together. I saw him do some things in our living room that I’ve never seen him do on screen, ever. Acting. I hope he takes a chance, to sort of detour a little from his present persona to do the kinds of things he had in him that I saw.”
We have the whole Chariot to ourselves now. The fry cook has relinquished his spatula and is idly stirring a cup of coffee. I learn that Rebecca’s mother died five years ago. There is a brother somewhere. And, of course, there’s her father, Wally George, master of ceremonies of one of America’s more unconscionable examples of talk show television. If David Cronenberg could reanimate Joe McCarthy, this is how he might turn out–Wally George in his Beatle haircut, marshaling a studio audience of Orange County right-wingers through an orgy of flag-waving, lancing civil rights and human decency like a pair of cocktail onions.
“My mother is alive,” says Rebecca. “My mother’s body has been cremated but she’s very much alive inside of me. But hearing about Wally George is like hearing about a stranger. I didn’t grow up with him– he’s my biological father, but to be a father, well, it’s a difficult role to really hang in there and be there when your kids need you. And, well, my dad didn’t do it at all. There was no real connection between us. There became an artificial one because we both ended up working in this town.”
The charges against Joan of Arc ranged from a dozen counts of witchcraft and blasphemy to cutting her hair short and wearing men’s clothing. Loneliness sometimes just leads to behavior that invites judgment. If acting no longer appealed to her, Rebecca would choose to write. “Believe it or not, I’m writing a novel. I really enjoy writing and the older I get the more I can tolerate the long stretches of being alone with writing. Last year, before I worked on Backdraft, I didn’t work as an actress for six months and I put a lot of work on the computer. But the more acting I do, the less time it gives me to write.” She pauses. “Look, your life is your work, your hardest work. Your work-work, your vocation, plays a big part. Your love life too, obviously. But your life is your real work of art, as far as I’m concerned.”
I tell Rebecca that my work-work this afternoon has me going to a movie set. She commiserates: “Movies are incredibly boring to make. You’re holed up in your trailer for eight hours sometimes and usually you have this incredible, emotional scene left that you’re revving up for. You’re keeping yourself aroused and it’s hard, but whatever you do, you hang on because you don’t want to blow it in your trailer. It’s kind of like–it’s kind of like making love, you know?”
The thing I notice about La Brea Avenue, as we’re leaving the vinyl warmth of The Chariot, is that no matter how much traffic it has, it still manages to look bleak and panoramically barren. But, as a matter of fact, there is a lot of traffic, and it reminds me of what a friend told me when I said I was going to interview Rebecca.
“You know,” I tell her, “a friend of mine told me that the thing I should do to make this interview more interesting than the usual celebrity interview was to see if you could stop traffic.”
Rebecca thinks this is funny. “So why didn’t you ask me?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure you could do it.”
She laughs again. “Will you come visit me in the hospital if I can’t?”
And then she strides right out into the middle of La Brea, and not in a crosswalk. And, by God, she stops traffic. Not only that, these drivers are happy about it. She pauses and turns to smile at me. Then, when she gets to the other side, she yells, “There’s my car,” and points. There are two cars where she is motioning. One is that trophy of motoring kitsch, the Excalibur, and the other’s an old Mustang like the one Steve McQueen drives in Bullitt. I know before she gets to it that hers is the Mustang. Bullitt had to be one of the loneliest men to ever sleep with Jacqueline Bisset and then borrow her car.