That time my mother was a movie star

Lori GrahamThe summer of 1992 was brutally hot in St. Louis. I was 10-years-old and my mother was quite close to the age that I am now (that’s an odd thought!). We had a pretty decent life, much more secure than it is now, but that was part of the economic boom in the 90s, I think. Everybody was a lot better off after the recession in the 80s. She had her portraits made a year or two after the fact, which is what you’re seeing on the left.

My mother had a best friend through her job at Southwestern Bell. Remember when it was Southwestern Bell? Her friend heard about a Steven Soderbergh movie called King of the Hill that was going to be filmed in the old part of the city and she really wanted to go and audition, but she was nervous. So my mother agreed to go and be moral support, although it really didn’t interest her. Friends just do that kind of thing for one another.

I don’t know much about how they were cast other than they needed extras to play tuberculosis patients in a sanitarium. My mother’s friend was terribly excited and hoping they put her close to one of the principal actors so she could get some camera time. In the end, my mother who really didn’t care about the movie, was eyeballed by the casting people. She noticed they were talking among themselves and looking at her. Before she knew it, she was cast as a tuberculosis patient and told that she would be placed quite close to the principal actress. Her friend, however, was too dark and too modern looking (the movie was Depression-era), so she was put much further away at the other end of the hospital. My mother was the one they wanted and she never intended to actually be an extra.

That night, my mother told me about how she was going to be in a movie and I was very excited. Being only 10, I thought my mother was going to be a real movie star. She was pretty enough, so it wasn’t that far-fetched in my childish mind. There were always comments about how she resembled Helen Hunt or Meryl Streep from strangers and friends alike in the same way that my grandmother was compared with Greta Garbo in her day. I loved movies then but I didn’t quite reach a magical place of wanting to be part of movies until The Last of the Mohicans came out that fall. It probably started then and blew up when The Last of the Mohicans came out, then Gettysburg, and The Age of Innocence in the next two years. My mother had a bit of magical fairy dust on her just by being part of a movie though.

I don’t remember if the shooting day was one or two days now. I just know that it was the longest day I had ever spent away from home and it might have been two days that my memory is blending together now. I was dropped off at a babysitter’s house before dawn and not picked up until well after dark. I remember it was murderously hot and I spent the day at the Queeny Park pool. Missouri summers are as hot as summers in the Deep South, except the humidity is much higher because St. Louis is wedged in the nook where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet. Everyone in the movie is sweating when you watch it. That’s not stage sweat. That’s real sweat.

While I was swimming at Queeny Park, my mother was in the old part of the city making her big screen debut. They chose a location for the tuberculosis sanitarium that was part of the Catholic church in the area. The building used to house nuns, and then when there was a tuberculosis problem in the city, they turned it into a sanitarium – so the movie people used it for their sanitarium too. My mother was herded with all of the other extras through makeup and wardrobe until somebody realized that she was supposed to be positioned next to the principal actress in the scene. Then she had to go and get better makeup, hair, and wardrobe fitting before she was taken to the set. To make her look like she was wasting away from tuberculosis, they put baby oil in her hair and braided it down her back. Then they powdered her face and hands to make her look sickly and pale, along with dark makeup under her eyes. She was given a real housecoat from the 1930s, which was greenish and long to the floor. They used the baggy housecoat to hide her healthy figure and trick the camera into thinking she was skeletal.

After Soderbergh was happy with how the extras looked, they were taken to the set. In those days, people could only visit their sick family members by standing in the courtyard of this U-shaped building and shouting up to their loved ones along the balconies. In the scene my mother shot, the boy in the movie – the main character – arrived to visit his mother who had been sick with tuberculosis for most of his life. She was on the second floor on the left-hand wing of the U-shaped building from the boy’s point of view in the courtyard. My mother was placed right next to her, on her right (left if from the boy’s point of view). She said it was about a bed-length away. My mother got her own “family” since she was so close to the principal actress and they were directed to pretend to communicate by mouthing words so their voices wouldn’t interrupt the emotional scene between the mother and son. She described long breaks between shooting takes because the lighting people were unhappy and trying to change things. The scene itself wasn’t very long but it took something like eleven hours to shoot. It was hot. They were all wearing scratchy old 1930s clothes. They were slathered in oil and heavy makeup used for film.

My mother was exhausted by the time it was over and had witnessed lots of squabbling about whether it should be a wide shot on the whole wing or a close shot on the mother’s face. So after everything and then being a bed-length away from the actress, there was a good chance she wouldn’t make the cut in the scene anyway. Of course, as an adult, I know now that it’s pretty typical of films to cut, re-cut, edit, redo, etc.

You can watch the scene in this video. It starts at the 7:35 mark, roughly.

Now that it’s not the murderously hot summer of 1992 anymore and she’s not slathered in oil and makeup, she is rather happy that she was in a movie. She didn’t make the cut because Soderbergh and his editing people decided to use the close shots on the principal actress rather than the wide shots. It was the experience that sticks out in her mind now. She was very excited when Netflix picked up the movie so we could watch it again.

You know what’s really awesome too? These people were in the movie. Adrien Brody wasn’t a big star yet. Elizabeth McGovern wasn’t the Countess of Grantham yet. Lauren Hill wasn’t crazy yet. I love Adrien Brody! For the rest of my life, I can say my mother once worked on a Steven Soderbergh film that had Adrian Brody in it.

Adrien Brody

Elizabeth McGovern

Lauren Hill

I watched the movie last night on Netflix. I hadn’t seen it since we all watched it when it was released. Even though my mother didn’t make the cut because they used the close shot, I know she was there and my interest in movies gives me something to talk about with her. I told her that if I ever win an Oscar or something, I will have to mention that my mother was once an extra in a Steven Soderbergh movie. There is still a 10-year-old girl in me who thinks my mother was pretty and bright enough to be a real movie star.


One response to “That time my mother was a movie star”

  1. Patty K. Sullivan says:

    I don’t know if you will receive this message, but I surely wih that the pruner or director had eft the bit with your mom in. What a memory that must be. The video above doesn’t work as you doubtlessly know.

    I am new to your site and I shall return. It is pretty!

    Peace to you,

    Patty from Michigan

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