She 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.”