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Interview : Diana Douglas

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Caffeinated Clint
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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

In her own heyday, Diana Douglas was a major Hollywood star. Married to Kirk, she is mother to two of his children, including Michael, who persuaded his mother to return to the screen as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family headed by a post-stroke Kirk. These two exes have remained friends since the demise of their marriage and she was more than happy to act with her ex-husband opposite son Michael and grandson Cameron. She spoke to PAUL FISCHER

What did you feel was right about working together now
Well, I guess because we were offered the parts. But I think that it was useful even though it had been a long time since we had been married to each other. Actors are always looking for things in sense memory to help and I felt that we had a lot to go on.

Where are you from?
Bermuda originally and brought up in England.

What brought you to the states?
I came to the states in 1939 just after World War I.

How do you handle communication in your family?
We communicate pretty well actually. We’re all fairly open with each other. I don’t think I was very much a hands on type of mom. When Doug and I were divorced, the kids were five and two and I moved to New York. We lived in an apartment for six years then. And I remarried Bill Darrod who was a producer on Broadway, and he had a very good relationship with my sons. Then when we moved out here too, we were friendly both with Kirk and Anne. So, it’s worked out quite well.

How could you maintain such a friendship?
Well, I’ve always enjoyed his sense of humour, even when I was angriest at him. He could always make me laugh somehow which annoyed the hell out of me. But then I think we both decided too when the time of divorce came that we had to maintain a certain amount of civility because of the children. And I think- – I know Michael has said since being an adult that he was always very grateful that we never did badmouth each other. Sometimes we probably wanted to. And also, I think that after he got married to Anne, who made it very much easier, because she and I cooperated very much in terms of bed times and what they could watch on television and that kind of thing.

Did you encourage Michael to be an actor?
Did I encourage him? No. I didn’t encourage him or discourage him. He said that he did not want to be an actor when he was in prep school for instance. They had a very, very good drama club. And he didn’t want to join the wall. He said he wouldn’t have anything to do with that. But, it wasn’t until he was in college that Michael admitted to being interested and turned out to be very good at it.

Does Michael have any of Kirk’s traits?
I think the great deal of drive, ambition, self discipline, concentration and all those things that are very important for an actor.

Did you guys have Passovers like the one we see in the film?
No, we didn’t. When Kirk and I were married, we were married by a Navy chaplain first in an Episcopal church and then we were married by a rabbi. But at that time, neither of us was particularly religious and we decided when the babies were on the way to bring them up just in the golden rule, not in any formal religion. As Kirk has gotten older, he’s turned more to his religion, he’s become more religious. I can’t say that I have.

Were they real family photos in the beginning of the film?
Oh, yeah. They all are. I think there’s one of Kirk and me cutting the wedding cake and then there’s one of our dancing together. When they asked me if I could use them, I said okay, as long as I get them back.

Was it fun looking through those photos?
Yeah, it was.

Did dancing together in the film rekindle old memories?
Yes. That’s the thing an actor looks for is the sense memories that are running through it. I remember working on a picture with Luther Adler many years ago, House of Strangers, and this was just about the time when Kirk and I were divorcing. It was a rather difficult time and John Mankiwicz who was the director had told everybody I was going through a difficult time and everybody’s being terribly careful and terribly tactful. It was all kind of embarrassing and Luther, it was wonderful, Luther who was playing my husband, said come on, kid. Come out for lunch. How old are you, kid? I said 26. He said, 26, my God, I’m 46. I can’t remember what it must feel like, what you must be going through. He started carrying on like this. And he said it must be terrible. And I said well, you know, it’s not the greatest time. And he said, don’t’ you realize what you have now? It’s actor’s gold. What do you mean? He said, this pain that you’re going through, he said you should really relish it. You should walk down lonely streets, look into lighted windows and remember what it’s all like because you’re going to need it when you get older and you’re going to use it as an actor. I started to laugh and I said my God, that’s the best advice I’ve heard from everybody. It was wonderful.

What fashion do you remember of the ‘40s and ‘50s?
One who I remember very, very fondly was Katherine Hepburn. She came to see me when I was doing Major Barbara in the theatre. She recommended me to Phillip Barry for [second threshold???] in a play that she’d been offered and she thought was too old for her. She was fantastic, a wonderfully generous actor.

What about her fashion sense?
She had a very distinctive, a very young fashion sense and she was very distinctive, yes.

Does this rekindle your desire to act?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve been involved just in writing these last four years. But, yeah.

How would you describe your relationship with Catherine Zeta Jones?
Friends, I think. Actually, I gave her something for Christmas that our next door neighbour in Westport was Audrey Wood. It was a wonderful- – she was Tennessee Williams’ literary agent. She was a wonderful woman. And she gave me a broach when I was 33 which is just the age Catherine is now. And I was trying to juggle the thing of a career and children and a new marriage and all that and living in the country. And she gave me this broach, old Mexican broach showing two women holding up the world. And she said just remember this, we women hold up the world. So, this last Christmas, I gave this to Catherine. I said you’re 33, you’re doing the same thing and I think it should be handed on to you.

Has her and Michael’s dynamic changed since she won an Oscar too?
Well, I saw her the day after she won the Oscar. We drank some champagne. Both of them were so elated and so exhausted at the same time. I didn’t stay long. I just dropped stuff off.

Did you see Chicago?
Oh, yeah. But actually, we had seen it two Christmases ago. We saw the clip of her doing All That Jazz and that was the only part that had been shot at that time and oh, my God, wow. It ran about 15 minutes I guess, just on her doing that. I knew right there and then there was something quite spectacular.

Were you a support system for Kirk after the stroke?
No, I wasn’t part of that. No, Anne got him a very good speech therapist and he worked very hard with the speech therapist. He’s been amazing that he’s maintained his sense of humour and everything about it all. When he came to my 75th birthday, Michael threw me a party at Spago and Kirk and Anne were there. An old friend of ours, Walter Sausens who’s known us since we were all in our 20s. Kirk started to say something and Walter said what? Kirk said, don’t’ you understand English. All of us just cracked up.

Where does he get his sense of humour from?
I have no idea. His father certainly wasn’t a very funny fellow. His mother’s very sweet but I don’t remember as—it’s a wonderful God given wild sense of humour.

Where in New Jersey did you live?
We were staying at my sister’s house. This was when Kirk was just getting out of the Navy and we didn’t have anywhere to go. She was married to Seward Johnson of the Johnson and Johnson family. She had moved down to the Gardner’s Cottage before the war and she said to Kirk and me, why don’t we open up a wing of the big house which had been abandoned at that time. The nursery wing and stay there until the baby was born. So, we did and we were grateful for it too because we were rather broke.

What city?
New Brunswick. We lived the first year of his life; we had an apartment in Greenwich Village. We lived there. I took Michael down to Bermuda for his first birthday. It was my mother and around that time, Kirk got the call to come out here.

Did Michael affect your acting career?
Yeah, well there were certain things you could do and certain things you couldn’t. I mean, Miss Hepburn for instance wanted me to go on the road with her when she did As You Like It. And I couldn’t do that, couldn’t go on the road, so turned that down. When the kids were small though, I was able to go to India and do a film there. There were some things you could do and some things you couldn’t. Just had to juggle.

How would you define your acting career? Was it what you expected?
Um, pretty much I guess. I don’t know, it was interesting though. Just when I was in rehearsal for a play that I had starred in actually, Dori Sherry wrote and directed. And my husband and I were having lunch one day and the fortune teller came by and she read my fortune. She said you are always going to be surrounded by famous people but you won’t be famous yourself. And my husband started to crack up because I had just starred on Broadway. Well, the play closed in three weeks and that was that.

How is your son as a boss?
As a boss, well, he was incredible. He was on top of everything. I was watching him on set checking out the lights and checking out the sound, checking out the costumes and everything, bing bing bing bing, one after another. And then immediately jumping right back into character again as soon as the acting part would come around. He’s a very, very conscientious producer.

Would you work with him again?
Oh, sure. Any time.

What are your family traditions?
In my family, I was brought up in the church of England and we went to church as a matter of duty. I left Bermuda actually when I was about six and a half because my father had been called to the colonial bar and was attorney general in Bermuda. He’d then been called to the English bar. He was about 50 when I was born. He decided to take the family over, my sister and myself, the others stayed in Bermuda, to England. So, I went to day school in London for a year and then for eight years I went to boarding school. So, I really wasn’t around much for a lot of the family traditions.

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