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Eva Marie Saint Refuses to Look Back

By Arthur Spiegelman

Veteran actress Eva Marie Saint says the one thing she will not do is write her memoirs.

After all, she says she has more fun making things up about people who don't exist than writing about "me, me, me."

At age 81, Saint has more than made her mark on the movies. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for her first film outing as the young woman who befriends a tortured Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront" and starred afterward in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and such high-minded potboilers as Otto Preminger's "Exodus."

Her co-stars and directors are a who's who of Hollywood history: Brando, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, Warren Beatty, Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer, Fred Zinneman and Elia Kazan.

And now she has made a new film with one of Germany's most distinguished directors, Wim Wenders, one that she would rather talk about than answer such questions as: "What was Brando like?," which she says is always the first thing she is asked.

Firmly, Saint says Brando was fine, a genius, an unbelievable actor and then she carefully steers the conversation to where she wants it to start -- the role she has in Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking," the movie where she gets to create an endearing character out of whole cloth.

It's a film about a 60-year-old Western movie actor who flees the set one day in a bid to run away from his life. He suddenly visits the mother he has not seen in 30 years and discovers the son and daughter he didn't know he had.

Written by and starring playwright/actor Sam Shepard as actor Howard Spence and filmed in Wenders' spare style, the movie contrasts the mythical West of cowboy heroes on horseback with the real West's empty streets, drab bars and ubiquitous casinos filled with one-armed bandits.

Saint plays a character called "Howard's mother," but that is where the fun begins, where she makes up things about people who don't exist.


The first thing she says she did was give "Howard's mother" the first name of Lola and then she gave Lola a past life so that her acting would have a person to draw on. Since the movie was filmed in Elko, Nevada, Saint bought all of Lola's clothing locally.

"The mother fascinated me. I have a son so I know that motherly love is forever, but she is not a doting mother. She had a child and she had a husband and she had to choose between the two. She allied herself with the father and made a life for herself. Now her son comes back and the first thing she does is take him to the graveyard to see his father and the last thing she does is give him the keys to his father's car."

"She is pushing him to take some responsibility," she said, adding, "The mother didn't sit down and try to solve his problem. She wasn't playing the role of mother as therapist. What do you do if you have a 60-year-old son who misbehaves?"

Of course none of the above is in the script but Saint is a complete actor. The song she sings in the film is one she wrote and she personally scrambles the eggs she cooks for Howard.

She is willing to do everything herself except write her memoirs. "The most depressing thing is to go back and say me, me and me. I wake up and keep moving, that's what my mother said to do."

It was also the advise she received from her mentor, silent film star Lillian Gish. "My first play was with Lillian Gish and she didn't like to talk about the old days. She said she never liked to go back. She liked to think about today and tomorrow."

Today for Saint is helping to promote Wenders' film which is currently playing in some U.S. cities. Tomorrow for her will be promoting "Superman Returns" a blockbuster action film set to open next summer in which she plays Superman's adopted mother. She is sworn to secrecy about the film's plot so she cannot reveal the things she made up for that role.

Using the Glove

To compensate, she does agree to discuss Brando and the making of "On the Waterfront." "I never worked with a director like Elia Kazan before. He understood actors like no one else. He knew more about me than I did.

"And he had us rehearse and rehearse scenes. During one rehearsal, I dropped a glove and Brando picked it up and held it and did a sexy thing with it. Gadge (Kazan's nickname) saw that and said let's keep that in the movie because it bound my character to Brando's Terry Malloy.

"And that was the genius of Brando -- any other actor would have handed the glove back to me. He knew he could use it. He was serious and funny and during the movie he always stayed in character."

You might say he invented the character. Much the way Eva Marie Saint works.

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