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Happy 75th to Four-Time Oscar Nominee Marsha Mason

by Eric Blume

Marsha Mason speaking at an event in 2015Today marks the 75th birthday of Marsha Mason, one of Hollywood’s leading ladies from the 1970s.  Celebrating her is easy because she brought a lot of light and joy to screens for a decade and a half with her toothy vibrance and warm energy.

It’s strange to think that contemporary young movie audiences don’t even know Mason, since she scored four Oscar nominations for Best Actress over nine years!  Her first nomination came in 1973 for Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty, where she plays a prostitute with an 11-year-old mixed race son.  Her rapport with co-star James Caan and the young actor who plays her son has a scrappy grace to it, and it’s a winning performance. 

Mason’s other three Oscar nominations came from roles written or tailored expressly for her by her then-husband, Neil Simon...

Marsha Mason in CHAPTER TWO (1979)

It’s difficult to remember how hugely successful Neil Simon was for well over two decades.  He churned out one Broadway hit after the next, and many of them went on to become hit film versions.  He was a “brand” that audiences knew, understood, and treasured.  And he had the stature and commercial power to make sure his wife was cast:  imagine if we could have a big-screen treat every two years for Carrie Coon written by Tracy Letts!

Simon’s writing had a sort of frame around it, where the characters were a blend of naturalistic and stylistic:  they were characters who talked like you wish you always talked, and they existed somewhere between sitcom and reality (there were exceptions to this, of course, amongst his finest writing).  Mason’s acting in her three nominated roles—1977’s The Goodbye Girl, 1979’s Chapter Two, and 1981’s Only When I Laugh—matched the style of this writing.  Her acting, as well, was vaguely self-aware, and pitched just beyond sitcom, just under something from the stage.  In some ways, it’s hard to know how much her approach and execution were in service to Simon’s writing or how much it was her own. 

Regardless, Mason does fine work in these three films.  The first two of the trio are romantic comedies that have not aged particularly well.  But it’s a tribute to Mason’s savvy and skill that she takes somewhat annoying characters and brings them both a humanity and a depth.

While Only When I Laugh remains, in many ways, a relic from the early 80s which is not lit or shot particularly well, and feels movie-cute in tone, Mason kills it playing an alcoholic actress who lost custody of daughter Kristy McNichol (!), but has a summer to rebuild the relationship while she opens a new Broadway show basically playing herself.  Mason effortless nails her comic timing on all of Simon’s jokes, but the performance goes further.  In showing us this woman who is almost always acting, and is so afraid to let anyone see who she truly is, Mason carefully calibrates who she lets in, when she lets them in, and why.  Simon wrote her a beautiful mini-aria that comprises a 20-minute stretch where she relapses and shows up at her friend Joan Hackett’s party and embarrasses herself and everyone.  She plays it to the hilt, handling the rollercoaster turns with precision, and finding the uncomfortable truth behind the character’s shame.  Her big scene with the flinty, glorious Hackett is the film’s highlight:  there’s joy in their duet and it soars.

Mason’s particular gift was delivering on the commercial demands of the project while plumbing downward to add substance to the piece.  After the four Oscar nominations, Mason sadly had a short ride as a leading actress, appearing in only two major feature film roles:  1983’s Max Dugan Returns (another Simon vehicle) and Clint Eastwood’s 1986 Heartbreak Ridge.  She went on to an Emmy nomination on Frasier and several Broadway roles, including a revival of Night of the Iguana opposite Cherry Jones and Impressionism with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen.

The Goodbye Girl (1977) won both Comedy Globes for Marsha & Richard. Only Richard followed up with an Oscar

Here’s wishing Marsha Mason a wonderful three-quarter-century day.  And here’s hoping that someone comes along to give her a juicy comic or dramatic turn in her late career.  She deserves it, and it would be a delight to see.

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Reader Comments (25)

I just watched her guest star on this season's Grace and Frankie.

Happy Birthday to a fellow St. Louisan!

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

The fake Marsha is loving this tribute. She always makes material better than it is on the page, and Only When I Laugh is a tragicomedy high point for her. And she was so hilarious in Frasier, I had almost forgotten that one. It's a shame Judd Apatow or Amy Schumer haven't thought to use her.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

A really nice write-up and tribute to her. Thanks.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Eric, thank you for this lovely tribute to a wonderful and criminally under appreciated artist. Marsha brings such humanity and compassion to her work. It's terrible she didn't win the Oscar for OWIL. It's one of the best performances from that decade. Happy Birthday!

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I've only seen her in THE GOODBYE GIRL, so I think it's time I see her other 3 Oscar-nominated performances in honor of her birthday.

Looks like CHAPTER TWO and CINDERELLA LIBERTY are available VOD, but ONLY WHEN I LAUGH is only on DVD?

Sadly enough, when searching the (3 different) public library systems here, under Marsha Mason they only carry THE GOODBYE GIRL, HEARTBREAK RIDGE, and BLUME IN LOVE?

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

Can't say that I'm a huge fan but this was beautiful to read. I love reading about your divas. Let's do some more! Babs and Bujold are also turning 75. Jane Fonda and Redgrave are turning 80!!!

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

In the 90s, I was a teenage cinephile and first noticed Marsha Mason in NICK OF TIME and 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY. Neither film represents Mason at her best, but they introduced me to an actress who I was delighted to learn had received 4 Oscar nominations earlier in her career. I often wondered if some director would give her a role that reminded Hollywood of her talents, but nothing has materialized in the past 20 years.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick T

thanks for this Eric.

My personal favorite of her performances is CINDERELLA LIBERTY which I wrote up here but i must confess: I've never seen ONLY WHEN I LAUGH. I was too young for it at the time and it's always been not readily available... though i think you can now rent it on Youtube?.

April 3, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I feel sorry and deprived somewhat when it comes to Marsha Mason. Sorry that Hollywood must have seen her as mostly a vehicle for her husband's words, and also that her strength was in light social comedy. Good luck finding those made any more.

And I feel deprived because I really think she is probably capable of a lot more and we haven't had a chance to see it. I'm sort of surprised that she hasn't been better utilized by "peak television."

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

I just saw her in GRACE AND FRANKIE!
And yes please give her more roles now, at least from those Ryan Murphy shows lol

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I could have seen her in "Doubt" or in "Osage County" - it's really such a shame only one actress is offered plumb older-lady parts. As the son of an alcoholic mother.....everything about her in Only When I laugh was startling. Especially when she takes that first drink, very nonchalantly when she's with Hackett & James Coco. I thought she was fantastic - loved her as the white trash Sherry in Frasier & now she pops up on "The Middle." I hope she is doing well and is a happy person.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

A lovely write-up, thanks Eric. Watching these films as an Oscar fan and actressexual in the early 2000s, the four nominations didn't make much sense on their own until I found out about Neil Simon. CINDERELLA LIBERTY remains my favourite of Mason's nominated performances.

ONLY WHEN I LAUGH is worth seeking out even if only because it got 3 acting Oscar nominations and was a Golden Globe winner.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

FWIW, i believe Only When I Laugh is downloadable on iTunes...that's how I saw it recently. She's fantastic in it! Nathaniel, try to catch it if you can.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

i was about to say something about how quickly she went from a regular oscar nominee to semi-forgotten, but then i realised how long ago 1973-1981 is...

aka most of my teenage years. sad face

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Two of her films from the 70s--Audrey Rose and Promises In the Dark--are readily available on DVD, and she's terrific in both. She was Globe-nominated for the latter.

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Thanks for the heads-up on ONLY WHEN I LAUGH you guys. I usually do rentals on Amazon Instant Video, since it's pretty much a one-click purchase. For iTunes rentals, is there a way to stream it or do you have to download the movie first? I haven't rented anything on YouTube before...

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I love Marsha Mason. The Goodbye Girl and, curiously enough, Max Dugan Returns are my favorite of her films, but I also enjoy the Postcards from the Edge-style treatment she got in Moonlight & Valentino. (That seems like Kathleen Turner's last sizeable role on the big screen, too.)

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Promises in the Dark should have been her Oscar nominated role in 79,OWIL should have won her the Oscar.

Her career is rather like Kathleen Turners in that they stuggled after 40 then disappeared.

Zellweger did the same,Cameron Diaz has also gone into a prolonged absence like Bridget Fonda.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

markgordon - Didn't Bridget Fonda retire from acting to raise a family after marrying Danny Elfman?

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Yes but around here she is sadly missed,I caught her on TV the other day in Lake Placid,such a fun movie with gr8 performances,long forgotten now.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

I was a huge fan of Kristy McNichol. She deserved a nomination for Only When I Laugh, but Joan Hackett was the lucky one! However, McNichol won 2 Emmys for her spectacular performance in Family. It's so sad that she could not cope with the stress of acting and with her personal issues and she had to retire.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

This was an absolutely lovely celebration of a wonderful actress. You are right, sadly, most people today don't even remember Marsha Mason and that's a shame and a crime.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony

I've always considered her a guilty pleasure. At times, I hold back from rewatching Chapter Two because I enjoy her weird-likability so much. Even The Good-bye Girl has me watching her over R. Dreyfuss or her precocious daughter.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

I have never understood why she did not become a bigger star. She certainly had the acting chops.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK

An Oscar track record curiously similar to Jennifer Lawrence's: a nomination for a gritty breakthrough, and then three more in quick succession as the muse of a very singular filmmaking voice. Of course, J-Law already has a statuette in the bag, but it'll be interesting to watch her future favour with the Academy.

April 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian S-G

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