Winner by a Nose: Eva Marie Saint Remembers North by Northwest

Eva Marie Saint Remembers North by NorthwestShe won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress her first time on screen, holding her own opposite Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

She’s shown her versatility in all genres from comedies (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) to period dramas (Raintree County), westerns (The Stalking Moon) to action films (Grand Prix), war thrillers (36 Hours) to superhero outings (Superman Returns).

And, most famously, she was the spy gal who dangled from George Washington’s nose with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest.

She is, of course, Eva Marie Saint. Eighty-seven years young (and looking twenty years younger) and married to TV director Jeffrey Hayden for 61 years, the Newark, New Jersey-born actress has arrived in Philadelphia for a screening of North by Northwest as part of the Turner Classic Movies “Road to Hollywood” bandwagon to promote the TCM Film Festival. Despite the accessibility of North by Northwest everywhere, she packed them in at the Prince Music Theater, where scores of movie lovers came to see the film on a big screen and hear the actress’s takes on working with Hitch and the rest of her career.

Movie FanFare got the goods on the evening, as well as an opportunity to speak with Ms. Saint the next morning about a variety of movie-related subjects before she and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz headed back home to Los Angeles. Here are some of the highlights of the dual interview sessions.

MovieFanFare: Did you always want to be an actress?

Eva Marie Saint: I always wanted to be an actress, except in the early years I wanted to be a third grade teacher. I changed my major.  My mother was a teacher.

MFF: On your first film, you knocked it out of the park, taking home an Oscar for your role of Edie Doyle, the sister of a slain dockworker, who gets romantically involved with another dockworker, Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando. What do you remember about the experience of being on a movie set the first time, especially with director Elia Kazan and Brando?

EMS:  Sam Spiegel was the producer, and when Kazan wasn’t around—I didn’t know what a producer did, it was my first film. Spiegel would come up to me with a makeup man and lipstick and a brush and he made the corners of my lips go up with lipstick.  So I thought: “This is what the producer does!” Kazan never saw him do it, and would have never had allowed him to do it.  Spiegel probably figured that when he could get on the set, he wanted to do something, and he picked on me and my lovely lips.

MFF: How about Brando. Were you intimidated by him?

EMS: I am intimidated to work with artists, to work with musicians and writers. But I am never intimidated by actors. We have a professional bond. And I wasn’t intimidated by Marlon because he was an actor. He was a nice fellow and a handsome fellow and a sexy fellow.

MFF: You had studied at the Actors Studio where Brando and Kazan came from. What was Kazan like on the set?

EMS:    Kazan was usually there, looking through the camera. Now you look at the monitor. Kazan was always looking though the camera and telling the actors to look right there and his presence was so strong, but it was like teamwork. I missed that with directors. It was fun to watch him boss away. When he was directing the scene, you were told where to sit. And we listened. I was from the Actors Studi,o and we did what we were told. But there some actors who would say, ‘‘I want to sit there.”

MFF: What do you recall about winning the Academy Award at the age of 30 for your first screen role?

EMS: We were in New York in those days. You had people in New York who made movies and people in Hollywood (who made movies), and there was jealousy between the two. It would go back and forth and it wasn’t like it is now. So that was an exciting evening, because none of us thought we would win. The film was in black and white. The cinematographer (Boris Kauffman) won and other awards were given out. Jeff (husband Hayden) said, “When they call your name, don’t rush up on that stage.” I started to get up. His hand was on my thigh. He said count to ten. Ten days later I had a baby and he didn’t want me to lose the baby.  It was a pretty heavy time, Oscar and a baby.

MFF: Is there anything you learned while doing your first film that stayed with you?

EMS: I learned that this is your job, this is an exciting job, this is what you want to do, you’re working with an incredible script, director, the other actors and you do the best you can. You’re never thinking beyond that day’s work—ever!

MFF: After Waterfront, you did some steady television and co-starred in such films as That Certain Feeling with Bob Hope, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and A Hatful of Rain for Fred Zinnemann with Don Murray and Anthony Franciosca. Do you think any of these impressed Alfred Hitchcock enough to lead him to cast you as Eve Kendall in North by Northwest?

EMS: Well, I don’t see how he could see me as Eve Kendall from On the Waterfront.  Maybe because I had beautiful coiffed hair. He may have seen me in That Certain Feeling, so maybe he could see me this way. I dance and I’m drunk. It’s a fun part–I had these bright red, oversized pajamas and I am playing the ukulele—it sounds awful! And Bob Hope and I are jumping around. It was so much fun. I think he may have seen me in it.

MFF: Do you remember feeling different about taking on the role of Eve Kendall as opposed to Edie Doyle?

EMS: I am sure it was different. I had more experience. It was a completely different role than On the Waterfront. I was a sexy spy lady. Who doesn’t want to be a sexy spy lady?  I liked the idea. I didn’t get as much direction from Mr. Hitchcock as I did from Mr. Kazan, but he was interested in how the spy lady dressed. Now, that may sound strange, but it helped me develop the character. He cared about the hair and the makeup and the shoes and certainly the dresses. He felt it was important how the spy lady should look, and that helped me.

MFF: But didn’t the studio furnish the costumes?

EMS:   He didn’t like the clothes (the studio provided) and thought they were poorly designed. He said “I’d like to take you to Bergdorf Goodman and take a tour.”  He was sitting there. He didn’t pick out anything. He said, “Get whatever you like.” That’s why I called him my “Sugar Daddy” after that.  I told him “I’d like to wear he black dress,” and he said “Wrap it up for Miss Saint.”

MFF: Were you always the choice for the role?

EMS: Alfred Hitchcock insisted on me, although MGM wanted Cyd Charisse and Cary Grant wanted Sophia Loren.

MFF: There have been stories over the years that James Stewart was originally cast in the Cary Grant role.

EMS: Jimmy Stewart really wanted the role in North by Northwest. He helped develop it with Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman (the screenwriter). Then Stewart was at Columbia, and told Hitchcock he needed to know whether they were going to make the movie because he was going to make a film with Kim Novak (Bell, Book and Candle). Hitchcock said he wasn’t sure, so Stewart took the role. It’s a brutal business.

MFF: What were your impressions of Cary Grant?

EMS:  He was so funny.  Cary Grant was wonderful. Most of us from On the Waterfront were from the Actors Studio, but Cary Grant was from the circus. In his early movies you could see the physical stuff, so the circus was all right.

MFF: What do you remember about Alfred Hitchcock on the set of North by Northwest?

EMS: Hitchcock was editing while making the picture. It was all storyboarded and he was cutting it in his head. When he watched the dailies, he would turn the sound off. He wanted to make sure the actors were emoting and watching the expressions, and he wanted to make sure they made sense and they said what he wanted the scene to say. It was like the film The Artist. Wasn’t it wonderful? I saw it twice.   They turn off the sound to see how it plays without the dialogue.

MFF: Do you think he enjoyed the pre-production process more?

EMS: Maybe that’s why he didn’t direct that much on the set. When you were on one of his sets, he would be more suggestive.

MFF: Much has been made of Hitchcock’s obsession with his lead actresses, particularly the blondes—you, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh. Do you believe he was obsessed with you?

EMS: How can you be obsessed with blondes in general? We’re all different. Hitchcock liked blondes, but we were all different. We had different personal lives.  I can’t say he had the hots for all of us.

MFF: Would you say you were impressed with Alfred Hitchcock?

EMS: I was impressed with Hitchcock. The way he directed. I was also impressed he had his bacon imported from Denmark.

MFF: Can you recall your reaction when you saw North by Northwest for the first time?

EMS:   Yes. I went to New York with my husband and at the very end, the scene with the train goes through the tunnel, I said to my husband, “The train going through the tunnel, that’s a little Freudian, isn’t it?” And Jeff said, “You got it, babe. Yeah.”

  • Blair Kramer.

    Other than the kid holding his ears in the background as Eva Marie Saint shot Cary Grant (Hitch probably did too many takes), “North By Northwest” is very nearly a perfect film.

  • Wayne

    Hitch outdid himself in using his McGuffin(s) to perfection. His final scene with Cary & Eva Marie on the train would provide inspiration for the Bond series finales to come.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Interesting point, Wayne. Never thought of it, but makes a lot of sense.

  • Robert Voss

    Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly and Janet Leigh—how could the man not be obsessed? Wow!

  • Blair Kramer.

    OK Irv,

    Here’s a harder question than you might think… Which film is Hitchcock’s best: “North By Northwest,” “Psycho,” or “Vertigo?” Of course, “Vertigo” is the reflexive answer. But think about it for a moment… “North By Northwest” is the perfect thriller. “Psycho” is the perfect horror film. But what is “Vertigo?” Thriller? Action? Drama? Mystery? Whatever it is, it certainly has some very curious psychology. Of course, dramatically speaking, it has many layers. But isn’t it more than a bit contrived? When Hitchcock made “Vertigo,” he really wasn’t trying to create a commercial film, was he? More than anything, I’d say he was filming a personal session on the couch! On the other hand, “North By Northwest” is a one dimensional film that has nothing to do with reality. But isn’t it the greatest roller coaster ride ever recorded on film?! Finally, we come to “Psycho.” Do you know that there are schizophrenics in this world who essentially behave exactly like Norman Bates?! Nope. You’re wrong. Bates is not an exaggeration! I submit to you, in terms of psychology, “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s deepest film! Moreover, it’s also his scariest! So, there you have it. In my opinion, “Psycho” is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. What say you, Irv?

  • Wayne

    Not an easy ? to answer, Blair…but will give it a go…we need a good challenge and while were waiting for Movie Irv to weigh in again…how about considering that all the Hitch films would be his best as theyre so good its a purely subjective exercise? I could make a case for The Man who Knew too Much (made twice as nice:) or Strangers on a Train for sheer diabolical plot brilliance, or the afore-mentioned North by Northwest just for the multiplicity of McGuffins used…Hitchs always clever sub-plot device! But, I also think one could make a case for some earlier and/or lesser known ones like Jamaica Inn and the Lodger from the London period and, of course, his only Oscar nod for Best Picture, Rebecca…for which hes one of the very few Directors to not also win in that category at the same time :( Dial M for Murder is a fine 50′s suspenser as is Rear Window and Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a darn good comedy effort and his only movie helmed in that fine and usually Oscar overlooked genre. For me, though, Im going with either Shadow of a Doubt, which is a postwar potboiler, par excellence with a great twist ending or last, but certainly not least, Foreign Correspondent; simply because it has a great anti-Nazi tone to it and has the requsite historical setting of Old Europe to draw on for its vivid scenic interplay. Naturally, we could just use Blairs 3 picks too and be just as satisfied and thats the main point- thanks Hitch for giving us such good choices! ;)

    • Blair Kramer.

      I only mentioned those three films because, of Hitchcock’s entire filmography, they are certainly his best…

      …Aren’t they…?

  • goarmy

    No movie is more pleasant to watch than No by NW. There isn’t an awkward moment.
    The initial train love scene is the sexiest I’ve seen in movies. How I envied Cary Grant. Eva Marie Saint was classy, sexy and her hands worked magic on Grant’s neck.
    It’s seldom commented on, however, combined with the music…….

  • Gordon S. Jackson

    Query – is a BEST film really a BEST film or is it the one we like the most?  At best, BEST is a subjective word that brings with it what each individual is bringing to it.  Is NBN Hitch’s BEST or is it so-considered because many others might so consider it?  Or “Psycho”, “Vertigo”, “Rear Window” or “Strangers on a Train.”  And in comparing Hitchcock’s various entries for a moment, can one fairly compare say a “Strangers on a Train” with “The Trouble With Harry” or even “North By Northwest?”  What are the character’s excentricities or their paranoias and how may they (or not) fit in with Hitch’s take on things.  For me, the claustrophobic “Rear Window” has its corrollaries in the equally claustrophobic worlds inhabited by Robert Walker’s sociopath in “Strangers on a Train” and Jimmy Stewart’s unbalanced (retired) police detective in “Vertigo”, thus giving us interesting points of departure for further conversation.  Another example – what about Montgomery Clift’s hounded priest in “I Confess” vis-a-vis Henry Fonda’s equally hounded jazz musician in “The Wrong Man” given that both films deal with Hitchcock’s own, well-known mistrust of the police and (maybe) near paranoic fear of, possibly, being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  

    Yes, I realize questions of script, acting, directing, editing, music et all come into our various assessments, but even so, I am geuinely perplexed with questions about BEST when applied to opinion and judgment.  So often when I have discussed films with others, I almost invariably hear something akin to, “I liked it.  It’s the best” which, of course bring us full circle to my opening question.  Maybe it’s not so much the BEST as what an individual (or a group of individuals a la the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for example) see the BEST as being.  Put another way, do we really see anything in life as what it is or as what we are?    

  • TrippyTrellis

    Alfred Hitchcock hit the jackpot in the casting of Eva Marie Saint- she became, in an instant, the best of Hitchcock’s cool blondes. Why oh why didn’t he cast her in “The Birds”, “Marnie” and even the dreadful “Torn Curtain”? Actually, even though I prefer Miss Saint, Janet Leigh would have been wonderful in all three. 

  • cinemabon

    Hitch had great success with his 1950′s films: Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest; arguably his best work. Strictly an auteur in every sense of the word, Hitch left behind an incredible body of work that will be studied and discussed long into the future. Eva Marie-Saint played the perfect balance to the two heavy-weight on-screen personalities on either side of her – Cary Grant and James Mason. She strikes a pose in the middle with her tempered movements and graceful air that lend the necessary touch of class Hitch sought in his leading ladies. We love you, Ms. Marie-Saint and thank you for sharing your memories with us.

  • DIRK

    She always impressed me.  Just a classy lady!  And Eve Kendall was one of her best roles; she had so much to do: entice and capture Roger O. Thornhill, then reject and repell him, and eventually is saved by him. Beautiful, STILL !

  • Jlyoung10

    The best male/female repartee besides Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” is that between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the dining car of the train.  She does it so well!