Uta Hagen, 1919-2004

Respect for a master actor and teacher who inspired others through the unmatched sublimity of her example

I had never seen Uta Hagen in the flesh before. Her Desdemona, her Saint Joan, her Martha were performances that took on mythic properties when described by those who had seen them to those who had not. I knew Uta Hagen solely by illustrious reputation and from juicy movie cameos in The Boys From Brazil and Reversal of Fortune.

I watched her play and re-play a confounding piece of business that she insisted on getting just right, seeming more like a working actress than a diva. When we finally met, during a break, she expressed great woe at not looking her best. "I'm meeting the writer and I'm not wearing any lipstick!" I tried to assure her that she looked just fine but she excused herself anyway. When the actress returned wearing fresh lipstick, smoking a cigarette and carrying her dog, she had transformed herself into Uta Hagen. And, later, over drinks, she did something even more remarkable: she became 25 years younger.

Donald Margulies

Photo: Jack Mitchell

Is it heretical to say that Uta Hagen was a better teacher than actor? Of course the reckoning is my own, calculated as I test the weight of personal experience and taste. Who could deny that her acting career was beyond distinguished: historic in our theater and culture. But I always admired her performances more than I was moved by them. She seemed somehow out of both place and time, with the possible overwhelming exception of the thoroughly modern Martha, whom I missed onstage but not on record. That vinyl memento does not change my mind, however. Despite childhood transplantation from Germany to this country, to me she remained a grand Middle-European lady of the stage, more from the orbit of Max Reinhardt than the Yankee Stanislavskians. Not really an ensemble actor, she was a star of her craft who, as the great designer Boris Aronson approvingly observed, always knew where the light was.

She was my teacher in the late '60s. My time with her was brief and I was only briefly an actor. But what she gave transformed me. Her classes were different. She would kick you out, for one thing: if she thought you were lazy, if you weren't the artist material she'd taken you for, or if you'd just been there too long. There was not the place for the amateur-actor-professional-class-taker or the housewife with time on her hands—the population that makes "scene study" a New York cottage industry. The craft she taught with such discipline and insight could be taken directly from class on to the stage. The art she taught came from a life-long involvement with all the arts: painting (her father was an art historian), music (her mother, a singer), literature (consider the material she chose), and the rest. She transformed for us the word respect. She presented it to us like a gift. She made it into a clarion call. Respect for acting, indeed, but for all the arts as well, and for all the artists.

Uta in the Village: We lived near one another across Washington Square, though our personal contact ended when I left her class (for the late unlamented American Shakespeare Festival—"You'll get bad habits," she warned). We liked the same restaurant, though: the late very lamented McBell's on Sixth Avenue—wood and brick in dim light, great hamburgers. She dined there regularly with friends and family, always including an avid audience of poodles: Like any other true Villager, absolutely at home with being a bit out of place and time.

James Leverett

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