There's a remarkable scene in A Short History of Decay, the début film by writer/director Michael Maren, that will be familiar to anyone whose life has ever been touched by illness -- which is to say all of us. Sandy Fisher, played with exquisite nuance by award-winning actress Linda Lavin, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's and aware that she's losing her lucidity. Sandy has just had a brave, candid conversation about the reality of her illness with her son, Nathan, a writer played by Bryan Greenberg. She reveals how scared her husband (Harris Yulin) is by the prospect of losing her -- he's in poor health himself, having suffering a stroke. The ostensible subject of the conversation is Sandy's need to move into an assisted-living center, but the subtext is mortality, and Lavin's performance is a master class in acting. It is during their embrace, when her son cannot see her eyes, that she reveals the fear and terror she's kept at bay.
I've kept an eye on this beautiful film throughout its development, and when I finally saw Lavin's performance -- especially in the scene I've just described -- I was devastated by its honesty. My mother had Alzheimer's. Unlike Lavin's character, my mother was not aware of what was happening to her -- her version of the disease announced itself suddenly, with episodes of paranoid delusions. Having lived through her nightmare, I can't say I would have preferred a gradual declension of the sort embodied by Sandy Fisher -- the "short history of decay" that would have allowed for time to accept and adjust and plan. Knowing my mother as I did, I think that living with an awareness of what was happening to her mind would have horrified her.
My focus on this scene, and my interest in the Alzheimer's arc of the film, should in no way mislead anyone into thinking that A Short History of Decay is depressing. Far, far from it. The film's triumph is the hope that plays like a horizon note throughout Maren's patient, careful storytelling. That, and its moments of pure grace and humor. Maren, whose mother has Alzheimer's, drew from his own life in writing the film, which he has called "a darkish comedy." Critics, including Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post, are praising Maren for managing what Fine calls "the nifty tonal trick of telling a tragic tale and somehow making you feel hopeful about its characters."
I had the chance to interview Linda Lavin by phone during the run-up to the film's release; it opened in New York City at the Village East Cinemas on May 16. I asked what she looks for in a script or screenplay, and what, in particular, drew her to Maren's film.
"I look for a script that makes me laugh and cry while I'm reading it," she says. "Michael's screenplay felt comic, tragic, real, funny, and sad."
How did Lavin prepare for the role of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer's?
"I didn't prepare," she says. "I just showed up. I used my imagination, and what was in the script -- what Michael had written. This is a personal story for him, so we would ask him questions. He was a very gentle guide as a director."
Alice Doesn't Work Here Anymore
Lavin's portrayal of Sandy Fisher might surprise audiences who know her only as the iconic and beloved waitress Alice Hyatt from the hit CBS series Alice, a role which earned her two back-to-back Golden Globe awards. So, for those who haven't kept up with her career, here's a quick primer: Two years after Alice ended its nine-year run in 1985, Lavin won a Tony Award for her performance as Neil Simon's mother in Broadway Bound, a role for which she also won Drama Desk, Outer Critics' Circle, and Helen Hayes awards.
All in all, Lavin has earned six Tony nominations -- for The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Diary of Anne Frank (where, as Mrs. Van Daan, she was first paired as Harris Yulin's wife), The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Collected Stories, and The Lyons.
At 76, Lavin is as busy as ever. In addition to the release of A Short History of Decay, she stars in a new play at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan. Nicky Silver, who wrote The Lyons, created the part of Audrey Langham in Too Much Sun for Lavin.
When I asked her what life experience had the most significant effect on her art and on her career, her answer was that of a woman familiar with spiritual awakenings:
"Life is about evolving. I can't say I would point to one experience. I believe everybody and everything that's ever happened to me has gotten me this far. I have more to learn, more to do. Each experience leads me to a place of knowledge and surrender and truth, and the ability to accept things as they are and the courage to change the things I can."
A version of this article appears on Marci Rich's blog, The Midlife Second Wife, where a trailer of the film A Short History of Decay can be seen.