Elder care

Holland Taylor: “The Most Disenfranchised American Is a Little Old Lady”

DAME talks with one of our most prolific comic talents about the theater of politics (and vice-versa), and her latest role onstage, as a tenacious elderly woman, in 'Ripcord.'

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Holland Taylor, the brilliant comic master of TV, film, and stage, unwittingly made news late last week with a declaration about her love life she was surprised to find people considered news. While the 72-year-old Philadelphia native is not quite ready to name the person she’s been seeing, she’s happy to share her gender—no biggie, according to the actress. “I haven’t come out because I am out,” Taylor said on WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money” podcast. “I live out.” For those of us who have been enamored of the actress since the way-ahead-of-its-time early-’80s sitcom ‘Bosom Buddies’—which starred a then-unknown Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as men who dressed as women to nab affordable housing in an all-girl hotel, it certainly feels like a big deal. When it still seems daring in 2015 for characters in a ’50s-set tale of forbidden love like ‘Carol’ to be granted a happy ending, every single person of note calmly declaring her sexuality has an impact vastly more far-reaching than can be quantified. 

Taylor, an Emmy winner and Tony nominee, who specializes in haughtily acerbic women, has appeared in more than 100 TV shows and movies, toggling between mainstream films like ‘Romancing the Stone’ and quirky indies like ‘Baby Mama,’ and gracing so many sitcoms and dramedies her career reads like a map of TV cultural touchstones, from ‘Ally McBeal’ to ‘The L Word.’ And who could forget her long tour of duty setting Charlie Sheen’s teeth on edge in ‘Two and a Half Men,’ which she completed at last this past February? She’s returned to the New York stage for the first time since channeling political firebrand Ann Richards—the Texas governor (and mother of Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood) in her tour-de-force ‘Ann’—to star in the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s prickly and affecting new play ‘Ripcord,’ a black-comic tempest in the teacup of an assisted-living facility, which runs through December 6 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, off Broadway, and co-stars Marylouise Burke and Rachel Dratch. She talks with us about inhabiting—and mourning—the soul of the late Texas governor Ann Richards, the surreality of the current national political climate, and the plight of the oft-most neglected part of the American population: the elderly.

You’ve been a comic master of a certain uppity kind of tough cookie throughout your career. Are there types of characters you’ve never been seen as that you long to do?

Holland Taylor: The period of my life where I could have played a lot of the roles that were wonderful is long since passed. I’m an older woman now, I’m very confined to what kind of role I could play by that—although look at this wonderful role that I have in Ripcord. 

Did you always want to be an actor?

HT: It wasn’t like a dreamy ambition; it was something that I knew I intended to do—and I was just lucky in that my parents didn’t pooh-pooh it; nobody made light of it or teased me about it. My mother was a serious painter, and a very fine one. I went to public school, and what was available to me as a student, without even any question, were music classes and arts classes and involvement in the arts—in public school as a youngster! It was part of the curriculum—and it isn’t anymore. It’s just ludicrous, considering that we are the country with the most wealth, that we’re not putting any of our wealth, not a significant portion of it, in education.l

Your eloquence could serve you well in politics. Did you grow up debating issues?

HT: We were not a political family; it was just in the background. I’m sure my parents voted for Dewey. 

“Republican” meant something quite different in those days.

HT: [Back then people were] very lazy, just not very knowledgeable. I think we all know much more—the current generation and even I’m much more knowledgeable now than my parents ever were about the workings of the government, about who does what, about how this happened and that happened and what’s the history of this. That’s very much something that I read about and care about and pay attention to, and I don’t think my parents were that way.

Do you channel your outrage into activism?

HT: During Ann, I certainly picked up some things that are of burning interest to me that I somehow will find a way to turn my attention to when I’m not actively working on a theater project. I still cannot believe that we do not have the Equal Rights Amendment. I actually can’t believe it! A friend of mine who had been an aide to Ann Richards when she was governor, and then later became her executive assistant here in New York in her last years of working, said the only time she ever saw Ann Richards weep in public was when the ERA failed. It was just so, so heartbreaking. Because it just expresses such a fundamental ill. I’m not very articulate about it, because for me, it seems so perverse. How can there be a question about equal rights in pay between men and women? Is it a subject for debate? How would you debate it? It’s so absurd on the face of it that it defies conversation.

We’re socialized to buy into the notion that women are somehow misbehaving if we speak out—the prejudice is so fundamental in our culture that when we say even something as simple as wanting equal pay, we’re treated as if we’re harridans, complaining and shrill.

HT: Imagine saying about a male person, “Oh, they were just misbehaving. Getting out of hand. Getting out of control.” There’s obviously a lot of unconscious anxiety on the part of in the male ego about what women do or don’t do. I don’t personally know too many men who have this problem, but obviously it exists, in the very easy rush to outrage over women’s expectations about their own rights. Certainly in the South and in the red states some of these points of view that are screamed for and cheered for and absolutely backed by the populace seem appalling to me. I don’t know how any of these things can be approached, they’re just so unreasonable and so wack-a-doodle.

Paris mandated gender “parité” as law some years ago, though I’m not sure how it’s enforced. And foreign professional women who come here are often bewildered that American women are reluctant to speak up at work. There’s also the whole secondary debate about “leaning in,” calling women on not being assertive—but then Hillary acts straightforward and gets tarred as “aggressive.”

HT: I’m bewildered about how to respond to certain strong stands that one encounters now in life. It’s just like, “How can I even speak to you if that’s the world you want to make?” So there is a kind of retreat from the madness.

Do you see a disconnect between your generation and the young people coming up today?

HT: You mean the protests and the political [activism]? I think generations want different things at different times. In my life, I’m sort of more inwardly trained than someone who’d be marching in the street. It depends on how close the issue strikes to home. In life, you are enlivened by what you can understand from a personal point of view. The plight of the elderly, elderly women in this country is very heartbreaking and very daunting. It’s interesting, because I noticed I had to moan and rock &roll on myself about playing an old lady in an assisted-care facility. The most minimized, disenfranchised person in America is a little old lady—you know, the subject of fun and humor and lack of care.

You wrote the opposite of a disenfranchised character in ‘Ann.’ How did that play come about?

HT: It really was a need to celebrate her in some kind of way. I really quite simply thought she was inspiring, not only by what she said but how she lived her life and how she expressed herself and her wonderful humor and a tremendous humanity and warmth that people felt from her. When she died, I was very upset for a long time—more than would be natural for someone I didn’t know. I wanted to do something that would have a major exposure. And as good things happened—which they did continuously, just piles of wonderful things happened over the years to that production, which made its way from my California home all the way to Broadway in a very big gorgeous production at Lincoln Center, and at Kennedy Center before that to great success, and the old Shubert in Chicago before that—I remember I would think, Where did you get the chutzpah to do that? I guess it came from the subject. I was definitely a creator of it and the energy behind it—or the interim energy following Ann’s lead—and I have no thought to ever write anything again. It just was a one-time opportunity to have a very heroic kind of experience in my life. It was quite a ride there, and very taxing. I was profoundly tired for a year after Ann, really, really tired. The journey itself was about [six years] altogether—and the absence of it in my life was terrible for a while. It was really like a death, the absence was just strange and heartbreaking and confusing. I was just so used to it being part of my life, and also what I would nurture and protect, and then I didn’t have it to nurture and protect any more, it was really very empty and very lonely for a while. In fact, I’m going to do it in Austin for a month or so this spring. So many Texans would say, “You know, we can’t all of us come to New York to see your play.” It will be much more a celebrational way of revisiting it, reviving it for the pleasure of doing it—very different from the drive to get it up and have its own little place in history. Or not so little.

I wish she were still with us. She’d have some choice comments on the political circus we’re experiencing today.

HT: I think part of the reason why Bernie Sanders has so captured the public’s imagination now is because he just seems like such the real deal, who’s somehow held onto a kind of fineness in his character and in his behavior and in what he stands for. He just seems very true-blue. I think people are very captivated by it.

Ironically, when someone like him gets to higher office—you look at Jimmy Carter, a brilliant and fine person—and then we punish him for not being a politician.

HT: You cannot win. And also there’s the human nature of we love to praise goodness and then turn them into goody two-shoes, revile them. The public whim, the ever-turning public whim of lifting people up and dashing them to the ground.

It’s not always easy to stay optimistic. Does Ripcord feel like a harsh world to live in? It’s a place of constant conflict.

HT: And yet so ridiculously funny. I decided to do this play before I finished reading the first act, because I wanted to be in that world. The finer writer really does make a world that has his own, or her own, rules and delineations and styles of life.

The experience of acting is such a strange one. It’s so elusive and hard to quantify because it’s all tied up with your own experience of just being alive. It’s not a separate thing that you’ve created outside yourself; it’s your own responses and reactions and your own little person that is going through an imaginative state when you’re trying to create a behavior and then manners and the expression of someone else. It really is a rare psychological trick you’re playing on yourself. After a lifetime of doing it, it remains an ineffable sensation that’s uniquely desirable.

Is there anything I should have asked you?

HT: There’s always things that you wish you’d said. For me the most important thing—I think it happens as people get older, a kind of, “Look, I am what I am, and anybody who doesn’t like it, too bad. Seek your enjoyment elsewhere.”

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