LOS ANGELES - It's a Hollywood rite of passage, a young actress' transition from playing teenagers to playing young women. Agents, managers and the actress herself study dozens of scripts, searching for the right one, the one in which the actress can grow up gracefully and alter her image for the long haul through her 20s and 30s.
For Glynnis O'Connor, the right role was in "Those Lips, Those Eyes," which opens in Chicago on Sept. 19. She plays a scarlet woman, but a sort of innocent one. The movie is set in a summer stock theater outside Cleveland in 1951, and she's the sophisticated young dancer from New York who has two summer affairs - one with the leading man: and one with the stage-struck local kid who's the assistant stage managers.
It was a new kind of role for O'Connor, whose only previous affair in a movie was the mysterious and highly problematical one in "Ode to Billy Joe." She usually plays healthy and relatively naive kids. She was born in New Rochelle, NY, but she looks like a California sun child, with her wide-open eyes, scrubbed face and vaguely impish grin. She played such girls in "Baby Blue Marine" and "California Dreaming," and most notably as tennis star Maureen Connolly in the TV movie "Little Mo."
Now suddenly, at 24, she was wearing makeup at last - and making the first moves. Tucked away in the corner of the Beverly Wilshire's breakfast room sipping coffee, looking like a kid as she held the cup in both hands, she talked about the transition.
"I was worried about making my character seem too hard," O'Connor remembered. "I'd played all these more innocent characters, and in the first weeks of shooting I tended to go overboard. The screenplay calls for the girl to go after these guys, and to make a pretty, bold play for the innocent young stage manager, but I was playing too mature, too horny. I had to get a softer quality back. I think I found about the right balance, finally."
The movie was shot on location in a real outdoor theater, Cain Park, near Shaker Heights, and the process of making the film was a lot like the process described in the plot, she said.
"The movie's about these people who are together for one summer, who have to work and compete and cooperate, fall in love, advance their careers - and all before everything comes to a halt at the end of the summer. Making the movie was like that. We were all together on the set for the whole eight weeks, rain or shine, mostly rain. We were advancing out careers. We were competing and cooperating, maybe even falling in love. Our lives were like rehearsals for the movie."
In the film, O'Connor plays a dancer named Ramona who smokes, uses lipstick, has been around (as "around" was defined in 1951). She has a brief affair with the company's star, played by Frank Langella as a perpetually insecure actor always scanning the audience for Broadway talent scouts. Then she decides to go after the kid who's assistant stage manager played by Thomas Hulse, one of the fraternity pledges in "National Lampoon's Animal House." He takes the affair with desperate seriousness. She doesn't see it that way.
Glynnis O'Connor grew up in settings a lot like those in the movie. Her mother was a drama teacher and sometime Broadway actress, her father was an actor and sometime TV director, and her three brothers also acted from time to time. She made her stage debut in the third grade, she remembered, and was in productions of "Oliver!" and "The Sound of Music" while she was still in high school.
Her training suggests a stage mother, though she insists her parents didn't push her into show business: "It's just that all I ever cared about was drama. That's all I wanted to take in high school. I took three years of ballet, starting when I was 10. Then I decided acting, not dancing, was where I wanted to be. I was in a little movie called 'Jeremy' while I was in high school - my brother was auditioning for it, my mother took me along, and I got a role. Robby Benson was also in it - we were together again in 'Billy Joe.'"
"Anyway, I got a part in a TV series, 'Sons and Daughters,' which lasted only nine episodes but got me out here to California. I remember getting off the plane, dumping my bags and going to see 'Andy Warhol's Frankenstein' my first night here. I had three suitcases and a guitar, but at least I had a job. When the series was canceled, I worked in TV movies, in commercials, anything, but I kept busy."
"I didn't think I was right for 'Those Lips, Those Eyes.' Nobody ever called me a femme fatale. But I'm always insecure when I'm acting. It's always the same: I think everyone's watching me, criticizing me. After a while I found I could use those attacks of nerves to give me energy. It's a funny thing: Some of my best stage performances have come when I was sick. The curtain goes up, and I'm well until it goes down again. Then I'm sick as a dog."
"I used to hate the first days on a movie because I thought everyone was sizing me up, seeing if I could do the job or not. Now I sort of like them, because there hasn't been time for personalities to come out and become familiar, so you're just doing your job." We were talking in the midst of the actor strike and I asked her what she thought about it. She didn't seem passionately involved: "I'm for what we want. I think it's right for actors to get a piece of the net. And it'll set a precedent for the writers and directors, too. The creative people make the show or movie good enough to sell forever, if it does sell forever, and so why shouldn't they have a share of those sales? "About me...I just finished a movie, so I wasn't interrupted in the midst of anything. Naturally, it goes without saying that I fear I'll never work again.
All actors have that fear when they're out of work. You could be working for three years straight and be at liberty for one week, and you're paranoid. They say even Henry Fonda feels that way. But what I'm gonna do...well, I don't know. Maybe audit some classes at a university Practice my dancing. Play tennis. Even...audition for a play?"