R.I.P. Anne Meara

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara

If you look at Anne Meara’s IMDB page, you will see that unlike other elderly actors (especially actresses), there is no “gap” in her career. There are no “off” years. She had steady reliable gigs, a couple a year, many recurring roles in successful television shows, interspersed with movie roles and theatre, starting in the mid-1950s up until last year (her last credit listed was 2014). When she showed up in something, you remembered. Like all great character actresses and comedians, she could do anything. She often played harried busybody mothers, but she could twist that type to be amusing or monstrous, depending on the material. I think the first thing I saw her in was Fame when I was a kid. She made an impression. She played Mary, Samantha’s mother-in-law in Sex and the City. The two characters did not have a cozy relationship, a good relationship, and the final arc for Mary in the final season was a descent into dementia. Two scenes stand out: Mary has come to live with Samantha and her son. It is not going well, but Samantha realizes that this is her family now, Mary is ill, family has to take care of one another. And the scene I remember is Mary, naked in the bathtub, eyes closed, enjoying the sensation of Samantha washing her back. Extremely vulnerable work from Meara. And then there was one scene when Mary gets lost in the streets and Samantha finds her eating a piece of pizza out of a trash can. “It tastes like garbage,” Mary says, confused, almost irritated, she doesn’t understand why a nice piece of pizza tastes like garbage. It was heartbreaking.

Mary was a small character part in a juggernaut of a show, but Meara brought a stature to that arc, a scope, as well as a fearlessness that helped the series as a whole. She always did that. Whatever she was in, she helped elevate. She was always part of an ensemble, she always fit herself in to whatever story was being told, and she did so brilliantly.

Married for 60 years to Jerry Stiller. I love that picture of the two of them above. Mother to Ben Stiller. You can read more about her career in the New York Times obituary.

She always worked. It is my favorite kind of career.

Rest in peace.

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6 Responses to R.I.P. Anne Meara

  1. Desirae says:

    Oh man, Miranda chasing after Mary through the streets of New York when she’s lost her is just excellent work by both actors. So real and scary. I always felt Miranda was the most grounded, realistic character in that show. I’m sorry to hear that Anne Meara is gone. I’m fascinated by people who have such long-running careers. I was reading about Lillian Gish the other day and she lived to be 99 and worked until 94 or something. Crazy.

    Speaking of great roles for older actresses, I’m going to make a movie rec to you; if you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet you totally should. Your man Tom Hardy is in it and he’s incredible, but so is Charlize Theron with her wolf’s eyes. And also there’s a tribe of badass old women on motorcycles and if that doesn’t sell you nothing will.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae – Yes, that whole Samantha/Mary arc really touched me – and makes me think that critics of the show who constantly talked about how shallow these women all were – can’t really have watched it. What is shallow about that relationship? About Alzheimer’s and finally accepting that this woman is your family now, and you have to care for her? And not resent it? It was powerful. That bathtub scene!!

      My thoughts go out to Jerry Stiller and Ben Stiller. It is very very sad!!

      And Mad Max: YES. Saw it on Saturday and am going again today. Want to make sure I see it in a movie theatre multiple times before it vanishes. How incredible was that??

      The badass broads on motorcycles warmed my cold dead heart. And Elvis’ grand-daughter, too! :)

      It was incredible, so much fun!!

      • Desirae says:

        I had no idea that was Elvis’ grand-daughter but as soon as you said that I knew which one she must be. Capable, right? With the red hair? She looks a lot like her Mom. And has the Presley eyes that everyone in that family seems to inherit.

        One of the cars was called the Elvis Wagon; I wonder if that’s why. There are so many cool little behind the scenes details like that, like the fact that there wasn’t a traditional script but instead a storyboard. And you can see it in the way the movie relies on visual storytelling rather than a lot of dialogue. It could almost be a silent movie and not change anything.

        I’m going to go see it again too. It needs to be experienced on the big screen more than once.

      • Dan says:

        I saw it on Saturday as well – my only regret is that it wasn’t playing in IMAX.

  2. Melanie says:

    I never watched “Sex in the City”, but I was a HUGE fan of “Fame”. It’s funny that my primary memory of her is from those various late 60s and 70s sitcoms. My memory of those shows is vague, but memory of her is so distinct…so memorable. I don’t think I realized her connection to Jerry, Ben, & Amy (under a rock I guess), but I love to read about celebrities with really long marriages and normal (normally abnormal) family lives. It makes one wonder if the type of contribution that she has made to the entertainment industry is dying out as we lose her and others of her generation or whether there are those working now on whom we will look back and say, “Look at this career, this body of work that has enriched the industry.” Wow! Does that make sense? Sheila, I know you can wrap your talented brain around that.

    I guess I would have to say that, for me, Anne Meara was not so much a collection of roles, but an enriching presence in my entertainment experience. It will seem a little emptier without her. Thanks, Anne.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, she just was always good – and she and Jerry started out as a comedy team together, working in television and in improv groups. She was a woman in a boys’ club world – and she made it. And she could do dramatic stuff too. She was FABULOUS in Fame – I so remember some of her scenes with Leroy. They really made an impression on me as a kid.

      // It makes one wonder if the type of contribution that she has made to the entertainment industry is dying out as we lose her and others of her generation or whether there are those working now on whom we will look back and say, “Look at this career, this body of work that has enriched the industry.” //

      Oh yes, it’s still going on. It’s everywhere. It’s just a business, like any other kind of business, filled with all kinds of people, hard-working, humble, from all walks of life, every region of the country, who are happy to work in a collaborative creative process, and happy to have jobs. I come from a family of with a lot of people like that. Acting teachers, and singers, and directors, and writers. Once you get to the stardom level, it’s the same shit, though – the paychecks are just bigger. And maybe you don’t have to worry so much about, you know, health insurance. Fame is its own monster, but even up in that heady universe, it’s still just actors and theatre nerds who are trying to make something good. Who feel very very fortunate to be able to do the kind of work that they do.

      The key is to keep working. I remember reading an interview with Julia Roberts just when Pretty Woman hit and she became the biggest star in the world, surprising everyone (including her agent – nobody saw it coming). And she said, “I hope to still be making pictures when I’m 80.” A couple of things:

      1. I love that she said “pictures,” not “movies.” It’s old-fashioned. But it says a lot about her.
      2. I believe that she will still be in “pictures” when she’s 80. She’s got the right attitude. She’s a gigantic star but her approach is relaxed.

      She is the biggest audience-made star that has happened in my lifetime – (meaning: audiences made her a star – there was no “let’s make Julia Roberts the next biggest thing” campaign before Pretty Woman – Julia wasn’t even available to do publicity for that movie, she was on location with something else. It is very very rare that audiences make someone a star. Most other stars happen because of a variety of things: right place/right time, in a huge movie that wins lots of awards, their career gains industry momentum, etc. But Roberts was picked by the audience. That kind of stardom is almost indestructible. Marilyn Monroe was picked by the audience too, and you can see how much her legacy has lasted. Julia Roberts’ journey was very interesting – and not the typical “starlet” journey once you examine it more closely. She does what she wants to do. She doesn’t feel like she’s grabbing for an Oscar statue every time she acts. She takes small parts. She does cameos in friend’s movies. She takes a year off at a time. She took two years – two YEARS – off after the release of Pretty Woman. She said she “went on strike” because the scripts sent to her were so awful. I mean … who does that?

      A broad who knows what she wants and who is “in it” for all the right reasons, that’s who.

      My thing with so many young actresses today is that they work too much. I get why that happens. The anxiety of where your next job will come from is intense and engrained in the life. Also, if you gain some momentum, you feel like you just have to keep up with it, keep running with it, right?? Otherwise people will forget about you! This results in these actresses (mostly actresses) being in far too many movies, giving generic performances – or not realizing that something is bad and deciding to do it anyway. (Compare to Julia turning everything down for two years, saying, “This sucks.” Her agent has described being literally in tears with her client on the phone, begging her to accept work, accept something!)

      Bette Davis went on her own little strike. So did Marilyn Monroe, who left the studio system in 1955, moved to New York to study acting, and to set up her own production company. This at the HEIGHT of her fame. These women were radical1! But they were interested in crafting a career. They did not see themselves as puppets, or victims … they felt no obligation to do everything they were told. And so they chose carefully, they weren’t in a ton of bombs, they actually crafted their careers. I don’t see a lot of that now – the world moves so much faster and entertainment news as a 24/7 thing is very new. So starlets come and go and get lost in their own publicity. It happened to Gretchen Mol. It happened to Sienna Miller. These women still work … but they got caught up in a machine NOT of their own devising and their work suffered. Roberts avoided that. .

      And then there are the others, in the lower tiers … the Lili Taylors and Juliette Lewis-es and Stephen Dorffs and on and on … SUPERB actors – who do 4, 5 movies a year – many go straight to video – many not even released – but it’s work, it’s good work, they’re working. Stephen Dorff joked, when Coppola’s Somewhere came out that everyone was calling it his “comeback.” He had made 5 movies the year before. Yes, nobody saw any of them, but that’s irrelevant. He made 5 movies. He’s a working actor. He was like, “I’m not coming back from anywhere. I never went anywhere.”

      The best actors – and this includes major stars – treat the business like it’s one big sprawling friendly repertory theatre company.

      Anne Meara certainly did that. That world was her family. The outpouring of love for her on Twitter and elsewhere, from actors and comedians and directors, has been really heartwarming.

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