Mercedes Ruehl makes up for slow start in show biz

May 16, 1993|By Lisa Anderson | Lisa Anderson,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- In celebrity terms, she's the late-blooming Baby Boomer's dream come true.

For 15 years, nobody in New York -- not casting agents, producers, writers nor directors -- seemed able to divine the professional promise in Mercedes Ruehl. Even the actress herself began to wonder as she wandered between waitress jobs and auditions. Most people would have given up. She almost did.

"Well, if you can say the first real impulse to become a performer started when I was 4 and the first real breakthrough started in my early 30s, well, that was a long time to live with a dream," says the fortysomething Ms. Ruehl, with a shrug.

But that was eight years, 10 films, a Tony Award and one golden Oscar statuette ago -- and nobody in Hollywood or New York, not even the pitilessly self-scrutinizing Mercedes Ruehl, wonders about her potential now.

From the cyclonic fury of Connie Russo in 1988's "Married to the Mob" to her poignant, Oscar-winning performance as the tough, tender Anne Napolitano in 1991's "The Fisher King," Ms. Ruehl has played a spectacular game of catch-up.

In June, she will appear in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Last Action Hero," before beginning a stint on the stage here as the female lead in Jon Robin Baitz's two-character play "Three Hotels."

Her most recent film, "Lost in Yonkers," opened Friday. Co-starring with Irene Worth and Richard Dreyfuss, Ms. Ruehl re-creates her Tony Award-winning role as Aunt Bella in the movie, based on Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

So, what took so long?

"I don't know. Readiness is all. I think it's safe to say I wasn't ready," she says, slowly. Clearly, it is something she's thought about a great deal.

Born into an Irish-Spanish family in New York, Ms. Ruehl is the daughter of a retired FBI agent father and schoolteacher mother. The family, which traveled with her father's job from Pennsylvania to Indiana to New Jersey, finally settled in Silver Spring when Ms. Ruehl was 8 years old.

She spent her elementary and high-school years in Catholic girls' schools before entering the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic women's college in suburban New York, where she graduated (( with a degree in English literature and a passion for acting.

From there, it was on to Manhattan, where she hoped to find an acting job and wound up getting a big dose of culture shock. "I think I was very afraid in my early years in New York," says Ms. Ruehl, who believes her rather sheltered, all-girls education might have had something to do with this. Nothing had prepared her for the assaults the city and her chosen career would make on her sense of self and identity.

"To really be a focused performer, you really have to know who you are, you have to have something to say, you have to be prepared to say it, you have to know who you are as a woman, you have to know what you are sexually -- you have to have some kind of sense of critical masshood about yourself," she says firmly.

She began to develop that sense through years in regional repertory theater and honed it further in therapy.

"And it took me until I was about 32 to say, 'OK, I'm ready now to face the world with this identity, this modus operandi.' That was just my timing on it," she says, ending with a wide smile and a wave of her hands that seems to dismiss this as a neat explanation of those 15 struggling years.

The most magical role, perhaps, came with her casting in 1991 as Aunt Bella, the sweet, funny, frustrated and sadly addled girl-woman in "Lost in Yonkers."

Set in the New York suburb of Yonkers in 1942, it is the story of two young, motherless boys who go to live with their tough, unsentimental, Jewish grandmother and their eccentric, somewhat backward, spinster aunt, Bella.

Ms. Ruehl won a Tony for her portrayal of Bella and, she says, couldn't resist the opportunity to translate her to film.

After all, it was Ms. Ruehl's role. "Yes," she says, "after I figured out who she was -- after I figured out she was me -- I didn't want anybody else to play her."

Asked to explain Bella, Ms. Ruehl smiles. "Friends who know me very well have told me that there's more of me in this character than in anything else I've done.

"There is an eagerness wedded to something fearful and cautious wedded to a vulnerability that is both a handicap and a strength at the same time.

"And I don't know Neil [Simon] very well, but from what I've perceived, these are all ways you could describe Neil, too," she adds. "So, I think that somehow this character is very close to his heart. It's certainly very close to something that lives in my heart."

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