"Do you know what it's like to never have had someone turn to you and say, 'I love you'?"
Eight months after filming, these words, softly uttered by Aurora Greenway's housekeeper in the new film "The Evening Star," still bring tears to Marion Ross' eyes.
As well they should. For not only do they signal a defining moment in this long-awaited sequel to "Terms of Endearment," they also are the words that landed Ross a role in the movie, the biggest part she's ever had in a feature film -- and they're the words that just might land her an Oscar.
Ross was working on a stage production of "Steel Magnolias" in Kansas City when she made an audition tape for the role of Rosie Dunlop, loyal companion to Shirley MacLaine's Greenway.
She decided to act out a scene in the script in which Rosie tells Aurora she's leaving after decades of service to get married.
"I had a day to memorize it, and I said to Richard Caruthers, who runs the theater in Kansas City, 'Get me a teleprompter inside that camera because I can't butcher this, I can't,' " Ross recalls in her home in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills.
She sent the tape to Hollywood and waited exactly one day.
"I nailed it," she says, slapping her hand on her lap with the playful pride of a parent whose kid just won the state spelling bee. "All the other girls in 'Steel Magnolias' said, 'Let me see that tape. What did you do? What did you do?' "
What she did was take a line drenched in irony and use it to catapult herself smack-dab into the middle of one of the most highly anticipated films this decade, which opened Christmas Day.
Irony in line
It is ironic because the line speaks of being unloved and, to the contrary, Ross is one of the most beloved and well-known faces from television, having played the role of Mrs. Cunningham on the long-running and still popular sitcom "Happy Days."
"One day I thought, 'I'm going to keep a little diary and see how many times a day somebody says, 'Oh, I love you. I love you.' I get that a lot."
On a recent trip to Italy with her partner, actor Paul Michael, Ross was pelted with kisses from a fan who called her "la mama de Ricky," referring to her TV son Richie Cunningham, played by actor-turned-mega-director Ron Howard.
After "Happy Days" went off the air in 1984, Ross returned to her roots on the stage, performing with Jean Stapleton (another TV mom, Edith Bunker on "All in the Family") in "Arsenic and Old FTC Lace" and, later, with Barbara Rush in "Steel Magnolias."
She eventually got another series, the critically acclaimed "Brooklyn Bridge," for which she was nominated twice for an Emmy, but she longed to be in film.
So she looked up her former TV co-star, who was by this time busy directing such high-profile films as "Far and Away" and "The Paper."
"I sent Ron Howard two cassettes of 'Brooklyn Bridge,' thinking, well, maybe he would put me in a movie, but then he uses his mother," jokes Ross, referring to Jean Howard's role as astronaut Jim Lovell's mother in "Apollo 13."
Lucky for Ross, Robert Harling, who penned "Steel Magnolias" and knew her from the stage production, also wrote the screenplay for "The Evening Star," and after a tumultuous development period, ended up its director.
When Ross arrived on the set and went through makeup and wardrobe, she was shocked by the physical transformation, which left her with a stringy, gray wig and a drab maid's uniform to match.
Ross disliked her appearance so much she refused to attend the dailies, the screenings of the previous day's work.
Hurt by makeup
"It hurt me to see myself that way. I'll be her, but I don't want to watch it. They would tell me some mornings, they'd say, 'We went to the dailies last night, you were great last night,' and I said, 'Oh, was I? Oh, that's nice.' I thought [Rosie] could be cuter, but that wig got plainer and plainer. But I didn't care. I wanted the part and I wanted Shirley to respect me."
Ross had never worked with MacLaine before, and although they had met at functions, they were little more than acquaintances. But that didn't stop them from forming a united front when it came to exercising a little creative license on the set. In one scene, the script called for Aurora to pick up a bedridden Rosie, fling her over her shoulder and carry her from her new home back to Aurora's. Thanks to editing, it's not necessary that Aurora actually pick up Rosie, but Ross said MacLaine told Harling, "I WANT TO PICK HER UP!"
"I just reached over and squeezed her hand and said, 'I'm with you, babe. I'm with you.' "
The friendship Aurora and Rosie share is as much the heart of "The Evening Star" as any of the other story lines it follows, including the stress and heartache provided by Aurora's grown grandchildren (played by Juliette Lewis, George Newbern and Mackenzie Astin); Aurora's torrid affair with her much younger therapist (Bill Paxton); Aurora's continuing effort to squeeze Patsy (Miranda Richardson) out of her granddaughter's life; and, yes, Aurora's friendship with ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).
At the end of "Terms of Endearment," Aurora's daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), died, leaving her three children to be cared for by her flaky husband and overbearing mother. Emma's husband is not in the sequel, and the care of the children -- one a tow truck driver, one a convict, the third an aspiring actress with a flaky boyfriend (Scott Wolf) -- belongs to Aurora and, by default, Rosie.
"To me it's a love story between Aurora and Rosie," Ross said. "She loves Aurora and wants to be near her and around her. And I'm sure Rosie thinks they raised those children."
Ross' next TV appearance will come in January, when she guest stars on "The Drew Carey Show" as -- you guessed it -- Drew Carey's mom. She's also appeared on "Politically Incorrect."
What's next? Ross said she's waiting for "The Evening Star" to "change my life." Oscar nominations are due in February. But she's not nervous anymore.
"I'm comfortable with it now. Isn't that something? I'm even thinking about my speech, I'm thinking about what I'll wear. I think of it as a very dear, pleasant thing. Isn't this nice?"
Pub Date: 1/05/97