Eva Marie Saint returns to the screen for a cameo in the romantic fantasy "Winter's Tale." Credit: Getty Images
In “Winter’s Tale,” Eva Marie Saint plays a character who's over 100 years old. "Made me feel young," Saint cracks, chuckling heartily. She's not that old, even if she once made out with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” from 1959.
The film is a romantic fantasy, adapted from Mark Helprin’s 1983 bestseller, that spans a century, with some characters living well past the normal lifespan (and in the case of Colin Farrell’s thief-turned-hero, not aging at all). Her cameo is the kind of role that gains most of its life from being filled by a multi-award-winning legend.
But Saint likes that her character is, despite her age, a Manhattan newspaper editor. “She’s a professional,” she says. “I just prefer to do roles where it’s a strong lady and she’s not ill and she’s not in a wheelchair — and that may happen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But as long as I can portray somebody who still makes a difference in the world, that’s what I like to do.”
It’s something she somewhat identifies with, too. Now in her late 80s — and still friendly but feisty, warm yet sharp about her long career — Saint has been keeping busy, or as much as she'd like to be. Her career is filled with breaks; she only has 20 films to her credit. This is her first onscreen appearance since playing Superman’s mom in “Superman Returns” in 2006.
But she periodically swings by to do voice work on “The Legend of Korra,” the animated sequel to “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” That harkens back to her first job in the entertainment business: as a tour guide at NBC studios in New York, where part of her job was demonstrating how sound effects were created. (She even recreates how she mimicked a horse for me.)
No doubt she also likes that the role continues a long tradition of playing smart, independent women. She won her Oscar for playing the strong-willed sister of a slain dockworker in 1954’s “On the Waterfront.” Rather than cash in on her success, she sought the good roles. She returned to plays on television, where she had first made her name, racking up a string of Emmy nominations. (She won in 1990 for “People Like Us.”)
Even when she wound up as a glamorous undercover spy in “North by Northwest,” it proved a subtly challenging role. Her character is tasked with going back and forth between trustworthy and not — a femme fatale who ultimately proves the heroine.
Still, she didn’t mind being treated like a movie star. She recalls how Hitchcock didn’t like the clothes MGM had picked out for her, so he took her to Bergdorf Goodman to choose whatever outfits she wanted. “I sat next to him and he had the models come by. Then one walked by with that black dress [she wore in the movie] and said, ‘Hitch, I like that!’” She then launches in her Hitchcock impersonation: “He said, 'Wrap it up for Miss Saint.’”
She identifies this collaborative move as an example of how Hitchcock wasn’t as dismissive of actors as the legend goes. (“I never said all actors are cattle,” he once said, debunking the myth. “I said they should be treated like cattle.”) When asked about such charges, she swats them down. “I don’t want to hear about that — when you have a good friend, and someone starts gossiping about them,” she says, then adds she loved him so much she called him her “sugar daddy” due to his extravagance toward her.
Saint is in fact married to a director, and has been for 63 years: Jeffrey Hayden, who’s long worked in television. (He’s still working.) She’s worked with many herself, from Fred Zinnemann (“A Hatful of Rain”) to John Frankenheimer (“All Fall Down” and “Grand Prix”) to Vincente Minelli (“The Sandpiper”). With the breadth of talent comes a breadth of working styles. “If the director is quiet, everyone on the set is quiet. If a director is screaming, everyone has to scream louder than that. But if they're quiet, everybody has to be quiet. My husband’s like that. Hitchcock was like that. [Elia] Kazan was like that.”
One who wasn’t like that was Otto Preminger, who directed her in the 1960 founding-of-Israel epic “Exodus.” “Once a day he would scream. That’s how he got out frustration. So people on the set were nervous because when is he going to scream? Then he screamed and they were still nervous.” In fact, a hot-tempered director only added to the discomfort of heat that reached 115 degrees. “Some of the people on the Exodus had been on the real ship. They said it was more difficult that time than when they were really on it.”
But Preminger wasn’t mean to everyone. “He never screamed at the principals,” she says. “He was good on the scenes, working with us — except when he tried to show Paul Newman how he should kiss me. He just fell on the grass and took me in his arms. Everyone laughed.” Was he charming? “When he wasn’t screaming, he was.”