A great actress, ubiquitous in the films released when I was growing up. She made a huge impression on me in The Sting, her slope-shouldered profile, her weary walk, her bright lips, and her eyes that were tender and yet suggested she’d seen it all. I was a kid when I first saw The Sting (my parents let us stay up late to see it), and it remains a favorite. But there are so many other fascinating performances. She’s crazy in Scarecrow, that awesome road movie with Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, which literally could not be made in any other era but the 1970s. Thank God it exists. She always seemed on the edge of something, the edge of cracking up, the edge of laughing hysterically. She’s on the run from something. Shadows are in her eyes. She drinks to forget, she fucks to forget. Sometimes, in her roles, life has beaten her. Other times, she’s still got some fight in her. She was never a typical leading lady, but again, in the 1970s, “typical” was not what was wanted. Brennan was also capable of outrageous comedy, and some of her almost growling sneering asides in Private Benjamin serve to highlight Goldie Hawn’s incredible idiocy. “I joined the other Army …” Hawn says dead-serious to Brennan, whose fascinating face lights up in a terrifying shark’s smile, ravenous and truly delighted that someone could be so stupid in her presence. She’s licking her chops, this is going to be fun! This is turning out to be a wonderful day!
You look at her and just know this woman has seen a lot, done a lot, has been through it.
But one of the roles I thought of when I heard the sad news of her passing is her guest spot on thirtysomething, in one episode called “Sifting the Ashes” in 1991. She was nominated for an Emmy for it. She appears as Elliot Weston’s mother in only one episode, and I haven’t timed it, but her screentime probably amounts to about 10 minutes. She nails it to the freakin’ wall. An entire human being is present in her characterization, with a whole LIFE behind her, a history, backstory, sins, flaws, pain, and also a pained and quiet recovery from alcholism. All of that is there, in her every gesture, her every look, the way her hand moves out in alarm when Elliot yells at the priest in the living room. She could not be more shocked, she could not be more hurt in that moment. Her attempt to help her son (who has so much anger at the many many years when she was a falling-down drunk) is not appreciated, and the pain she feels is nearly unbearable and certainly nothing she can even attempt to express. She cannot make the past right. No one can. The past is the past. Yet it must be acknowledged, you must apologize, you have to do your best to make things right. But for this woman that is not so easy. Her recovery has been a private process. She has the help of the Catholic church and a priest who is her friend and mentor. But she has shut out her son and his family, perhaps because all along she was a bit selfish. The drinking just made her more so. Who knows. There are more questions than answers in Eileen Brennan’s magnificent performance, and that is the best kind of acting there is.
Timothy Busfield, as Elliot, seems almost in awe of her, which works well in the situation. He is estranged from his mother. His wife is dying from cancer and his mother hasn’t even called or reached out. Great, great, you’re not drinking anymore, but you still aren’t making it up to me, you still aren’t being a mother to me. None of this is said until the final confrontation. Up until then, their interactions are surrounded by yawning gigantic silences. Eileen Brennan cooks a pot roast, and she is almost prim in her gestures, which I can see now in my mind’s eye. She sits at the end of the table, delicately cutting her meat, taking a delicate sip of water, all as her grieving son sits at the other end, and nobody can talk about anything. Eileen Brennan got the script for this role, which is, of course, necessarily spare – it’s a one-hour episode – and filled in the blanks with EVERYTHING. I still remember my eyes filling with tears as I watched her delicately and prissily cut her meat. I ached for her. I wanted son and mother to reconcile. I wanted son to forgive mother. I wanted mother to forgive herself.
I wasn’t given any satisfaction. Instead, I was forced to watch them chew on their pot roast in her immaculate and strangely impersonal home, and listen to those huge silences as they didn’t speak to one another, and my heart broke.
Eileen Brennan always made my heart break, even when she played characters who were beyond such concerns, who wouldn’t register pity if it was sitting right on top of her. She’s seen it all, please, don’t worry about her, that’s what life hands you, what are you crying about? Have a drink, relax.
She never made the mistake of crying for herself. Actresses often make that mistake, and of course you’re applauded for that kind of emoting, so it makes sense why it’s such a cliche. But those who are beyond those types of tears, those who wouldn’t know how to cry for themselves if they tried (Gena Rowlands is in that company) are the real tragediennes of the artform.
A real tragedienne can make you weep from the quiet specific way she cuts a piece of meat lying on her china plate.
I’ll miss her. She was a superb actress.