No, that title is not a reference to me and God knows I don’t mean to imply that my daughter is a Pollyanna! I was surprised to hear that the father of the original Pollyanna, the great British actor Sir John Mills, died this weekend. Surprised not only because I didn’t realize the 97-year-old Oscar winner was still alive, but also because less than 48 hours earlier I was watching his daughter Hayley Mills on the stage of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre giving a magnificent performance in Frank McGuinness’ “The Bird Sanctuary.” While I always enjoyed Hayley Mills, who knew that Pollyanna, Susan and Sharon of “The Parent Trap,” and Mary Clancy of “The Trouble with Angels” grew up to be such a gifted, nuanced actress? She played this difficult, potentially unsympathetic role with surprising empathy and compassion. I was blown away by Hayley Mills’ acting skills and, without causing her any offence, I must add that her speaking voice is still so identical to her teen star persona that I half expected her to walk into a scene and shout to co-star Elizabeth Franz, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!”
I’ve always been fascinated by acting families like the Redgraves, Fondas, and Barrymores, and the Mills family is up there with the best of them. In addition to golden Hayley, I also grew up under the comforting watch of sister Juliet Mills’ Phoebe Figallily in “Nanny and the Professor”:
Phoebe Figalilly is a silly name
And so many silly things keep happening
Is there really magic in the things she does
Or is love the only magic thing that nanny brings…
Mills' co-star in this fluff was David Doremus, later known as Mary Ellen and then Erin Walton’s boyfriend G.W. Haines on “The Waltons” (dear God, will my 1970s TV blogpostings EVER end?). Juliet was also an accomplished stage actress but she will forever be known to the Baby Boomer generation as the Nanny every American boy dreamed of having.
My favorite John Mills performance was in one of his earlier films—as Pip in David Lean’s definitive version of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” but I also loved his work in the even earlier David Lean/Noel Coward collaborations “In Which We Serve” and “This Happy Breed,” both co-starring a special favorite of Kendall’s and mine (and the actress who is nearly responsible for getting us together), Celia Johnson. Also loved “Swiss Family Robinson,” co-starring Kendall’s fav Dorothy McGuire, as well as Mills’ brilliant turns in “Ryan’s Daughter” (which won him the Oscar) and “Gandhi” among many others (we’ll be kind and overlook his role in Madonna’s execrable “Who’s That Girl”).
As I continue to write about these celebrities who've had an impact on my life, I wonder if I’m using them to avoid talking about my real feelings or if I’m somehow expressing elements of my real feelings through them. There’s certainly an element of escapism at play when I find myself contemplating the careers of pop culture icons such as Hayley Mills (even though I’m convinced I’m losing blog readers with every keystroke), especially after an emotionally painful day like today.
Perhaps it’s all part of the Passover Purge that began on my knees Friday night over the porcelain bowl in the Pittsburgh Hilton. Only since I returned to L.A., I’m puking old destructive patterns and dysfunction. Kendall and I have spent a good part of the last two days at each other’s throats. Thank God that at this point we’ve both developed the maturity to accept that there are agonizing moments in any relationship and that calmer heads will prevail if we just give it a moment and try not to panic. Much of my stuff whirls around issues of fear and trust, and we had a great talk tonight about how to work through our current conflicts with consciousness and grace. I am so grateful that we can get to that place relatively fast these days. Unfortunately I often find myself at those moments trying to EXPLAIN MY PROCESS a bit too much, usually out of some underlying fear about meeting the challenges that lie ahead. So I keep yapping on, trying to get all my worries out on the table, until finally I’ve blathered on so long about the potential problems I end up creating fissures in our newfound serenity. What I really need is an Erich von Stroheim-like director standing in the corner of the room monitoring our discussion. Then, just at the right moment when we’ve achieved our goals and found common ground, but before I feel the need to process all my remaining feelings to death, von Stroheim would raise his megaphone and shout, “…AND SCENE!”
We did make it to the second seder last night. My friend Helena outdid herself with a smorgasbord of eastern European delicacies including homemade gefilte fish, matzah balls, brisket, and the best chopped liver this side of my grandmother and the Second Avenue Deli. She even dotted the chopped liver with the lethal but heavenly gribenes, or what our Christian friends would call “cracklings,” which she made out of bits of chicken skin and onions cooked in rendered chicken fat. Yum! When my grandmother made this we called it Jewish Popcorn and we ate it by the handfuls. Call the paramedics, please, but if they get here too late, tell them we died happy.
But let’s get back to Pollyanna for a second. I think this little girl gets a bad rap in our culture. Why has that word become such an insult? (“Stop being such a Pollyanna!”) As I remember from the film, Hayley Mills’ Pollyanna has lost both her parents and is forced to live with her miserable aunt, played by Jane Wyman. I don’t know about you, but living with Jane Wyman would turn me into the Bad Seed rather than someone who was able to see the good in everyone she meets and transform bitter, nasty people like Adolph Menjou and Agnes Moorehead into lovable old coots. Suppression of feelings is one thing, but having the guts to be truly optimistic about this terrifying, painful world we live in takes a courage and faith that I can’t even fathom. I only hope that one day someone accuses ME of being a Pollyanna!