Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lois Nettleton

SyFy is airing one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes tomorrow, "The Midnight Sun," so a quick shout-out to its star, the late Lois Nettleton.

One of the last contract players at MGM in the 1950's, Nettleton's full and rich career included understudying (and going on for) Barbara Bel Geddes in the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a radical rethinking of Blanche DuBois in the 1973 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (The New York Times raved, "This is a Blanche who has been to hell and back and yet retains her innocence," while Rex Reed called her “shatteringly brilliant”), and a Tony nomination for the 1976 revival of They Knew What They Wanted. She also scored numerous Emmy nods, including wins for her role as Susan B. Anthony in the 1977 telefilm The American Woman: Profiles in Courage and for a 1983 episode of the anthology series Insight -- as well as two Daytime Emmy Awards for her work on General Hospital.

So given her impressive resumé, I hope she'll forgive my remembering her mostly for guest roles on three half-hour TV series: The Twilight Zone in the '60s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s, and Golden Girls in the '80s. In all three, Nettleton projects an easy blend of warmth and intelligence that seems to mask an underlying fragility: a look ideally suited to the small screen.

In the now-classic Twilight Zone episode, the Earth has fallen out of orbit and is moving ever closer to the sun; it's a great doomsday scenario, but it's also a limiting one. (Once writer Rod Serling establishes the premise, he doesn't really have anywhere to go.) But Nettleton runs with it: as she succumbs to the heat, you see resolve give way to reverie, and ultimately, to terror. Midway through, she unselfconsciously strips down to a slip, and you feel her abandoning pretense as well as hope, exposing herself not only to the elements, but to us. Critics have long heralded Serling's end-of-the-world vision as a metaphor for the anxiety that gripped viewers at the height of the Cold War; it's a strong idea supported by a couple great visuals (including melting oil paints streaking down a canvas as the temperature soars), but it's Nettleton's tremulous performance (opposite the very fine Betty Garde) that seers it in the memory.

In "Isn't It Romantic?", her Emmy-nominated turn on Golden Girls, she's Dorothy's friend Jean, who falls in love with Rose. On a show that too often veered into caricature for an easy laugh, Nettleton brings such dimensionality to her role that everyone seems on their best behavior. (The episode itself won an Emmy for Best Direction.) Her guest shot came at the perfect time: the start of the second season, just as the writers had learned how best to mine the characters for humor, but before they'd come to rely on cheap gags -- and Nettleton grounds it all, playing "straight man" to four crazy women, yet scoring just as many laughs. And when she's charged with all the reflective, poignant scenes at the end (opposite a thoughtfully modulated Betty White), she's careful never to let the serious moments devolve into "special" moments. The episode dates from 1986; it remains one of the best portrayals we've had of a gay or lesbian character on television. It also remains a series highlight.

In between those two guest spots, Nettleton offered up maybe my favorite of the three. In "What Do You Do When the Boss Says 'I Love You'?", she's Barbara Coleman, WJM's new program director, who falls for Lou Grant. It's one of the great episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's third (and best) season; as with Golden Girls, she arrived at an opportune time -- in this case, just when its creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, had been emboldened to uproot the series from its more traditional trappings (it had begun as sort of a That Girl 2.0), to deepen the core characters and back away from conventional sitcom humor. Quite aside from her wonderful work with Ed Asner, there's a memorable scene with Nettleton, Moore and Valerie Harper -- jokes rooted in character, the series' hallmark -- that I will always cherish. The three women have just returned from dinner, and as they enter Mary's apartment, they engage in the kind of slice-of-life banter that The Mary Tyler Moore Show did better than any show before or since:

Rhoda: I don't know, Barbara. I don't understand how you could be so settled in just three weeks. I've been in my place three years now -- still haven't taken the newspaper out of the glasses. Which explains why my orange juice tastes funny...
Mary: Hey, would anyone like coffee?
Barbara: Oh, no thanks, I'm fine.
Mary: Brandy?
Barbara: Terrific.
Rhoda: Yeah.
Barbara: You know, that French restaurant was really great.
Rhoda: Yah, it was a thrill for me just eating at a place where I didn't have to give my order by speaking into a clown's mouth.
Mary: Do you know that there was a time when I'd rather die than go out with the girls on a Saturday night?
Barbara: Yah, I can remember when I'd prefer even a rotten date.
Rhoda: Had one last Friday. A real zero. I mean, this guy could walk through an electric eye door, it wouldn't open.

And on it goes. Moore and Harper were a perfect duo; Nettleton makes it a terrific trio -- she settles in as if the three had been working together for years. I never saw Nettleton on the stage, and have yet to see her film performances, but on the small screen, I look forward to every (re)appearance.

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