Eva Marie Saint is a star. The actress’s illustrious career has spanned seven decades, during which time she’s had roles opposite such screen legends as Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, and Cary Grant, and worked with famed directors including Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan. But Saint’s road to fame was uphill. Initially, she wanted to be a teacher. “Those were the years when women really didn’t think about having a career,” Saint said. “Maybe teaching or being a nurse, and that was about it. They would marry soon after college or before.” Saint’s father, however, unintentionally sent her on a different path. “My father promised he would send my sister and me to college if we worked at least one year after college so that we would know what it was like for our husbands to be working out in the world. … Well, I never stopped working.”
After attending Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, where she studied acting, the 22-year-old made her way to New York City, getting stints on radio — saying “Hello, this is your long-distance operator” was one of her gigs — and eventually TV. Saint’s big break came in 1954, when she was cast in On the Waterfront. She’s been a working actress ever since; her most recent role was in 2014’s Winter’s Tale. At 94, she has not lost her spark. On November 9, Saint is being honored at the Ojai Film Festival for her contribution to cinema. I recently spoke over the phone with Saint about the beginnings of her career, some favorite memories, and her hopes for women in film today.
I read that your acting career started on live TV. How did that come about? In those days, you had access to agents and producers. You could just get the addresses in New York, and you could knock on the door. … I had my pictures taken, held those under my arm, and gave them out. One thing led to another, and I found out about the Actors Studio. … Live television saved me because it was such a wonderful way to work, but really crazy things happen. [For example,] I got a series called One Man’s Family, and I played Claudia. There was a scene where I was in a strapless bathing suit in a rubber pond on the set. It was very quiet, we were doing the scene, and something was happening off camera. I trained myself as any actor on live television: If anything is happening offset, forget it; just keep going. But I suddenly saw, off camera, this man tugging at his shirt. I got the message, and I looked down and … oh, no. Yes. There I was, naked on the top.… I just slid under the water, and the water was up to my chin then, and I finished the scene. You see how that strengthens you? Nothing bothers me, even in life. It was such a scary thing, but it didn’t feel that scary because that was the work that would pay your rent and your food.
But then you made it. You won an Oscar for your film debut, On the Waterfront. Yes, that was quite an experience. I did a play, with Lillian Gish, called Trip to Bountiful. [Director Elia] Kazan saw me in that play, and that’s how I ended up in Waterfront. He was a wonderful director, and Marlon [Brando], I think he was one of the finest actors the world has ever had. To work with him was an incredible experience, because I didn’t feel anything was artificial about the set. … It was such a happy, wonderful experience …
Every time I see a pigeon, I think of On the Waterfront. Sometimes, in the car they’ll play the theme music, Leonard Bernstein’s music, and I must say, once in a while I’ll just drop a tear when I hear it because it brings back such beautiful memories.
Family is very dear to you. How did they impact your career? The fun thing was that my husband was a director, and he was in television. I would give him my scripts to read, and we would talk about them because I valued his opinion. We usually always agreed whether I should do it or not. He’d give me plays to read. These were wonderful plays written by wonderful writers. It just worked out that we were always involved with one another. It seemed effortless, that this was our life together; that’s what we love to do.
Throughout the years, what changes concerning the roles of women in film stand out to you? I am an Academy member on the Nicholl Committee, where every year we read hundreds and hundreds of scripts. We get 10 wonderful scripts, and then we decide on five or six. There are so many more women who are writing scripts that we read, and I find that very encouraging. There are many more women behind the camera. Just look at the names and be conscious of it when they give the credits for films now. It’s amazing how many women are directing and producing and writing. That’s been slow in coming, but it’s just going to gain traction along the way. So many of them are very, very, very talented, and that’s exciting.
If I see a movie directed by a woman, or produced by a woman, or the cameraperson is a woman, then I want to see it reflected in the Academy. You have to be involved in encouraging people. I think we’re thinking of women in different ways now, and it’s helped all of us. It’s such a healthy change.
Do you have any advice that you would give to up-and-coming women in film? Be encouraged by what’s happening. I think opportunities will open up to you easier than years back, but you have to knock on those doors!
Eva Maria Saint will be honored with a Legacy Series Award followed by a Q&A Friday, November 9, at 4 p.m. at the Ojai Art Center. See ojaifilmfestival.com.