Herbert Ross: The Man With the Tarnished Halo

Director Herbert Ross can be (and is) accused of many things. A boring career is not one of them. Here, the inimitable Hollywood veteran talks about wrangling divas, delivering hits, and turning Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid into a stylish comic duo for Undercover Blues.


He has directed 23 movies, among them 1977's smash hit The Turning Point, 1984's teen blockbuster Footloose and 1989's popular tear-jerker Steel Magnolias. His movies have reaped a combined total of 37 Oscar nominations. At age 66 he commands--in notoriously ageist Hollywood--anywhere from $2 to $3 million a picture. It strikes me as no profound mystery why I should want to interview this man.

"Why are you doing a story on Herbert Ross?" the producer asks guardedly when I make my first call to get a feel for the town's attitude towards one of its veteran directors. Beneath the suspicion in his tone lurks a hint of, "Is he still alive?" I next call Ray Stark, producer of a number of Ross's films, including Funny Lady, The Owl and the Pussycat and Steel Magnolias. Stark declines to take or return my call, and instead sends this fax: "Herb was a good friend. . . [who] directed seven movies for me after starting out as director of musical sequences for Funny Girl. All were successful at the box office, and, at least six of them critically well-received. Five earned various Academy Awards recognition." Apart from the interesting use of the past tense in "Herb was a friend," it reads like a press release. I call Stark's office, and get no further than the assistant who indicates that his boss has communicated about all he plans to. I next try a high-profile production boss who worked several times with Ross. This man characterizes his colleague as ''mean, arrogant, nasty, small-minded, pretentious."

Why am I doing a story on Herbert Ross? Who could possibly resist?

I find the man who inspired the above responses--as well as others we'll get to--ensconced in his suite of offices in Culver City, where he's putting the final sheen on his new film Undercover Blues, a spy action-comedy starring Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid. Tanned and trim, Ross signals "Just a sec" as he wraps up a phone chat with the film's titles designer, Wayne Fitzgerald, on the topic of possibly creating James Bond-spoofing opening credits for Blues. I look around me and notice that the walls and surfaces of Ross's working space are absolutely devoid of the standard moviemaking mementos. This man choreographed golden age TV shows starring Martha Raye and Milton Berle, directed Barbra Streisand's Broadway debut, brought Julia Roberts before the masses--and there is not a hint of any of that anywhere here. Instead, there's a framed architecture rendering of a Romanesque arch, there are piles of art volumes as well as books on literary and artistic strolls through Paris, and there's a CD of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3.

Ross hangs up the phone, stands up and genuflects to the assistant who has just procured for him a cigarette. "Please don't tell my wife," he implores with husky theatricality, before hungrily inhaling. "I really am trying to quit. I go to the gym every day for my sins." Ross's cool, sweeping style is exactly as Kathleen Turner has described it:

"Herbert has this marvelously grand manner that harks back to an era of titanic show business personalities. He carries it off so well, he almost makes one nostalgic for that world."

I begin our talk by reading to Ross a quote he gave during his late-'70s heyday, when two movies he directed, The Goodbye Girl and The Turning Point, both got Best Picture Oscar nominations in the same year. Draping his rangy frame across a couch like the former dancer and current weekly analysand he is, Ross listens, head cocked, to his own words: "If I'm lucky, I'll get to wear my halo for a year or two, until one of my movies bombs." Tossing back his head, Ross snorts, shooting a jet of smoke into the air, and observes dryly, ''I'd say the state of the halo is slightly tarnished, wouldn't you?"

Well, yes, actually. Shortly after a series of moneymakers in the '70s had excitable critics comparing him to Frank Capra and money men offering him the works--big-movie versions of The Thorn Birds, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Evita--Ross made the admirably odd, truly daring, very costly and financially disastrous Pennies From Heaven, in which Steve Martin danced and lip-synced as an anguished Depression-era sheet music salesman. Though Ross calls Pennies his "most complete [work], in terms of realizing the dream," the film split critics and eluded audiences. After that, Ross seemed to be marking time with fare like I Ought to Be in Pictures and Max Dugan Returns, both by Neil Simon.

But Ross had known huge success choreographing and directing ballet works, Broadway musicals and TV specials before he ever began directing movies at age 42, and he went on to more success after his film slump. He directed the monster teen hit Footloose in 1984, Michael J. Fox's hit The Secret of My Success in 1987, and Steel Magnolias in 1989. Still, overall, Ross's output is erratic.

"Erratic is one way of saying it,'' Ross observes just a touch frostily. "Diverse is another. I consider myself an artist. You want to flex your muscles, not repeat. Sometimes, circumstance forces you to do that very thing, sometimes you allow yourself to be vanquished and just go with the flow. I'm very proud of The Secret of My Success. Sometimes the things that are most popular require the most skill. But, nobody is making movies that I would love to make. By nature, I would prefer to do a Howards End, but James Ivory does those very well and I don't have a wealthy partner to fund my movies. Anyway, I've never known how you do those out-of-the-mainstream movies. I've always worked within a highly professional structure, like a major ballet company, a Broadway production, a major studio. I discovered long ago that even in a rarefied art form like the ballet, you have to have hits."

Putting out a "diverse" array of big-hit-or-big-big-miss commercial movies is but one of the things for which Herb Ross is known. Another subject of his personal legend concerns his infamous wranglings with the stars of his films, particularly the women. For his part, Ross has dealt with some tough customers. Take the cast of Steel Magnolias, a pawpaw patch of divas, limit-testers, war-horses, nervous Nellies, newcomers. Ross claims, when I inquire about his dealings with these ladies, that his strategy with Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis and then rookie Julia Roberts was "never to speak to any of them privately. Whatever we did, we always did together. I requested that Ray Stark, who was smart enough to agree, give equal billing to Julia and equal perks, right down to size of the trailer. So nobody was ever threatened by anyone else."

Nobody? Roberts has, I remind Ross, spoken icily to the press about him. "There had been a lot of resistance to casting her and Ray asked me to look at Baja Oklahoma,'' Ross recalls. Baja Oklahoma is an HBO movie, in which, Ross tells me, Roberts ''looked bad and gave a very bad performance. Then, after the success of Steel Magnolias, Julia, to my astonishment, was not very nice to me. I called to ask why and she said, 'You weren't very nice to me and gave me a very hard time.'

I said, 'Julia, I was trying to get a performance out of you.' She had a great deal of trouble because she could only play the top of the scenes-- bright and cheerful, in a general way, never understanding the subtext of her character's being desperately afraid. We shot and shot and I somehow was able to get that subtext out of her falsely, by saying, 'That's not right, try this,' getting her very nervous. I had desperately wanted Meg Ryan, who turned us down to do When Harry Met Sally..., and I was crazy about Winona Ryder, who was just too young."

Observing that "one could never anticipate Roberts's gigantic success," Ross hastens to add, "I remember saying to her, 'Are you going to go back to New York to study?' because I thought she was going to have problems. And she said, 'What for?'"

Other people paint a different picture of the Ross-Roberts dynamic, and of Ross's style of relating to actresses in general. One producer calls Ross "one of several directors who, based on their own fear, insecurity and inadequacy, pick out females and torture them to death to the point of making them weep. He did it to Julia, he did it to Dolly on the same picture, he did it to Joan Cusack on My Blue Heaven. If Julia was so inadequate, why did he try to get her for that unreleasable True Colors? She flatly refused."

Neil Simon, who worked with Ross on two Broadway plays and five films, two of which Marsha Mason starred in (who was Simon's wife at the time) defends Ross, sort of: "Herb is very strong in his opinions and, much like other choreographers like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, very dominating and exacting. I saw him be really cruel to Maggie Smith on California Suite, bringing her to the point of tears. But she was sensational in that movie and won an Oscar. When I talked to him about that behavior with Maggie and with others, he said, 'I am really tough and I don't realize it. Would you point it out to me sometimes?' Sometimes you could. Sometimes you couldn't."

"I like actors and have a very healthy respect for the process they go through to achieve something that looks very simple," Ross says, pooh-poohing his rep. "For instance, Barbra Streisand. I was with her when she was very young, so I knew her, understood her in a way that was very simple. The most interesting part of directing Barbra, of directing period, is to be able to steer-- though that's not the best word--the person to the place I believe she should be, then see that person get there on their own, so it's totally internal. I learned a lesson with Dennis Quaid getting him to accomplish what he did in Undercover Blues. He was aware that I was pushing and pushing in scene after scene and I thought, uh-oh, when suddenly he said, 'Listen, don't be satisfied with one take. Push me until you get exactly what you want.'"

Since Ross, the son of a postal worker, didn't come to his imperious self-assurance by birth, it certainly must have helped to be able to tutor under such titanic egos as Otto Preminger, for whom he choreographed the 1954 Carmen Jones, and William Wyler, for whom he handled dance sequences in Funny Girl. But if the manner in which Ross expresses his worldview owes something to the tradition of tyrannical directors, the underlying foundation of self-confidence seems to have more to do with Ross's extraordinary relationship with the late Nora Kaye, the former American Ballet Theater prima ballerina to whom he was married for almost 30 years. According to producer Howard Rosenman, Kaye was not only Ross's "muse and his genius," who co-produced his best movie work and herself finished cutting dance sequences in The Turning Point while Ross began shooting The Goodbye Girl, but also "this fabulous human being, a regular gal from Brooklyn who kept him grounded. And on his toes." Director Joel Schumacher, who credits Ross for giving him one of his first big movie assignments as a costume designer on the 1973 The Last of Sheila, recalls, "If it hadn't been for Nora's warm, no-nonsense support, I'd have been terror-stricken at having to deal with the superstars who were involved in that movie."

Ross met Kaye in New York when, in his twenties, having received raves for his choreographic debut piece Caprichos, he was about to stage the same work for The American Ballet Theater, where Kaye was the star. Kaye chose not to appear in Ross's piece, but the two met up again years later under happier circumstances. By that time, Ross had already grown bored with Broadway, which he thought "completely frivolous," and was weary of indulging in what he once called "a hedonistic, drifting life; drugs, drinking too much, smoking too much." He and Kaye married in Rome and toured the Continent with a small company that performed modern dance by Ross, then turned up in the early '60s in Hollywood, where their personal and professional destinies became inseparable. Incidents from Kaye's life inspired Ross's very successful film The Turning Point. "Aside from her enormous reputation, her presence, artistry, intelligence, generosity and wit, she respected me," Ross recalls. "When someone does that, you live up to it. When she was assisting me, I was able to deliver show-stopper after show-stopper."

And, when things turned dark for Kaye, Ross suffered. Which brings us back to our discussion of "erratic" versus "diverse."

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