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It Just Happened

Twenty years ago, writing in a review for The New York Times of a New Haven production of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Frank Rich discovered Stockard Channing. In the kind of dramaturgical critique that emphasized the production‘s unrealized potential and pointed the way to greatness, Rich, then the standard-bearer of commercial theatrical quality, devoted his entire final paragraph to the unexpected depths of Channing’s performance as the ever-hopeful Sheila. “Perhaps this production‘s finest achievement,” he wrote, “is the rehabilitation of Stockard Channing.”

That verdict came as a surprise to Channing, who until then hadn’t known she‘d needed to be rehabilitated. “I never read my reviews, but that one,” she says, “someone literally waved that one in my face, saying, ’Here, here you‘ve got to read this!’” During the early ‘60s, while Rich was at Harvard, Channing was performing in the Radcliffe theater department. He had accumulated an impression of her from college productions, experiments in television and small movie roles. Channing, however, had never taken the long view of her career, such as it was -- she just worked, and that was fine by her. “Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have been more concerned than I was, but I wasn’t focusing on a career all that hard,” she says. “There may have been lulls, but I wasn‘t aware of them.” She did television series by day, Shakespeare in the Park by night; a friend’s play here, a Broadway flop there -- it was all involving, paying work, so who cared if the rest of the world thought of her as the good-hearted high school slut in the movie version of Grease? Rich‘s review, she says, “was the only time I ever remember somebody saying, ’Ah! She‘s not Rizzo anymore! Look! She’s really an actress!‘ I was stunned and embarrassed, but it gave me a large degree of validation.”

Dressed in black, with a long day’s curls springing defiantly around her always wide eyes, Channing stretches out on the sofa at the Four Seasons hotel, where she‘s come to discuss her role in Patrick Stettner’s new film, The Business of Strangers. She looks uncharacteristically waif-like and talks unnervingly fast -- she rarely finishes a sentence, but tumbles instead from one thought to the next. Most actors in junket mode come off as hollow echoes of their press kits, for which they no doubt have journalists‘ unremittingly dreary questions to blame. Channing, on the other hand, throws herself into an interview as if she’s co-conspiring to discover the truth. Surely, I think, five people already today have asked whether she‘s ever felt typecast, whether she likes the slit-skirted executive she plays in The Business of Strangers, and what the movie business is like for women over 40. She’s been answering that one for nearly a decade: “Women over 35 don‘t get a lot of offers,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, when she was 49, “much less an aged old bag like myself.” But I detect nothing stale in her answers. It’s as if Stockard Channing is still trying to figure out what kind of life she‘s lived, and is happy to have you work through it with her.

This is, naturally, her gift: Channing’s most famous women -- from Rizzo in Grease, to Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation, to West Wing‘s noble first lady, Abigail Bartlet -- may be jaded, sophisticated or wise, but as inhabited by Channing, they move through the world with a certain defenseless wonder. Her obvious intelligence comes tempered by vulnerability, her usually composed contralto sometimes bellows and cracks with emotion, and her laugh can turn from raucous to anxious in an instant. In The Business of Strangers, she plays an executive named Julie Styron, who first fires, then bonds with her young female assistant, Paula (Julia Stiles), while the two of them are stranded at an airport hotel. Tough nut that she is, the executive at times seems no more than a little girl dressed up in a sexy business suit, play-acting at corporate realness. At other times, Channing plays her as a creature struggling against the trap of her own success, which makes it easier to believe that she allows Paula to seduce her to the edge of ruin. “She’s been banged around a lot,” Channing says of the character, “and she‘s wound up very tight. But she’s juicy -- she‘s not a dried-up, pruney person, and she’s not a prude. The task was to make her human without softening her, to make her a capable executive without turning her into one of those cliches we see in films all the time of female executives of a certain age.”

Writer and director Patrick Stettner cast her because he “wanted someone who was strong and apologetic,” he says of Channing. “She‘s a sharp tack. You get a lot from her, and she doesn’t have to do much -- which is good, because I like subtle performances.” But I can‘t help wondering whether he really appreciates what he got. As much as he grates against any suggestion that the three characters in his first feature are archetypes, he nevertheless created three very archetypal beings: the young entitled woman, the older and significantly childless female executive, and the opportunistic male headhunter of whom they make sport. “When this fucker wakes up half dressed,” Paula says to Julie as she prepares to exact revenge on their companion, “he’s going to wonder, ‘Oh Jesus. What did I do?’” If Julie comes off as an individual tormented by choices and fears uniquely her own, it‘s mainly because Stettner had the confidence to let Channing’s face work: In patient, static shots, he allows her to bring her character blinkingly to life through a strange night of carousing and brutality. Channing, for her part, revels in the wildness: “I don‘t think anyone’s seen a woman -- without standing on principle -- just flip out like this,” she says, “just go -- shit!”

Channing has always succeeded in a business that explicitly has no place for her. She never went to acting school; she was never a million-dollar leading lady. “And I never had to live up to my past,” she says, “because I was never all that famous.” She was a society girl once, born Susan Antonia Stockard in 1944 to a Park Avenue scion and his Irish-Catholic wife (she took the last name from the first of her four marriages), and she found a cultural kindred spirit in Six Degrees‘ Kittredge, whom she played for six years, from stage to screen. But no one ever expected her to play another one -- by the time she was done with the role, she had already managed to bob and weave her way free of categories, to be working-class and high-society, sexy and dowdy, ordinary and otherworldly. Almost absentmindedly, she has accumulated an enviable career. “I never had a game plan. Chaos theory has defined my life.”

And so, just as new audiences persistently rediscover her and claim her as their own, observers of the industry still relegate her to the lower rungs of celebrity, a gifted actress who was nevertheless too plain to be a star. One Web-site movie buff, “a guy who writes encyclopedic kind of stuff about the movies,” recalls Channing, determined that “because of my unusual looks, I was -- what was the phrase? A ’casting challenge.‘” She sees it differently. “I was never conventional in my looks, it’s true, but that just meant I could be much more mobile.” Her career may have found its way around such demands for physical perfection, but the woman herself has not been immune to its judgments. “Even in The Business of Strangers, I was sometimes saying, ‘Oh God, I’m going to get up on the screen and show my arms?‘ I thought to myself, ’Are you nuts? What are you doing this for?‘ And then I’d think, ‘I’m doing it because someone asked me to do it,‘” she says through teeth gritted in determination. “’And maybe I can pull it off.‘”

All told, it’s been a career of pulling it off. Four years after his first evaluation of Channing‘s performance as the ever-hopeful mother of little Joe Egg, Frank Rich wrote about her a second time, this time about the Broadway staging of the play for which Channing won her Tony. “Miss Channing, whose talents were submerged in three flop plays last year, is most widely remembered for her ditsy appearances in trivial movies and television series,” Rich opined. “We can forget about all that now.” Guess what, Frank: We already had.