Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before (Hollywood Legends)

Image of Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before (Hollywood Legends Series)
Release Date: 
June 1, 2013
University Press of Mississippi
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Some of the best moments in Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before come in the appendix following the text in which the author, Steve Taravella, not only lists the many roles that Wickes played in a career that spanned more than 60 years, but also gives a brief description of each, including, “Sandy Brooks, former vaudevillian,” “Professor Whitman, sour spinster schoolmarm,” “Miss Wetter, maiden lady librarian,” “Matilda Runyon, small-town telephone operator,” and “Sister Clarissa, nun.”

She was, in turns, the man-crazy spinster, the overbearing mother, the henpecking wife or, perhaps most famously (in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Now, Voyager, to name just two) the nurse, but she was always Mary Wickes, a character actress nearly six feet tall (she claimed that she was only 5’9 ¾” but studio costume department statistics—size 11 shoes, 38” hips and bust, a 34” inseam and a 23 1/2 “ head size seem to indicate otherwise), with a pronounced nose, a receding chin, and a gift for the perfectly timed comeback, spit-take or barb.

As scrupulously researched as it is, Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve See That Face Before is less a biography than it is an appreciation of this unique woman and her talent. Which is just as it should be.

Anyone looking at the cover photo—a very Wickes-ian “take” with the actress pictured in mid-gasp, her body slumping against what likely is the kitchen door (note that she wears a cook’s apron), her left hand lifted to cover her heart—will likely prove right the biography’s author. Because whether we can name the actress or not, indeed, we all know that we have seen that face before.

And we all can hear the sound of her voice still ringing in our ears.

Given that Mary Wickes worked steadily (and in all media, from Broadway and regional stages to radio, television, and movies) from the early 1930s through the last gasp of the Old Millennium—she played her last major role, that of Sister Mary Lazarus, in the Sister Act movies in the mid-1990s—she is one of the group of character actresses (Eve Arden, Ann Southern, Wickes look-alike Margaret Hamilton, Thelma Ritter and the last survivor of the group, Elaine Stritch among them) who left an indelible mark on our lives without ever managing to get themselves on a first name basis with the public at large.

As such, she is due just such and appreciation as Mr. Taravella provides here.

Granted, the book is over long. The first half, in which the author presents something of a timeline of Wickes’s career, does seem at times like a very long curriculum vitae but things pick up very nicely when the author zeroes in on the more important aspects of Wickes’s life, most notably on her long friendship with Lucille Ball.

The two first met in 1949 when they were each giving the new medium television a try. The fact that they knew each other “when,” long before the time when Lucille morphed into the Lucy that everybody loved. Immediately, a bond was formed, one that would stay intact until Ball’s death in 1989:

“The two women were so close that those who wondered if Mary ever spoke honestly about her feelings—disappointment at losing a role, grief of the death of a friend, the pain of loneliness—again and again said the same thing: ‘Maybe only with Lucy.’ ‘She probably told my mother a lot,’ Lucie says, ‘They had a very deep, close friendship. My mother would tell her things, I’m certain, and I’m sure that she relied on [Mary’s] advice, her sensibility. Whether Mary reciprocated and told her about her problems, I don’t know. But I never got the sense from Mary that she was gonna complain to anyone.’ Iggie Wolfington, a friend of Mary’s who also knew and performed with Lucy, offers that ‘Mary was a very direct person, and I could see how she and Lucy would hit it off.’”

The two matched each other in loyalty and in their passion for working. So much so that it is suggested that Wickes turned down the role of Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy because “she knew that Lucy’s perfectionism might hurt their friendship.”

(Also because she was convinced that the show might not do very well and that she could earn more money by not tying herself down to the project and miss out on other film and television opportunities.)

This illustrates several aspects of Wickes’s nature, all at once: her loyalty, her skill as a comedienne, her willingness to put the people she cared about before her own career, and her own amazing wrongheadedness when it came to business matters.

Again and again the book describes instances in which Wickes chose to ignore agents, fellow actors, and friends and put herself in a position of negotiating the terms of her employment, always selling herself short.

But her greatest wisdom was in understanding herself, her goals and her needs, as well as in fully knowing her greatest strengths as an actress. Thus, when Hollywood suggested again and again that, if she wanted to work, she needed to get a nose job, a total makeover, it was Wickes who defied the odds and stood her ground, and pointed at her own nose saying, “God gave me this, and I’m going to keep it. This is it. Hello, world, this is me.”

She prophetically insisted that, as a character actress, she would only grow more valuable with age.

The portrait of Mary Wickes that emerges in I Knew I’ve Seen That Face Before is a complex one. A woman who was never married, except to her career, who lived with her mother until her mother died and then mourned her all the rest of her life, a woman who never was known to have any romantic relationships.

A woman, about whom one of her closest friends is quoted as saying, “I always wondered if she died a virgin. Mary was almost asexual. There was nothing really sexual about her. I never saw an ounce of romance in her life.”

She seems at once a person who could best be described as being “staunch” and a woman whose life, especially her later life, when her own behavior began to mirror her prickly onscreen conduct, was plagued by loneliness and an inability of reach out to others, to the point that even when she traveled to the hospital for what would prove to be the last time, she called a cab rather than ask anyone to drive her.

What no doubt would have pleased her is the publication of this book itself and the way it celebrates her desire to spend the whole of her life entertaining others. It is, as a testament, very like the applause and the standing ovation that she was given by all those who attended her memorial service at the time of her death in October 1995—something devised as a loving tribute by her eulogist, Lucille Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz.

And when asked by the author to sum up her feelings about Mary Wickes, Ms. Arnaz is quoted as saying:

“Mary was like a great pair of No Nonsense, Control Top pantyhose—firm, strong, flexible, held you up and never failed to make you look a little better than you were.

“That’s her as a person and as an actress.”