Cloris Leachman has a face made for black-and-white film, so it's entirely appropriate that that's where her best performances reside-in her astonishing Academy Award-winning turn in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and, at quite the other end of the spectrum, in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Fine as bone china, delicate yet imperious, vulnerable but proud-the play of light and shadow afforded by black-and-white cinematography creates entire emotional universes across her chiseled physiognomy. Anyone can be blessed with terrific bone structure, but knowing how to light the cathedral of one's face from within requires a remarkable degree of sensitivity and subtle technique.
Consider one of her first scenes in Picture Show: Leachman's lonely, neglected, hypochondriac housewife, Rose Popper, has invited shy high-schooler Timothy Bottoms in for a soda. Framed in a circle of light, like a 1950s Texas version of a Renaissance Madonna, Leachman moves seamlessly from nervous hostess to anguished, thwarted woman, and then just as quickly reverts to apology. "I can't seem to do anything without crying about it," she explains with an uncertain laugh, and we understand completely that this is a woman used to turning her pain into a joke before the world beats her to it.
If she had done nothing else but this movie, Leachman's place in film history should be assured. Fortunately, we also know her comedic chops are unmatched. (She shows some of this in the decidedly dour Picture Show; as Rose does comic battle with her slip prior to her first tete-a-tete with Bottoms, she flashes a very Phyllis Lindstrom-like glare at her lover, daring him to laugh at her.) But honestly, can anyone think of Leachman without hearing Frau Bl¸cher's hysterically funny, guttural confession in Young Frankenstein: "He vas my... boyfriend!" And of course, thanks to Nick at Nite, her Phyllis lives on as a cultural artifact-a more-enlightened Gladys Kravitz for the swinging '70s.
I have another, more personal, reason for loving Cloris Leachman. Way back in high school, my family made a rare trip-all six of us together-to the theatre to see Leachman in George Furth's Twigs. Leachman, playing a trio of daughters and their cantankerous mother, delivered a tour de force, as she showed the links within a family of women who can't entirely escape each other. This was a show tailor-made for a star turn, but Leachman made it work by performing that most essential, but most unattempted, task of the actor-listening to her stage-mates. Thanks to Leachman, my two sisters and my mother and I began noticing at dinner that night just how many mannerisms we have in common.
I keep thinking that there should be more of her work for us to draw upon, that Leachman should be the female equivalent of Robert Duvall. I of course don't know why she isn't-perhaps it's her own choice (though I'm thrilled that she will be in Wes Craven's 50 Violins this fall). But I suspect that part of the answer lies precisely in her versatility, and the echoes of the grand ladies of film residing in her instrument and her bearing. Our times favor obvious, puffy, canned, and histrionic performances over subtlety. Whenever I see Leachman, I'm reminded of how much the poorer we are for that.