By Alan Hurst

For about 10 years Marsha Mason had a pretty decent run in films. She was in some major box-office hits, she received positive reviews and Oscar nominations for her work in both comedy and drama, and she usually projected a likeable and relatable screen presence. But by the mid eighties she had gone back to the stage and television. When we did see her onscreen, it was more likely supporting top billed stars in some of their lessor efforts: Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1985), Bette Midler in Stella (1990) and Julia Roberts in I Love Trouble (1994).

Mason made her film debut in something called Hot Rod Hullabaloo (1966), but theatre was her prime focus in her early years as an actress, including replacing Brenda Vaccaro in the original Broadway production of Cactus Flower in 1968. After a few more productions and a run on the TV soap Love of Live (1971-72), she won a key supporting role in Paul Mazursky’s film Blume in Love (1973). It was a well-received comedy about relationships – very much of its time, but a solid and funny film from the talented Mazursky.

James Caan and Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty

After filming Blume in Love, Mason auditioned for a role opposite James Caan in Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (1973). She won the part of Maggie, a prostitute with a bi-racial young son, who is befriended by Caan, a sailor on leave in Seattle. Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and Barbra Streisand had turned down the role, but Mason saw it as a tremendous opportunity, the struggling character allowing her to play a wide range of emotions in a very deglamorized way. To Mason’s credit, she didn’t try for sympathy and the actress’ choices in playing the mother and girlfriend showed the character’s struggle to do the right thing, but her darker, selfish side winning out. She also worked well with Caan, who had one of his better roles here.

Mason’s reviews were very strong, and she found herself in the running for the Best Actress Oscar that year, ultimately losing to Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class (1973), one the many head scratching wins in Oscar’s history. Mason did win that year’s Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, besting both Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973) and Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973).

Surprisingly, it was four years before filmgoers again saw Mason on screen, thanks primarily to a distraction known as writer Neil Simon. Her performance in Blume in Love caught the attention of Simon, who cast her in his Broadway play The Good Doctor, which opened in late 1973 to decent reviews and a solid run with a cast that included Mason and Christopher Plummer. More importantly, it brought Simon and Mason together as a couple following the death of his first wife.

Mason seemed to put her career on hold for a few years to focus on the relationship with Simon, which would ultimately give Simon fodder for the Broadway hit Chapter Two in 1977. That same year Mason was finally onscreen again in two films: Audrey Rose and The Goodbye Girl. Audrey Rose co-starred Anthony Hopkins and was directed by Robert Wise, who had also helmed West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Unfortunately Audrey Rose felt like a low-grade retread of The Exorcist. The Goodbye Girl, with an original script by Simon, was a major critical and financial hit at the end of 1977. It was the story a dancer and her daughter who are forced to share an apartment with an actor (Richard Dreyfuss) after the mom is jilted by her boyfriend, who has also sublet the apartment. There were Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Dreyfuss), Actress (Mason), Supporting Actress (Quinn Cummings) and Best Original Screenplay. Dreyfuss won the award, and there was also a hit song from the soundtrack, and long lines at the box office. Mason won her second Golden Globe, this time for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, tying with Diane Keaton for Annie Hall (1977). If the film feels very dated now – particularly the ping pong pace of Simon’s glib one liners – you have to remember it was a romantic comedy that hit the mark in a major way in the winter of 1977-78.

Next up for Mason was a small role in The Cheap Detective (1978), Simon’s homage to film noir of the 1940’s. Only sporadically amusing – his homage to famous detectives in Murder by Death (1976) was much funnier – he did assemble a terrific cast including Peter Falk, Ann-Margert (very funny), Sid Caesar, Stockard Channing, Fernando Lamas, Louise Fletcher and Eileen Brennan.

Two Mason films hit screens in late 1979. The first was Promises in the Dark, a somber drama about a burned-out doctor (Mason) who gets a lesson in life from a dying 17-year-old (Kathleen Beller). This one came and went pretty quickly from theatres, but Mason is excellent as the withdrawn doctor.

The actress received her third Oscar nomination for the film adaption of Simon’s Chapter Two – her other 1979 release. It’s the autobiographical story of a widower who meets someone new, falls in love, gets married and then struggles with the guilt of the new relationship. Clearly based on Simon and Mason’s own experiences, she didn’t want to play it on stage, but she accepted the film, co-starring again with James Caan. They’re both very good, with Mason’s character showing the patience of a saint in working through the relationship. But like of a lot of Simon’s material, re-watching now it feels dated and just a bit superficial. The laughs are there, but the drama feels forced. Caan has some nice moments, but Mason is definitely the best thing about the film. Valerie Harper is also very good as Mason’s best friend.

Marsha Mason and James Coco in Only When I Laugh

Mason’s best leading role came with Only When I Laugh (1981), another Neil Simon script, this time an adaptation of his play The Gingerbread Lady which won Maureen Stapleton a Tony in 1971. Simon did a major reworking of the material and the result was the best of the Mason-Simon collaborations. Mason’s work in the newly titled Only When I Laugh is probably her best performance. Portraying an actress and a recovering alcoholic, Mason’s Georgia is a mass of nerves, anger, vulnerability – a character working from the ground up to rebuild her self confidence, her life, and her relationship with her daughter (Kristy McNichol). Her self-deprecating humour, the casual and sometimes edgy interplay with her best friends (James Coco and Joan Hackett), her trepidation around her ex boyfriend – they all ring true. And when the character has her inevitable fall off the wagon, it’s both believable and terrifying because it’s so casual. Mason received a deserved fourth Oscar nomination, and there were also nominations for Coco and Hackett.

Her final leading role on film was in Max Duggan Returns (1983) featuring another screenplay by Simon. Mason played an English teacher and single mom whose life is turned upside down when the father who abandoned her returns. Matthew Broderick, just starting out, plays her son, Jason Robards plays the father, and Donald Sutherland is a detective. Herbert Ross, who had helmed The Goodbye Girl, was the director. Things move at a quick pace, there are some laughs, the cast is good, but its overall impact is a little flat. Everyone tries very hard, but it doesn’t gel.

You have to wonder if Mason’s professional/personal partnership with Simon hindered her career, with the marriage ending in 1983 just as she was entering that age (early forties) when actresses found it hard to maintain a career as a leading lady in the male dominated world of Hollywood – particularly Hollywood in the eighties. I’m not sure people thought she was capable of much beyond what Simon created for her. Whatever the reason, after the mixed reviews and middling attendance for Max Duggan Returns, the best that Mason could get was a supporting role in the Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge.

It’s too bad. Mason was a wonderful comedic actress, but she was also an intuitive and smart dramatic actress. Although few people saw it, her doctor in Promises in the Dark really is a terrific performance and her portrayal of the alcoholic Georgia in Only When I Laugh is superb.

In addition to the occasional supporting role in films during the last 35+ years, Mason enjoyed a productive run on stage in projects as varied as Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, Steel Magnolias and a reunion with Richard Dreyfuss in a London revival of Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. She has also popped up in multiple TV films and TV series guest shots. Particularly memorable was an Emmy nominated run on Frasier in 1997-98, a stint as Patricia Heaton’s mom on The Middle, and as a friend of Jane Fonda’s Grace in the Netflix hit Grace and Frankie.

These are Marsha Mason’s essential performances, in order of personal preference:

  • Only When I Laugh (1981) – A deft, incisive portrait of a recovering alcoholic that’s both funny and heartbreaking.
  • Cinderella Liberty (1973) – Tough, funny and an ultimately sad portrait of a destructive woman who can’t take care of herself or her child.
  • Promises in the Dark (1979) – A little seen drama with Mason excellent as a withdrawn doctor.
  • Chapter Two (1979) – Mason is essentially playing herself here in a low key and sometimes comic examination of relationships and marriage.
  • The Goodbye Girl (1977) – Mason showed she could cry and trade barbed lines with the best of them as the jilted dancer who falls for Richard Dreyfuss.
  • Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) – Mason played Judy Garland’s desperate and frightening mother in this excellent TV production. A strong performance.
  • Frasier (1997-98) – Mason proved her comedic skills were still in tact as the girlfriend of Frasier’s dad.
  • Blume in Love (1973) – An attention getting supporting role with Mason holding her own with George Segal.
  • Max Duggan Returns (1983) – This was Mason’s last big role on screen and she showed assured comic timing in material that lets her down.
  • Dinner at Eight (1989) – A inferior TV remake of the classic 1933 film, but Mason is a delight as the high strung society matron hosting the dinner.

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