Film history is peppered with actresses whose moment in the sun shined blazingly bright, only to be revealed as just that: a moment. When Mercedes Ruehl roared into 1988’s “Married to the Mob” as a spitfire with olive skin, gaudy bangles and gigantic hair, a star was born. Ruehl had played small parts in “Heartburn,” “Big” and other hits, but this marked her true breakthrough. A Los Angeles Times critic called her “epically funny.” Ruehl was christened one of the industry’s most promising newcomers.
Ruehl’s anointment resulted in an Oscar for her flashy but grounded performance in “The Fisher King,” a surreal 1991 comedy featuring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. She was 44 when she won, and in almost no time Ruehl’s big-screen roles started drying up. Call it the Best Supporting Actress curse if you’d like. “It’s hard to get a job after that,” she told me last week. “People think you want more money.” Ruehl remained a Broadway fixture, but Hollywood didn’t have much use for her anymore.
What kind of bullshit is that? Ruehl boasts a spirited, unforgettable screen presence, yet from 2004 until 2019, when she played a strip-club matron in “Hustlers,” she didn’t make a single theatrically released film. Her livelihood has been sustained by work onstage (“Torch Song,” “Occupant”) and on TV (“Entourage,” “Power”), and by the acting seminars she teaches in Manhattan (which she’s doing via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic), but aging became something of a professional handicap.
Wanting to know how Ruehl views the arc of her career, I asked her to reflect on a number of her most interesting projects, including “Another You,” “Last Action Hero,” “Lost in Yonkers” and “Gia.” She’s currently quarantining in the Hamptons, working on tasks around the house but pausing to enjoy “chocolate or a martini.” At 72, she’s earned it. By phone, we talked about Ruehl’s big break, realizing how Hollywood treats women, working with “unacceptable” men, making “Hustlers” in the Me Too era, and what it was like to collaborate with Williams, Richard Pryor, Faye Dunaway and others.
“Heartburn” was your first substantial movie role. We’re talking about a Mike Nichols movie written by Nora Ephron and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. How did you feel when you got it?
I got a call to meet with the producer and Mike Nichols at his office apartment in the Carlyle Hotel, so I went and I was very nervous, of course. Mike Nichols, I mean, there are a million ways to describe him, but one way is just a true mensch. He put me right at my ease, and I read a number of small roles in the audition. He was nice enough to say, “Well, you’re good at every one. Choose which one you want.” At one point I said, “Well, how about I do them all in different wigs?” He loved that. He said, “It’s not that kind of movie, but I admire your chutzpah.” I just remember that being a hell of a lot of fun.
After “Heartburn” came “Radio Days,” the Michael J. Fox blockbuster “The Secret of My Success” and “Big” with Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks. Amid all of that, did you think, “I’m hitting the big time here”?
Not until “Married to the Mob” because I could have stayed down in that small-character-part division indefinitely. I had done some great roles in theater, particularly regional theater. I think the first break happened when I was about 29 and I got a role in a play by Albert Innaurato at the Public Theater [in New York City] called “Coming of Age in Soho,” which was a very apt title for what happened to my career after that because I was ready to give it up. I thought, “You’ve been at this now for almost a decade. Darling, you can’t live like a graduate student forever. I mean, you’ve got to get a real bookcase and get rid of those orange crates.”
I remember going to see my family at Christmastime and saying, “If something doesn’t happen for me in the next month or so, I’m going to have to reconfigure.” All of a sudden, after trying to get in the Public Theater for nine years, I get an invitation from Albert. He says, “You don’t even have to audition. Just show up on Tuesday.” So I did. Then that was the beginning of the subtle dominoes, just falling one after another. I remember some casting director saying, “Dear, you’ve got to resign yourself to the fact that at best you’re going to get the best-friend roles.”
Did you ask why you would be relegated to that?
Well, it was not a conversation I even wanted to pursue because I think the implication was you either don’t have the weight — the artistic weight, or the gravity — or the beauty to become a leading actress in a movie. So, just to accept that you’re always going to be, as [T.S.] Eliot says in “Prufrock,” “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a scene or two.” I don’t know why I had this insane belief in myself, but I did.
The day came when I was called to read for “Married to the Mob,” and I was so afraid that the woman was so vulgar and I didn’t want to pitch myself out there as this foul-mouthed character-actress type. On the other hand, the role was so good and I thought, well, I’m going to play it as a very real, vulnerable person. And for some reason Jonathan [Demme] said, “That’s just what I’m looking for,” so he hired me and I was thrilled. That was so big that I almost shot myself in the foot because I was so scared.
Yeah. During the two or three weeks between getting the role and actually going to the first table read — it was in the ’80s, the time of big hair — I went and got this permanent that gave me this fabulous big hair. Then I went upstate to visit friends in the country and I rolled down a hill of clover the way you do when you’re a child because I was so exuberant, and I got poison ivy from the roots of my hair to the toes. And then on top of that, I don’t know how or why or what self-destructive thing was going on, but I was very late for the table read. I get a call from then-agent Susan Smith, and she was a tough cookie. She said, “Listen, kid, they’re going to fire you. You have to decide if you want this role or you don’t, and if you want it, you better straighten out quite right.” So I called Jonathan. Pretty understanding guy, but he also had some very strong reasons to doubt me. I said, “I’m just having a little bit of a conflict with my subconscious where there’s a lot of fear, but I’m going to overcome it by the first day of shooting, I promise you. And we can contain the hair.”
Your hair is still pretty big in that movie. How much could they have contained it?
I know, but you’re not supposed to change your appearance that radically from the time you get a role to the time you’re in the hair and makeup. So when they saw it, it was like, “What the fuck is this? It is not the person we saw in the audition.”
But I had to do something about the poison ivy, and a wonderful producer whose name was Kenny Utt was possibly the nicest man I’ve ever met in our business. He said, “I’m going to take you to a doctor and you’re not going to have that poison ivy on the first day of shooting, I guarantee it.” I don’t know what I got. Steroids or something. Because of his kindness, I was able to get through the first day of shooting with a certain amount of confidence.
The best scene in that movie is the climax when you come in waving the gun. It’s showy in just the right way. I understand that Demme kept wanting you to go bigger.
I had a lot of visual help because of the fabulous guy who was doing hair on that movie. I mean, I look like Medusa. I had hair going out three feet in every direction. I had gradually moved into the state of mind that woman might be in, and the thing that made that appearance so big was that her focus was small. It was on [Dean Stockwell, who played her philandering husband] and shooting off his cojones. You didn’t have to shout that scene. You just had to be a quiet, scary missile. I think we both recognized that underplaying that moment was where the power was.
A movie you did not long after that is “Another You,” which was one of both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s final screen roles. They’d collaborated for quite some time. What do you remember about the two of them?
I was closer to Richard than to Gene, though I liked Gene very, very much. I just had a natural rapport with Richard. In fact, he was very ill at that time [with multiple sclerosis], and I remember after the film was done visiting him in Bel Air a few times just to see how he was doing. He was so generous and so kind and funny, but very fragile at that time. [Peter] Bogdanovich directed that one.
But he was fired during the shoot, right?
Yeah, he was. You’re bringing all that back. I can’t remember the whole story. He was very involved with a young woman whose sister had also been somebody who was very close to Bogdanovich romantically. I think he was going through something very emotional at that time, and he was going through a transition as an artist at that time and he wasn’t quite grasping the material. It’s almost like the whole thing was a perfect storm. It sounded good on paper, but Richard was very ill and also Gilda [Radner, Wilder’s wife] had died not that long before. So Gene was going through something, and Bogdanovich was going through something.
Maybe this isn’t an apt comparison since they were at such different stages in their careers, but you worked with Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder and Robin Williams around the same time. How different were your experiences with those various improv masters who are known for always being quote-unquote on?
When I got to “The Fisher King,” that was the role I really, really wanted. I thought back many a time to that woman who said, “You’ll only do best-friend roles,” and I thought, “Well, hardy har har.” But that set was completely different. First of all, the script was not a leaky boat. It was written with a firm hand as to the plot and the ideas behind it by Richard LaGravenese. Terry Gilliam really had a strong instinct for directing the slightly surreal, Fellini-esque. Robin’s antic disposition had to be slightly held in check by Terry, and he was reminded from time to time to stick to the script. But whether the cameras were rolling or not, Robin was just entertaining everybody. There’s one long scene that we began filming at 6 at night and finished at 6 in the morning, the scene in the Chinese restaurant.
With Amanda Plummer.
Yeah, with Amanda, so you knew it was like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. During that whole night, every time the cameras would stop rolling to do a new setup, Robin would just start telling jokes. I have never laughed through a night for 12 hours the way I did that night. That was a dream. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun.
It was very different because in “Another You” the whole fabric of the story was a little fragile. Sometimes it all comes together, and sometimes it all falls apart.
At one point you said, “I don’t want to have Barbara Stanwyck’s career in terms of playing tough-talking urban women.” Do you think you were typecast?
I was doing plays in which I did not play a tough-talking New Yorker: “Other People’s Money” and “I’m Not Rappaport” and a couple other things. But yes, I was afraid of and to some degree was typecast as a tough-talking New Yorker. But I have to say, look at the roles: “Married to the Mob,” “Fisher King.” Who’d turn them down? It wasn’t “I must remember to be a WASP in my next movie.” Nobody saw me that way, you know?
You mentioned “Other People’s Money.” You weren’t hired for the movie adaptation. Penelope Ann Miller got that role. By the time “Lost in Yonkers” was being developed as a movie, did you do anything to ensure you wouldn’t miss out on another role you’d originated onstage?
Yeah, well, you have to fight for these things. I did “Other People’s Money” [off-Broadway], and then clearly they were throwing their nets out to different actresses. Who directed that one? Barry Levinson?
That’s right. I got a message that he was finally coming around to thinking about seeing me [for the role], but at that point I had already agreed to do the Broadway version of “Lost in Yonkers.” My agent said, “You have committed to ‘Lost in Yonkers,’ so no, you can’t meet with Norman Jewison.” I thought, “But I want to do this.” But then I saw immediately the light. She was quite right. I went into rehearsals with “Lost in Yonkers,” and very glad I did because I chose the project that really had legs. Unfortunately the film version of “Other People’s Money” didn’t do that well.
The film version of “Lost in Yonkers” also didn’t do exceptionally well. How did you feel about it in terms of the quality and commercial performance?
The play was much more sure-footed than the movie for a number of reasons. People said often, and it was true, that Neil Simon’s plays by and large did not translate to the screen. “The Odd Couple”? “Barefoot in the Park”? Yeah. But the later plays, no. Martha Coolidge, wonderful director, but this classic New York story was not her bailiwick.It was a life-changer for me to do that role on Broadway. I felt a little badly that the film didn’t do as well, but I kind of suspected when I read the script.
Arnold Schwarzenegger specifically wanted you for “Last Action Hero,” right?
Yeah, and he was a lot of fun. That’s not a wildly memorable role for me, but it was very pleasant working with him and very funny.
Did you feel at the time that it was a big deal? He was considered maybe the biggest movie star in America when that project was being developed.
I had met him sometime during the year before. It was Thanksgiving weekend. My then-agent was visiting friends in D.C., and she invited me to come with her to an open house that Sargent Shriver and his wife Eunice were having. Arnold was there, staying with them for the holiday, because he was married at that time to Maria Shriver. So I go into this bastion of Kennedys, you know? I had gotten this tweed suit. They all had this wonderful casual chic. I looked down at this tweed suit, and I thought, “This is just all wrong.” Sargent Shriver was there in his pajamas and a smoking jacket, just looking fabulous. Everybody was drinking and talking, and I knew no one. I felt very out of place, and all of a sudden from a stairway comes this vision of Arnold in a salmon-pink Izod shirt, muscles blazing and big smile. He came right over to me. I don’t know what he had seen, maybe it was “Fisher King.” He was so kind and so complimentary and so, like, “You’re the big actor in this room, not me,” and I thought, “What a delightful man.” So we wound up talking for about 45 minutes, and he saved my life at that party. I’m not sure why he felt so strongly about me. I’m very glad he did.
In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1995, you talked about what you called the “virus” of Hollywood and how unreal the industry is, especially for women who want any kind of power. Everyone talks about it now, but in the mid-’90s, did you feel like people were talking about the fact that women weren’t treated fairly?
If people were talking about it, why was more not being done?
Because the people who were what you call machers in Hollywood — the important people, the big power brokers — had so much power. I mean, why have we not impeached Trump? I’d never been an ingenue, but by that time I was 40-ish, so I was not a dewy young thing that was a morsel for a monarch. I was never in that category to begin with, and now I was too old for it.
When I was very young, I found myself with producers and directors whose behavior was unacceptable. Let’s put it that way. But never with the Harveys of the world that much. But there was this feeling like, after you’re 30, but certainly after you’re 40, Hollywood really has no need for you, thank you very much. It was the land of Jaguars and Armani jackets and power lunches and power breakfasts and where you were seen and where you weren’t seen.
I remember I did a one-woman show about Peggy Guggenheim a few years later. I have these absolutely adorable gay uncles, and they came to see me from Florida. I wound up sitting at a table with them as the opening-night party wore into the night. A lot of people left, and I was just hanging out with them. My agent came up and said, “You must go.” I said, “What?” He said, “You can’t be the last to leave your own party.” I said, “Oh, but it looks like I’m going to be.” So it was that. Hollywood was not the place for me.
Only six years after you won an Oscar and a Tony in the same year, “Gia” positioned you and Faye Dunaway as elder statesmen to the younger stars. Were you conscious of that?
Yeah. First of all, working with Angelina [Jolie] was very delightful. She was only 21, and she was committed to playing this young model who destroyed her life with such a searing commitment that you had to admire and respect her. I remember reading the thing and saying [of Gia Carangi’s mother, whom Ruehl portrayed], “Who is this woman?” She didn’t really have a whole lot of color to her. When I read the biography of Gia that this was taken from, I saw that the mother was of no interest to that writer either, so I thought, “Well, I’ve got to give her some kind of personality or I’m going to lose my mind in this film. I’m going to make her from Minneapolis.” She’s just got that heart-of-the-country sound, and it’s well-meant but clueless.
The guy who directed it, Michael Cristofer, wrote “The Shadow Box,” which he won a Pulitzer for. I had done “Shadow Box” a year or two before on Broadway, and we had become friendly. So he called and said, “Do this as a favor to me. You can make something out of this.”
The two of you don’t share scenes, but Faye Dunaway was infamously difficult by that point.
I was on the makeup wagon when this whirlwind came in with a lighting crew and took up the other makeup table in the long trailer we were in. She put lights all around it. She was waiting to have a manicure, and the woman didn’t show up on time and she was losing her mind. She was like General Patton: “Now. I want it now. Now. I want those lights there. I want this woman here. Who has my makeup? Who’s going to be here? Where’s my assistant? Blah, blah, blah.” It had just been this kind of quiet, peaceful morning, and all of a sudden, there was this whirlwind.
Having a dramatic Faye Dunaway story is a rite of passage. Around that time, you were name-dropped in a great Sheryl Crow song, “A Change Would Do You Good,” before the two of you made a movie together.
Yeah, I still don’t know if that was just a pun on Mercedes Ruehl because it’s almost like saying “Jaguars rule.” What was the name of that movie?
“The Minus Man” with Owen Wilson.
He was funny. Owen Wilson was the only person I’ve ever met who knew more Bob Dylan lyrics than I do. Interesting-looking little film.
After that, you did a few more movies, like “What’s Cooking?,” and a number of TV parts. But from 2004 until “Hustlers” in 2019, you don’t have any big-screen roles. Did that frustrate you?
It was frustrating. I didn’t have inspired representation at that point. Now I’m not represented by anybody in Hollywood and I feel much more comfortable. They were putting me in Hallmark Hall of Fame movies and Lifetime movies. I did a whole lot of them during that time.
By the time you’re doing “Mom at Sixteen” on Lifetime, is there ever a moment when you pause and say, “Um, I have an Oscar”?
You know, I’d love to show you a picture of my Oscar. I have different costumes for my Oscar. The first one I ever found was a sombrero and a serape, and it fit him just perfectly. I’ll send you a picture of Oscar’s winter wardrobe. I keep the Oscar in a spare bedroom.
It becomes something that’s terrific when you’re identified as an Oscar and Tony winner. That sounds good, but you realize it doesn’t assure a lifetime’s work in film. As a matter of fact, the day after I won the Academy Award, I got a telegram from Terry Gilliam saying, “Well, you won Best Supporting Actress. You know what that means: You’ll never work again.” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of mean.” But he could be that way. He just meant it to be a joke. But that was the curse of Best Supporting Actor or Actress. And by god, it’s hard to get a job after that. People think you want more money.
I think also I went through a period when I didn’t like a lot of writing that I was being given. I did a film called “Bad Apple” [in 2004], and I had a problem with that writing and a couple other things. I would be a squeaky wheel about the writing because I’m an English major. I would say, “If there’s no causal connection to what the characters are doing or their motivations, they’re just being used to prop up a shaky plotline.” I think I got a bit of a reputation for being difficult, and that probably didn’t help me at all. Then I started working with Edward Albee a lot on stage.
Well, that’s no chump change.
Well, it was during this period when the film career was sort of sliding out of the picture, except for television films. I did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Patrick Stewart, and then I did “The Goat” with Bill Pullman on Broadway. Then I did “Occupant,” a play about [sculptor] Louise Nevelson that Edward wrote. And even with Edward, a couple of times, I would get cranky about a sentence or something. In an interview, somebody said, “Oh, she can be a pain in the neck about the writing sometimes,” and he said, “Yes, she can.” And then he said, “She’s almost always right.” I think often I was right and people just didn’t know how to solve the problem and wished that I would just shut up or perhaps not have taken the role in the first place, and they were right on both counts. So I have learned the hard way a certain modesty about writers and have backed off that part of my career as a ghostwriter. But I did a lot of plays during that.
How did “Hustlers” come along?
My agent tells me that Jennifer Lopez just wanted me. I don’t know if that’s true because people pump you a lot of sunshine.
It was five days’ work and fairly good money, et cetera, et cetera. I was very impressed by the young writer/director [Lorene Scafaria]. She knew her stuff. It was interesting to me to see a young woman. I mean, she looked like an undergraduate from Smith or Wellesley. Very attractive, very open, friendly. Obviously it was a lot of strippers and a lot of T and A and everything, and boy, did she rule with an iron hand. There was nobody on that set who was anything but entirely respectful of all the women. In fact, the more they came out with less clothing on, the less the guys on set would look at them. They didn’t even want to get caught ogling because there were a number of extras who were fired, whether it was remarks that they made or just ogling the girls. It was my first post-Harvey experience, and it was really interesting because this young woman kept a tight grasp on respect for the actresses.
Having had that experience on “Hustlers” and recognizing that women are being respected in a way they weren’t a couple of decades ago, are you incentivized to get back in the movie game?
Yeah, but as I say, the roles are not there. The central story in theater and film from the beginning of time is boy meets girl. There is sexual tension in some way or another. It’s at the heart of the human story. It’s what peoples the earth: sex and the tension between man and woman. I heard one playwright say, “When the game is scarce, the hunter must trek for it.” And one does have that feeling. But yeah, it was a very different atmosphere on set, that’s for sure.
I remember when I was doing “Lost in Yonkers” there was a young man, I think he was a gaffer. This young man was a surfer, very blond, very good-looking guy, but he used to wear these really offensive T-shirts of girls with big boobs or asses sticking out — just really, really offensive. I teased him about them a couple of times, and he didn’t like that. Finally, I went to Martha and said, “Martha, every time I look up when you say action, I see women’s tits and ass in my face. Could you just ask the guy to wear a regular T-shirt?” And she said, “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Let me see what I can do.” Within two days, the guy was off the set. He didn’t want to be told what kind of T-shirt to wear. Now, he’d be tarred and feathered by women before he even made it to the set. Night-and-day difference. And the Me Too movement has not been welcomed by all directors. I think Terry Gilliam said, “Oh, it’s just mob psychology.” And, boy, did they come down on him for that. It’s been an across-the-board sea change and it’s still happening and we haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re a hell of a lot closer to a greater sense of equality.
That’s partly why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to know how you viewed the arc of your career with the benefit of hindsight and the popularization of feminism. The business has changed drastically as you’ve aged, and it’s interesting to hear people — women in particular — reflect on that.
Yeah, and I won’t name the directors I’ve worked with who I thought did not respect women, but there were some. But the great ones — Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Mike Nichols — behaved at that time exactly the way they would behave now. Whatever Terry said, he was respectful and kind.
I ask you this not because I want to goad you, but I’m curious: What is your motivation for not naming those men?
Because they’re alive and I don’t want to start dust-ups with anybody. Also because this was 20-odd years ago. These people may have changed. I mean, we do mature. We do become, in many cases, better people, wiser people. Our consciousness gets broadened about things, so that’s not something I want to rake up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.