Happy 92nd Birthday, Lois Smith

Lois Smith made her film debut in 1955, playing the young prostitute at the bar in East of Eden. She has a small scene with James Dean, and then exits the film. But she makes a huge impression. The memory of her lingers.

In 2021, 66 years later – let me say that again – 66 years after she made her film debut – Lois Smith won a Tony for her performance in The Inheritance. She was – at age 90 – the oldest Tony winner. Her speech was amazing. Unfortunately it’s not on YouTube. The speeches of all the YOUNGER winners are on YouTube. Typical. Let us honor our history. The video is here. She was so happy, and so was the audience.

Some years ago, I was involved in a theatre workshop where we developed a play about the artist Joseph Cornell. We workshopped in one of those giant airy studios at Juilliard. We played around with format. We envisioned the play taking place IN one of Cornell’s boxes. I played the young woman who came into his life late – one of those aimless Automat girls he loved so much – and he gave her money and was obsessed with her. She ended up stealing a couple of boxes and – like a dummy-dumb – tried to sell them to New York galleries. Cornell was famous. Everyone knew him. So they called Cornell to report that a raggedy strange young woman was trying to sell his boxes. Horrible. He was devastated but refused to press charges. She had a horrible end, murdered in a hotel on the UWS – a murder which was never solved. Some of the details are hazy, my research was a long time ago. A sad episode in JC’s life.

The point is: Joseph Cornell loved Lois Smith, and knew her casually, and made a box for her. It was 1955, and she was on Broadway in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Young and the Beautiful. This was before East of Eden dropped. Lois Smith actually has the box (unlike, say, Lauren Bacall – the box Cornell made for her is probably priceless at this point). It hangs in her hallway. In a New Yorker article, the writer, Michael Schulman, gives a description of the box:

Cornell, who knew Smith through the writer Donald Windham, cut out her image, in a white tulle gown, from the Playbill cover. “The back of it is wonderful,” Smith said recently, flipping the box to reveal papier-mâché text. “It has a quote from Hölderlin: ‘Home, poor heart, you cannot rediscover, if the dream alone does not suffice.’ ”

So back to the workshop: the director – my friend Ted – knew Lois because of her work at Steppenwolf (she’s a company member). When we both lived in Chicago, Ted and I went to see her in a new play (The Mesmerist) at Steppenwolf, and the three of us went out to dinner afterwards. I was starstruck, and so wanted to ask her about James Dean, and at first I was just trying to put together the images: the beautiful white-haired woman before me, and the girl at the bar in East of Eden – but she was so friendly, so nice, I soon forgot about being starstruck. We all just discussed the play, its problems, its triumphs, the process of development, regular old shop talk among theatre people. I’ve always loved her, but ever since that night I had dinner with her, she is a role model for any working actress. The whole thing is about the work. Success – or at least the regular meaning of the word – is truly irrelevant. It’s just work.

Later, Ted and I were both in New York, working on the Cornell project, and Lois came on as adviser for our project. She knew Joseph Cornell. She opened a lot of doors for us, including getting us into the private screening room at MoMA to watch his chopped-up and now-famous films. We were shown the JC collection, including the ones not on display.

As I said, when I met her I kept seeing her defeated pose at the bar in East of Eden, the movie that “turned me on” to acting and also moviemaking as an artform. I saw that movie at age 13. I remember wondering who she was. She made an impression, even in the bombardment of James Dean on my psyche. I memorized the name. “LOIS SMITH.” And there I was, an adult, so many years later, having dinner with her, and then, a couple years after that, talking with her about Joseph Cornell in a huge rehearsal studio at Juilliard, and it all seemed perfectly normal, a straight line between back then and now. It was as though 13-year-old me had already cleared a space for this moment.

It is a rare kind of experience. The rarest.

Thank you Lois for all of your work, for being a role model, for opening up the possibility for others what a good working career looks like – success doesn’t matter, keep doing the work, keep striving, it’s the work that matters – and also for showing an interest in our experimental open-ended project – and not just an interest – but actually HELPING us achieve our goals (one call to MoMA by Lois Smith and we were in). Thank you for taking the time out of your busy career to meet with a ragtag group of young actors to tell us stories about this artist who loved you so much.

And we loved you right back.

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4 Responses to Happy 92nd Birthday, Lois Smith

  1. Thank you, Sheila, for writing this beautiful tribute! Lois Smith is a treasure and a beacon to show talent has no expiration date.

    • sheila says:

      Tracy – you are so welcome! I really treasure careers like hers – they are such a good example for young actors just coming up.

      //talent has no expiration date //


  2. Carolyn Clarke says:

    Love her! She is in the same class as Margo Martindale or Dale Dickey. You never catch them acting. They just are there and they make everything better just by being in the movie. They have faces and lives.

  3. Lady Bug says:

    Thank you for this beautiful birthday tribute to Lois Smith. The screen test/wardrobe test of her and James Dean for East of Eden is so exquisite and almost unbearably beautiful and not (just) because Smith and Dean are physically gorgeous, but there’s something of an elegiac quality to it as well.

    “…We all just discussed the play, its problems, its triumphs, the process of development, regular old shop talk among theatre people. I’ve always loved her, but ever since that night I had dinner with her, she is a role model for any working actress. The whole thing is about the work.”

    That’s such an incredible experience, I can’t imagine all of the wisdom and insights she has.

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