Some actors are just blessed.
That is certainly the case with Geena Davis and Lois Smith, award-winning veterans of different generations who find a way to keep working consistently in a business that often throws talent away. They currently are co-starring as daughter and mother in the film adaptation of Marjorie Prime, the sci-fi-tinged play that Smith first performed in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2014, followed by a New York run. She then got the rare privilege of reprising the role she created in the film version, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is now in theaters. Davis joined the project when the cameras rolled, but both give memorable performances that already are being touted and advertised as Oscar contenders.
Although the film, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s play and directed by Michael Almereyda, is just a small indie project released by Film Rise, it has the goods to appeal to the Actors branch of the Academy as well as SAG, where the SAG Nominating Committee gave it a standing ovation Monday night when it screened for fellow actors. The premise is that the events of the story are set somewhere in the near future where “Primes” are possible. A Prime is essentially a computer-driver hologram of a dead human being. Marjorie (Smith) finds solace in communicating with her dead husband’s (Jon Hamm) Prime, which has been programmed with so much correct information about him that it seems like the real thing. The plot goes on from there into truly surreal, somewhat creepy but fascinating territory. Tim Robbins plays Davis’ husband and was an executive producer on the film along with Hamm and others.
On Tuesday I sat down for lunch with Smith and Davis at the Beverly Hilton and immediately pointed out the fact that they both have led a charmed existence in this business that few actors have. In fact, most actors, if they are even this lucky, get their first break on film in some godawful B-movie horror film or other trifle. Not these two. Both started at the top and are quite aware of it. Although she auditioned for the role Julie Harris got, Smith landed a key supporting part in the 1955 James Dean classic East of Eden, which earned four major Oscar nominations and was directed by none other than Elia Kazan.
Davis, who said she probably would have done anything, including playing a tomato in a commercial, also hit the jackpot with her first film role in Tootsie, which went on to receive 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Both movies were massive hits and live on to this day as film classics.
“Whoever knows these things?” asked Smith. “I was a young actress, hadn’t been in New York long, and I think every young actress went to see about the part. And I think [Kazan] already knew he wanted Julie Harris but he just said to me after we’d spoken, ‘You know, there’s this part, the barmaid.'” The rest is history. As for Davis, she too is ever thankful for such a high-profile debut. “That’s the way to start, and I would have done anything. It wouldn’t have mattered to me,” Davis said. “That was crazy fortunate, sort of to have the bar set that high in the beginning. I mean, my first film. It was my first audition even, and to have Sydney Pollack as the director — I mean, you can’t top that, and Dustin Hoffman as your co-star. It was amazing.”
For Smith that first break was in the mid-‘50s, and she has been a staple in movies, TV and especially the theater ever since — more than 60 years later. For Davis it was 1982, and before that decade was out she would be an Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist, followed by classics like Thelma and Louise, which she says is still the best script she has ever read, as well as A League of Their Own and so many others. As far as that Oscar was concerned, Davis says she was absolutely shocked that she won, especially since she saw a pre-Oscar Oprah Winfrey Show show where all the experts, including Gene Shalit and Rex Reed, said she had no chance to win. “I forget what they all said, but one them said, ‘She’s totally miscast because she’s too pretty,’ and then Rex Reed said, ‘Too pretty? She’s too ugly. She has eyes like a naval orange.'” Davis obviously had the last laugh, but she never forgot the criticism. “It set a new standard for unnecessary nastiness,” added Smith after hearing Davis’ Oscar horror story.
Smith also is no stranger to trophy shows, having won numerous awards for stage work like The Trip to Bountiful, along with multiple Tony nominations in her long career. This is the first time she is being seriously touted for Oscar recognition. She is one of those famous faces you know instantly, even if you don’t immediately know the name. The industry certainly does.
As for Marjorie Prime, this is probably Davis’ best film performance in 20 years, and for Smith, maybe ever. It is a provocative subject that Smith says draws varying interpretations. “Some people are creeped out, and some people are comforted about the whole thing,” she said. “It really is about how we are human and what we do with it. That’s what the piece is about.” And she should know, having played it so often on stage and now film, but Smith notes that she has learned new things about the role over and over with each performance. Davis thinks the whole idea of having a Prime is not that far off, considering the technological advances in our world. “It’s kind of like cord blood, that when you have a baby they want to save the cord blood for future medical advances. I think we all have to start recording ourselves so that the Prime (which is fed information about the deceased human being) can be very accurate. I really think we have to start banking the information,” she said, adding that making the film reminded her of her own relationship with her father, who lived to be 95. “And yet there were still things that I forgot to ever ask him, and well, nobody knows that now. And it’s not like a Prime could know it, I guess, unless somebody told it. They can’t see the past.”
Smith is thrilled to be part of a movie that will start a discussion. “It’s a very evocative way of thinking, this movie, isn’t it?” she said. “I still am fascinated by it, even with all of my years connected to it. I mean, I love the idea that people are going to come see and start to think about it. I hope a lot of them do.”
As for the future, Smith is readying to do two more plays including a new one for off-Broadway next season written by Craig Lucas for which she is learning sign language. Davis has a new film going to next month’s Toronto International Film Festival and actually has her own film festival now every year in Bentonville, AR, that focuses both on on-screen representations as well as those contributions behind the camera, remaining as a vehicle for championing women and other diverse voice in media. It is a product of her 12-year-old non-profit, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, partially inspired by her experience making Thelma and Louise and created towards improving the quantity and quality of female characters in media specifically made for kids.
Sounds like these two stars are still just coming into their own prime.