Susan Anspach is best known for her appearances with Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces" and Michael Douglas in "Running," but a more obscure European production, "Montenegro," may be her masterpiece.
Goodnight Lionel in the room.
I met her at a Thanksgiving party in 2012. Karen Kaye, the sister of avant garde film maker Stanton Kaye, had been throwing the parties for years at her Echo Park home. Back in 1971, Stan made a film called "Brandy in the Wilderness," which created a large stir among bohemians in the Hollywood area. The bohemian scene was particularly vibrant around Los Angeles City College and a lot of us who gathered at Karen's were the core of Hollywood bohemianism. Sometimes new faces would appear. I liked going to Karen's parties because many of the people who went there were some of the greatest eccentrics of the era.
That's how I met Susan Anspach.
She was as eccentric as any of us. Karen died in 2009 but her niece Samantha kept the tradition going. Normally I'm a bit jaded when I meet new folks, but Susan was of a different sort. When my eyes lighted on her, I knew she was some kind of special lady. No wonder I couldn't describe her easily. I had spotted her sitting demurely behind a dining room table and couldn't take my eyes off her. I couldn't decide if she was an older biker chick or a slightly faded apparition of a formerly grand dame. Was she in her early 40s or early 60s? I finally determined she was an older woman who wore her years well. I felt like I should know her name, but I didn't. I knew I had known her in some past life, but when? I just kept staring, before I asked her some sort of awkward question.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" I asked.
Then I felt instantly embarrassed. I had clearly said the wrong thing. She answered in a tone of voice sounding like this was a question she got regularly and had answered many times before and she resented having to answer it again.
As a movie star, she moved in more rarified circles, so I likely had never met her. But she had been in a film that had had a personal meaning for me. She was in "Five Easy Pieces," which came out in 1970. It also was one of Jack Nicholson's breakout film.
Susan played a pianist in the film, and my mother was a pianist. She warned me she was not the character in the movie. "I was ebullient and free, she was restrained, uptight," Susan said. There had been two female leads in the movie. One of them was Susan's character and then there was the character played by Karen Black, an old-fashioned girl, a waitress, who "stood by her man" to the point of obsequiousness. Susan was definitely more like the character she had played than the Karen Black persona. While it may be true Susan was not exactly like the character she played, she obviously is a serious and intellectual person -- as is the pianist in "Five Easy Pieces." She also said that Bob Rafelson initially offered her Karen Black's role, but when she read the script, she told him that it would make a lot more sense for her to play the pianist.
In any event, I strongly related to "Five Easy Pieces," which happened to also be a classic of the era.
I first learned about "Five Easy Pieces" from my friend Gene Vier, a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times and many other newspapers. Vier was "the missing link" who knew every one. He was immortalized by Peter Falk in the television series "Columbo," because Falk studied Gene's odd mannerisms at a lunch at the Tiny Naylors at Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards and got them down perfectly for the famously eccentric Columbo.
Vier woke me up with a call about 6 a.m. "They made a movie about you," he told me staccato in between puffs on his ever present cigar. Of course I was curious. He didn't literally mean it was a film about me.
Vier told me that Jack Nicholson had on occasion stopped by the Xanadu, the old coffeehouse of the late '60s near Los Angeles City College. "You remember him," said, although I only had a very vague recollection. In this movie, Vier told me, he plays the black sheep of a prominent musical family." Vier knew well that my mother was the pianist Yaltah Menuhin and my uncle was the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.While I didn't light out to be a wildcatter in Bakersfield, I did work as a local newspaper reporter in places like Turlock, Livermore and Pismo Beach. I wrote for the Underground Press with many good writers of the period, best summed up by Bukowski. We all would come to agree that Nicholson had played the role just right.
That Thanksgiving day I met Susan, I thought my faux pas with her had ended any further conversation. But such was not the case. Somehow we both moved out to the porch and stood talking face to face. I quickly realized that she made me feel like I was walking on egg shells, always about to be pounced on for saying something wrong. I started to dance away, made nervous by the nastiness of her retorts. But when she saw I was withdrawing, she took my hand, and pressed it to her body, as if to say don't go away. We migrated toward a large couch in the front room, sat down side by side, still talking, still holding hands. I learned then that to love Susan meant you had to take copious daubs of love and hate.
It struck me that Susan was taking some joy in punctuating my illusion that "Five Easy Pieces" was in any way based on me, even if Vier had been quite accurate in seeing some strong parallels. Vier's comments were not meant to be literal, but the film was easy for me to relate to personally. Nicholson, Susan told me, knew nothing about classical music and a lot of the movie had been written spontaneously by Nicholson as it was being filmed, although someone else got film writing credit.
Talking about life imitating art, in real life Anspach famously had an affair with Nicholson, who even fathered her son Caleb, and then the two had protracted nasty and noisy and well lawyered court battles over various for years.
That Thanksgiving, Susan and I became oblivious to every thing around us as we engaged in intense conversation about most every thing. I had been divorced for a year at that point, and was still hopelessly in love with my ex. But talking with Susan prompted me to make a movie in my own mind. I was, of course, the star playing opposite her, just like Nicholson. I saw myself as Malcolm Lowry, the hopelessly dysfunctional author who in 1939 was scribbling early drafts of "Under The Volcano" at the Normandie Hotel near Wilshire Boulevard. There's a very famous story of Lowry meeting his future and second wife Margerie at a bus stop at Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. They took one look at each other and were suddenly hugging each other as if they were long-lost lovers from another life. Margerie had such an influence on Lowry, it was suggested she should have been listed as a co-author of Lowry's great masterpiece. This, then, was a moment straight out of literary history and I was starring in it with Susan Anspach. You might remember that "Under the Volcano" has been compared to "Moby Dick" as an American masterpiece.
Somehow, at that moment, Susan made me feel like that bumbling figure of a great author, ready for the right woman to come along and save him.
Of course Susan was never likely to play second fiddle in my orchestra. She was in many films, the greatest and best known ones out of the '70s and '80s. One of them was in Woody Allen's "Play It Again Sam." Once as were watching "Running" with Michael Douglas as a would be long distance runner trying to go to the Olympics, she burst into intense tears. At a critical point, Douglas stumbles and falls and has to be carted off by paramedics. Susan played his ex-, who still was lovingly standing by him, even if her husband's obsession had destroyed their marriage. Michael had so insisted on verisimilitude, he did exactly what his character did, and took a painful fall, and then got back up and pushed himself across the finishing line. The pain you saw on his face was real.
Anspach is proudly political. Her children stood with her on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles' grand concourse, holding signs for Cesar Chavez, with whom she later marched and fasted and who also gave her a much treasured cross. The signs were taller than her children. She cried when Obama won. "We fought so hard in the '60s for civil rights." She remembered the time she and Billy Dee Williams who were both starring in Broadway plays at that moment, were were turned away from a restaurant in New York City because Williams was black. And although she was adamant that "something is rotten in USA," she asked me if I thought Clinton could win. "Imagine! If I'm still alive, I'd live to see a black man and a woman become presidents. Wow!"
Of all the films she showed me, her masterpiece may have been the film "Montenegro," a 1981 black comedy by Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev shot in Sweden with actors from some of Bergman masterpieces. In Montenegro, Susan plays a bored blond housewife from America living with her very boring Swedish husband. She is kidnapped by Gypsies and only sort of tries to escape. Susan said she saw her character very much as a kind of Marilyn Monroe. As a young drama student in New York, Susan joined other important actors like Dustin Hoffman and Marilyn Monroe in being trained by Lee Strasberg.
Susan had thought long and hard about Marilyn Monroe. Over the year or more our friendship lasted, we often talked about what made Monroe tick. Susan had an interesting take on Monroe's marriage to the great playwright Arthur Miller. She said not to be so hard on Miller because he was hardly able to write a word all the time he was married to her.
Susan also pointed to Monroe's manner of looking half sleepy all the time. It was no accident, she proclaimed. Look at her eyes, she said. They always looked like they were partly closed. She looked like a person always wanting to get into bed. She wasn't tired so much as just sorta of sleepy. It was as if she were in a perpetual state of getting ready to be played with in bed, she said.
Before leaving New York to come to Hollywood, Susan made her mark on Broadway--she played the lead in the original "Hair." Broadway was also where she met her lifelong friend Dustin Hoffman, also a Broadway actor.
Susan now feels a bit slighted by Hoffman, whose career is churning along well enough. There was a lot of emotion there. When we were later trying to work out the logistics of meeting up one day, I suggested Canter's in the Fairfax District. Canter's had been a central meeting place in Los Angeles since at least the '60s. Susan strongly nixed that as a destination. With emotion in her voice, she said that she used to meet up with Hoffman at Canters, and with her husband and kids. She did not want to rekindle memories.
So we didn't meet at Canter's. We carried on this way for more than a year but our essentially platonic affair all came to an end for various reasons. But for many weekends, I looked forward to going to her place and watching movies and talking until late at night. Running into Susan Anspach that Thanksgiving day connected different periods of my own life.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books including Literary L.A., The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey, Fat Man on the Left and The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather, all available at Amazon's Kindle Store.