Missing Sandy Dennis

Viggo Mortensen mixes poetry and prose as he remembers actress Sandy Dennis.

There are always moments, sometimes entire scenes and characters, that are cut out of a movie. For anyone who takes an active interest in the story they are helping to tell, whatever their capacity in a production, there is bound to be a degree of mental and emotional adjustment that has to be made between reading the proposed shooting script and viewing the finished work. Often, what is lost–what has been altered or discarded along the way as a result of rewriting, rescheduling, editing, dubbing, or scoring–can play as important a role in shaping one's overall perception of the movie as anything that actually ends up on the screen. Even when one understands and agrees with decisions to change significantly what has been written or shot, the spirit of what was attempted not only lingers in one's memory of the process, but can also colour one's judgement of how well-accomplished the movie finally is. Like it or not, for most of the people involved, their job is completed by others in the windowless rooms of editing bays and sound stages. At times this can be very frustrating. The trick is to find a way of continuing to care about one's contribution and yet be able to walk away when the job is done with a minimum of second-guessing and regret. It can take a long time and many movies to achieve that kind of balance. I know that, as an actor, I am still struggling with this.

Someone who was capable of giving herself completely to a performance and yet still managed to move on immediately, only glancing back at her work with unsentimental objectivity, was Sandy Dennis. Indeed she may have struggled for years to become as self-possessed and pragmatic about her acting as she was when I first met her in 1982, though it is hard for me to imagine that she ever had much trouble in restricting the visible drama of her life exclusively to her performances. Having won critical, as well as a degree of popular success early on, including Tony awards for A Thousand Clowns (1961) and Any Wednesday (1962), and an Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), she none the less had a fair amount of trouble getting good roles and making a living throughout her career.

During the last twenty years of her life, though respected by many for her stage work and occasionally given a movie role in which she could shine (such as The Out-Of-Towners [1970], The Four Seasons [1981], Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean [1982], Another Woman [1988] and The Indian Runner [1991]), she found herself largely marginalized by critics and by those with the power to hire. This was particularly true within the movie industry, where she was generally dismissed–when remembered at all–as a quirky has-been, a benign but overly complicated and totally unbankable actress. She did not complain about this, other than–very rarely–to wonder out loud how she was going to make ends meet and care for the many stray cats and dogs she had taken in over the years. She did not dwell on the past and never claimed to be the victim of injustice, personal or professional, though a case could easily be made for that being so. She was essentially a modest woman with a great gift, one which she enjoyed sharing, as both an actress and a teacher of actors. A professional artist in the best sense.

In 1990, it was my good fortune to work on what would prove to be her last movie. She played the role of the mother to David Morse's 'Joe' and my 'Frank' in Sean Penn's directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Charles Bronson played our father, and the cast also included Patricia Arquette, Valeria Golino and Dennis Hopper. When I first met with Sean Penn and his producer, Don Phillips, to discuss the possibility of my playing Frank, one of the first questions I asked them was who, if anyone, they had in mind to play the mother. When Sean answered that he did not want to consider anyone other than Sandy Dennis for the part, I couldn't have been happier, or more in agreement. Aside from my feelings for her as a friend, I believed she would be a great asset to the movie and would inspire us all to do our best. This proved to be true.

As it turned out, however, most of what she did was cut out of the movie. This was not due to any shortcoming on her part. On the contrary, she was brilliant throughout. The bulk of her role was in one eight-page scene in which Frank is taken by Joe to visit their parents for the first time since returning from a three-year tour in Vietnam. Frank is ill-at-ease from the start, and we gather that his relationship with his parents is not a very good one. Joe tries to keep the peace, as is his wont, but Frank rejects their hospitality and attempts at small-talk, insults them and eventually storms out of the house. This is particularly devastating to his ailing mother, who dies not long after. On viewing the assembled footage back in Los Angeles, it was decided that the story would work better if Frank refused to visit his mother and father and, in fact, never saw them again. A subsequent scene was shot in January 1991 to support this plot change.

I agree with the decision; dramatically the movie works better without the home-coming scene. It is perhaps more cruel and a greater source of guilt for Frank that he chose not to see his mother before she died. What I do miss, however, is seeing Sandy's performance in the scene, and having others see it too. She was working on a level far above the rest of us. The concentration and vulnerability that she invested in the scene were remarkable. Heart-breaking. The fact that most of us knew that she was dying of ovarian cancer as she showed us the emotional disintegration of the character made the experience all the more poignant.

I will always remember the three days we spent working on that ambitious scene: the sense of family, the pride in acting with her, the undercurrent of loss. She left Omaha and her native Nebraska, returning to New York the day after completing her job with us. That was the last time I saw her.

For Sandy Dennis


In an Omaha steakhouse full of indian summer sunday dinner feasting families you modestly celebrated what you knew would be the closest thing to a goodbye glimpse of home by eating and drinking as if willing the red-robed walls to fall on our table without a thought for the candle flame that would surely get sucked out as the particle board and plywood left the door frames and windowsills behind and rushed to the floor with a last gasp of generations of paint and wallpaper glue swirling into your lungs.


No movie can show your eyes as they looked after completing one last scene playing our mother, when you limped outside worn out and uncomplaining to squeeze onto the flimsy, rusted seat of a child's swingset for a photo opportunity. Your shaky hands gripped the chains and I felt your back tense with the strain of holding onto the unbearably ripe fruit of a half-stomach, but you allowed your swollen feet – at last freed of those horrible sandals–to trail back and forth through the cool September grass of the unmowed backyard.


You're packed and ready to go early the next morning, sitting on the well-made bed in a fresh dress and humming slightly out of breath with the radio, done hours ago with fighting off dreams.


You've pulled apart the heavy hotel drapes to let in the sun, and exclaim that there isn't a cloud in all that blue as if you'd never seen such a sky.


I carry your suitcase downstairs and we embrace in the driveway. I worry that I'm holding you too tight, and start to let go. Refusing to let me take you to the airport, you kiss me on the cheek and get in the taxi.

First published in Projections 4, edited by John Boorman, David Thomson, Tom Luddy & Walter Donohue  (Faber and Faber, 1995.) Reprinted in Projections: The Director's Cut, edited by John Boorman & Walter Donohue (Faber and Faber, 2006.)