Does Waxy Buildup Lead to Breakdown?
Louise Lasser Knows Whereof
“Mary Hartman” Hurts
By Lois Armstrong
I have no idea what’s going to happen to me next.
Louise Lasser, summer 1976
Like the title character she portrays on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Louise Lasser has hung in for six months – a nervous breakdown on hold. Her epic spaced-out performance and the series itself, a kitchen-sink theater of the absurd, have given lasting relief from the flatulence of American television. But the cast and crew – awhirl in the most merciless, brain-battering schedule ever devised by Hollywood – were too numb to notice. They were shooting (by Lasser’s calculation) “the equivalent of a movie a week” for 26 straight weeks. Some felt suicidal. Most were in therapy. It wasn’t a set. It was psychodrama.
Louise arrived on the series with an already shaky psyche – she has been seeing shrinks for the last 15 of her 37 years. By way of further trauma, she was caught in Beverly Hills this spring in a cocaine bust more surreal than anything ever written by “MH, MH” creator Norman Lear. Characteristically, part of Louise’s bizarre experience has been scripted into the syndicated series’ final episodes. As Mary, Lasser has dreamed disconnectedly through crises ranging from her husband’s impotence to mass murder to a freeze-dried vs. fresh-perked coffee dilemma – and without ever being able to differentiate between their relative significances. Out of Mary’s bewilderment and her own, Louise decreed the denouement of this first season to the story editors: “I knew that girl in puffed sleeves had to have a breakdown.” The day it was taped the set was cleared. When the crackup was completed, everyone rose and applauded. Some wept.”
As for Louise? “I felt wonderful,” she admits. “I’d had a nervous breakdown in playtime, with no consequences.” She laughs edgily, then adds, “For a while there, I wasn’t sure.” One of Lasser’s friends elaborates, “She totally broke down after that scene, because she had to finish it for herself.” Is she liberated by that performance? Louise has some things going for her right now. The alarm clock doesn’t explode at 6 a.m. every morning – the show is in a 13-week hiatus. She got off the “coke” charges with six months in a special program that she satisfies by continuing to see her own analyst. And, for the first time in her dozen-year acting career, she has emerged from the scrawny shadow of ex-husband Woody Allen.
Putting aside the sympathizers’ T-shirts that swept the country demanding FREE MARY HARTMAN, no judge – only Louise – can free herself. So far, the hiatus hasn’t helped much. “I’m not functioning properly when I’m not acting,” she concedes. “That’s a safe place.” Suddenly a gardener’s voice barks behind her, and she jumps a foot. “You see what I mean? You catch that?” she asks nervously. “When you are a celebrity you are totally a victim. There’s something great about success, and something horrifying.” Not that Louise has exactly gone public. She is hiding out with her seemingly closest companion, her mutt Kefir, in a rented house in Malibu Colony. She was forced to flee there after press reports of her arrest revealed the address of her also rented Benedict Canyon home.
As Louise recalls that inexplicable incident, she went to a charity boutique to buy a $150 antique dollhouse for her wardrobe mistress’s birthday. The clerk refused to accept her American Express card. “I had a 102º temperature and a blood infection,” Louise continues. “I didn’t yell, but I said very quietly like a child, ‘I’m not leaving without my dollhouse.’” When the cops were called, they arrested Lasser for nonpayment of two traffic tickets and then discovered in her purse 80 milligrams of cocaine (only $6 worth) that Lasser claims a fan had given her four months earlier. “I’m not a coke user, and I hadn’t used that stuff,” she says. “But you can’t plead innocent if you’ve got it on you.”
For all her vacant Little Orphan Annie gaze and bleached braids (they’re real), Lasser grew up in New York as the pampered only child of prosperous tax authority S. Jay Lasser. (Louise’s parents eventually divorced, and her mother later committed suicide.) “Whenever I was sick in bed,” she remembers, “Mother would read me poetry and Father would bring me comic books to round things out.”
Louise got through three years at Brandeis University before taking “a psychological leave of absence.” “I called my father and said, ‘You can come and get me now. I’ve finished here.’” Lasser got into acting in New York with Sanford Meisner, while at the same time studying philosophy (she likes to read such heavyweights as 18th-century philosopher David Hume). She played in an Elaine May revue and in two unsuccessful Broadway musicals. “I made a terrible chorus member,” she recalls. “I could never kick my foot at the same time as everyone else.” When Lasser’s agent called about auditions, Louise would insecurely say she couldn’t make it. “Why not?” her agent would ask. “Because I have an acting class,” she’d reply. “But, Louise,” he sputter, “this is the real thing.” (Also, she reports: “I hated audiences.” One of the distinctions of “MH, MH” is the absence of a live audience or laugh track.)
In 1966 Louse schlepped into Woody Allen’s life in a wild Scott ‘n’ Zelda marriage that self-destructed after four years. After they split Woody magnanimously put her in three of his movies (most notably, 1971's Bananas). She and Woody are still phone pals, and she considers him “the major relationship” and “major, major influence in my life.” The name on her driver’s license: Louise Jane Allen.
Lasser went on to more movies (Slither), TV (Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie), and an indelible bit as the patient housewife (“You’re a good wife, Mildred”) in a Nyquil commercial. When she first read the “MH, MH” script, Lasser confesses, “I didn’t get it.” Obviously, she caught on. Last season she earned $5,000 a week, which will obviously be upped when the number of stations carrying the show reaches 100.
“I am not ashamed of Mary,” says Lasser, who has no fears the show will give her dustballs on the mind. “I play a passive role in terms of women’s lib.” She continues to discuss further movies and writing, directing, and producing her own screenplays. A record, dating from an aborted singing career, is in the offing. Right now, in her fragile peace before returning to work, Louise putters around her beachfront home doing watercolors or flower arrangements. She often forgets to eat, then goes on a binge, buying $40 worth of junk food she may end up throwing away.
There are no signs that she will ever acclimate to California. “I used to feel they confiscated everybody’s books at the airport – to see if they could make a movie out of any of them.” She drives a leased 1974 Firebird, and one of her two famous traffic tickets was for the tourist-only crime of jaywalking. As for Hollywood, “It’s a summer camp,” she observes. “People are getting away with murder – moral, ethical, emotional – and one day their parents are going to come and pick them up, with their clay ashtrays and their lanyards. I mean they’re gonna get caught.” Louise thinks that, though she is far more hostile than the TV character she has created, she and Mary share a moral outlook. “We function out of a sense of what’s proper, and that’s so sad in 1976, because there’s no way of doing it.”
There is no main man in Lasser’s life currently, though a column has attached her to Bruce Solomon, who plays her unctuous cop lover on the series. Like Mary, Louise has the kind of unshakable soap-opera optimism that Kleenex cannot blot away. “I would love to get married again and have children,” she announces, but then adds a self-mocking spin: “I still entertain hopes of living happily ever after.”