Grand Dame: Jane Alexander honored as Master of Cinema
Jane Alexander is unquestionably one of America’s great actresses. In a distinguished career that spans over 50 years, the range of roles she’s played – whether on stage, screen or television – is testament to her versatility and sheer talent. In the realm of acting, she’s royalty.
A seven-time Tony Award nominee, she won for The Great White Hope and in 1994 was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. An eight-time Emmy Award nominee, she won for Playing for Time (1980) and Warm Springs (2005). She received Academy Award nominations as Best Actress for the 1970 screen version of The Great White Hope and the powerful anti-nuclear drama Testament (1983), and as Best Supporting Actress for All the President’s Men (1976) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
A tireless activist on behalf of the arts, she served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Bill Clinton. Equally tireless on behalf on environmental conservation, last year saw the publication of her latest book, Wild Things, Wild Places: Adventurous Tales of Wildlife and Conservation on Planet Earth.
As well as promoting the book, she appears in the CBS All Access drama series “The Good Fight,” reprising the role of Judge Suzanne Morris from “The Good Wife,” and she’ll soon be seen in Three Christs, producer/director Jon Avnet’s screen adaptation of Milton Rokeach’s 1964 non-fiction best-seller The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, opposite Richard Gere, Julianna Margulies and Peter Dinklage.
And now, along with actress Celia Weston, Alexander is the recipient of the Master of Cinema award at the 2017 RiverRun International Film Festival. The award presentation will take place Saturday at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking’s Babcock Theatre, following a screening of The Great White Hope, which also marked her big-screen bow.
Kevin Thomas, for 50 years a film critic at The Los Angeles Times and a juror at the 2008 RiverRun festival, has followed and respected Alexander’s career since the beginning, and applauds her selection as a Master of Cinema honoree.
“She’s had a distinguished career and is a very, very fine actress,” he says. “She’s exactly the kind of person who should be celebrated at a film festival, and I think it’s great that RiverRun has recognized her. Other film festivals should do the same.”
But, adds Thomas with mock trepidation, “please don’t remind her I reviewed The Betsy!”
“Kevin was kinder to it than a lot of people,” she laughs, and she also remembers the rave review Thomas gave Testament. “Tell Kevin thank you. He’s been a leading light out there.”
As for The Betsy, a glossy, big-budget 1978 potboiler based on Harold Robbins’ trashy best-seller, her motivations for making the film were numerous. It reunited her with Edward Herrmann and their Eleanor and Franklin director Daniel Petrie, she wore glamorous costumes fashioned by three-time Oscar winner Dorothy Jeakins, and most of her scenes were with Laurence Olivier (playing the randy patriarch of a Detroit automobile dynasty) and Robert Duvall (playing her ruthless husband).
“You pegged it right there,” Alexander says, laughing again, “and let’s not forget the divine Tommy Lee Jones. Dan Petrie was one of my closest friends and we made a number of films together – all of them better than The Betsy! But it was through that film that I became friends with Larry (Olivier) and his wife, Joan Plowright. They used to come to my Broadway openings, and we’d get together from time to time, so – no regrets!”
Having not seen The Great White Hope in some time, she looks forward to seeing it again, particularly on the big screen. “I still think it packs a wallop,” she says. “It was a huge hit (on stage) in 1968 because it was the height of the black power movement.”
The play, written by Howard Sackler, won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, with Alexander and James Earl Jones winning Tony and Drama Desk awards for their performances. Based on the life of Jack Johnson, the story details the relationship between black boxer Jack Jefferson (Jones) and his white lover, Eleanor Bachman – a relationship rocked by racial loathing and the social hypocrisy of the time. The original stage production was directed by Edwin Sherin, whom Alexander married in 1975.
The film, released by Twentieth Century Fox, was directed by Hollywood veteran Martin Ritt, whom Alexander remembers as “a great director – there’s no doubt about that.”
The adjustment from stage to screen proved difficult for the screen newcomer. “The script was virtually the same, James Earl and I were virtually re-creating a lot of what we did on stage, but I didn’t know how to adjust.
“One day, Marty Ritt stuck his head in my trailer and said ‘Ready?’ And I said: ‘Oh, Marty, I just can’t do this today,’” she laughs at the memory, “and I don’t know how many umpteen times I’d done it in the theater. So Marty called the cast and crew together and told them to go home for the day. Now, I found out later from someone that by shutting down it cost them $10,000 … and I never did it again!”
Want to go? The Great White Hope and the Jane Alexander Master of Cinema award presentation will take place 7:30 pm Friday in the Babcock Theatre, located on the UNCSA School of Filmmaking’s main campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $12. For more information about this event and other screenings and events presented by RiverRun, call 336.724.1502 or visit the official website: riverrunfilm.com.