Stockard Channing: Great Dame
By any reasonable standard, Stockard Channing has had a pretty amazing career. In terms of movies, she’s always going to be best-known for playing Rizzo in Grease, but she was also nominated for an Oscar for Six Degrees of Separation. Where Channing has really shone is on stage and television. She has racked up an impressive list of Emmy and Tony nominations. This profile comes from the January 1998 issue of Movieline magazine. This was just before Channing started playing the first lady on The West Wing.
Tough, funny, smart and smart-mouthed dames are always in short supply in the movies, so I jumped at the chance to interview Stockard Channing, a stellar member of the elite club of actresses who can breathe life into these parts–think Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame and Shirley MacLaine. Each of Channing’s dames is completely unlike the others; they range from the daffy heiress in The Fortune to the tough high schooler in Grease to the addled society matron in Six Degrees of Separation to her latest turn, the cop in the untitled Robert Benton film (formerly called The Magic Hour). Since earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Six Degrees, Channing’s feature career has been in high gear–Smoke, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Up I Close & Personal, Moll Flanders and The First Wives Club–prompting one to agree with Oscar Hammerstein on the subject of dames: there’s nothing like ’em.
EDWARD MARGULIES: You must be sick of people asking you about Grease.
STOCKARD CHANNING: Oh,Grease is the Energizer Bunny. There’s just no getting away from it. I can’t complain. I mean, they still ask Johnny Travolta about it, so it’s unavoidable.
Q: What were you doing in that unbilled, three-second cameo at the beginning of The First Wives Club?
A: I was earning a nice chunk of money.
Q: You should have played one of the other three first wives.
A: They didn’t offer it to me, [but] I wish I could tell you the size of my paycheck so no one would feel sorry for me.
Q: Does this sound familiar: “Anytime I’ve ever done anything just for money, I’ve been bad in it, really bad”? Is that really true?
A: I’d say so, yeah. I’d prefer not to name [the films]. There’s only two … or three.
Q: Your agent once told The New York Times that you should be playing the same roles as Barbara Hershey, Susan Sarandon and Christine Lahti, but she couldn’t get them for you. Is she still your agent?
A: Open mouth, insert foot! [Laughing] Yes, she is. There’s no way that all of us who are qualified can play the same part simultaneously. Everybody’s turn comes. Mine came when I got to do my stage character in Six Degrees of Separation in the film. A lot of other people wanted that role.
Q: Do you have any favorite roles?
A: I suppose one would be The Fortune. It was this life-changing project for me–suddenly starring opposite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, and being directed by Mike Nichols. Despite the bad rap it got, I think The Fortune is a small gem–and I’m good in it.
Q: How did the Robert Benton film come to you?
A: They called me up and offered it to me. I read the script and thought, “That’s a movie I want to see.”
Q: You play a cop, the ex-lover of Paul Newman. What was it like working with him?
A: He’s the warmest guy, everything you hope someone could be. Anyone on that movie would say the same thing.
Q: Many people don’t realize you had a privileged upbringing in New York’s Upper East Side and attended Radcliffe. What does having a good education mean to you?
A: It means you can read in your trailer, waiting for the next setup.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels. But I just finished The Streetbird by Janwillem Van de Wetering.
Q: Do you get recognized much?
A: I’d say I’m occasionally famous. You never know when it’s going to happen, though, so it’s best to keep your mouth shut and your powder dry.
Q: Hasn’t your relationship with cinematographer Daniel Gillham lasted longer than any of your marriages?
Q: So, having been married and divorced four times, what would you say you’ve learned about marriage?
A: Don’t marry everyone you fall in love with.
Q: Any advice on life in general?
A: There are two mottoes I like, from two of the schools I attended: Function in Disaster and Finish in Style.
Q: Do you keep a diary or journal?
A: Yes, I do. I’m fascinated to know, say, what I was doing five or ten years ago on this very day. But when I look to see, I find that the pages are in some sort of cryptic shorthand. They’re incomprehensible.
Q: Then it doesn’t sound like you’ll be using your diary for the basis of a juicy tell-all book later.
A: Oh, those tell-alls are either boring or libelous. The interesting poop, you can’t say a word about. Not one word.
Q: Speaking of writing, if one day you came across a showbiz book about the greatest actors and actresses, and you found you were listed in it–
A: If I wasn’t, I’d throw the book across the room!
Q: –what would you like the entry next to your name to say?
A: I’d like it to be long and comprehensive. Beautifully researched. Do it right or don’t bother to do it at all. This reminds me, the other day on the set [of the cable TV movie An Unexpected Life], someone showed me a place on the Internet that had some chat about me. It said that I had never “made it” in Hollywood. I thought, “Jesus Christ, what do they want from me?”
Edward Margulies is one of the executive editors at Movieline.