Eva Marie Saint has a perfect right to act like Hollywood royalty.
She won an Oscar for her film debut in On the Waterfront, holding her ground against Marlon Brando in his prime. She was Cary Grant’s dangerously sexy squeeze in North by Northwest, conquered Paul Newman in Exodus and counts greats Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan among her directors.
But Saint is winningly candid in a Turner Classic Movies special and an interview, a contrast to her luminous screen presence and stellar career. She remains a working actress as she nears her 90th birthday this summer, on July 4.
The industry has changed during her more than six decades in it, but Saint said she takes it in stride.
“You know how to stay young? Go with the flow,” she said. She also keeps in mind advice that she heard from film great and mentor Lillian Gish, whom Saint worked with in The Trip to Bountiful on TV and onstage in the early 1950s.
“It’s today and tomorrow, and don’t get cranky,” Gish would advise actresses worried about their future, Saint recalled.
“Eva Marie Saint: Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival,” a conversation between Saint and TCM host Robert Osborne, airs on 8pm on Monday as part of a TCM tribute that includes showings of On the Waterfront (1954), North by Northwest (1959) and Raintree County (1957).
Saint, who spoke to Osborne at the 2013 TCM festival in Los Angeles (to be held April 10-14 this year), is charmingly direct about her film and TV career, her colleagues and how she combined family life with her demanding profession.
Director Jeffrey Hayden, her husband of more than 60 years, offered support from the audience.
“There are no small roles,” he called out when Saint mentioned a lesser part she had played.
For Saint, there were certainly no minor leading men.
She appeared with “the most enviable list of co-stars of any actress of her time,” Osborne said, including Gregory Peck, James Garner and Warren Beatty (in Saint’s personal favourite, All Fall Down, 1962). “She’s also a wonderful storyteller and has great tales to tell.”
Saint proves that in the TCM special. At one point, she delightedly recounts how Exodus director Otto Preminger took over from Newman in one scene to demonstrate how better to give her a smooch.
“I mean, he’s telling Paul Newman how to kiss?” she said, laughing.
Brando, she recalls, was both “really adorable” and a little frightening during filming of On the Waterfront.
“I felt that he could see right through me,” Saint said of The Godfather star that she considers one of the finest actors ever.
“I don’t know what happened to Marlon,” she added, referring to his late career decline. “I think he lost — possibly, I’m not a psychiatrist — the joy of acting.”
That joy is something Saint retains, although she said she envies the respect and movie roles accorded veteran British actresses including Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
“We don’t have quite that attitude in Hollywood,” she said in a recent interview. But she has outgrown the familiar industry practice of fudging one’s birthdate.
“You reach a certain age and you’re so proud that you’re walking and breathing and loving and working and all of that at 90,” she said.
The still-elegant Saint is on the big screen again after an absence of several years, appearing in the fantasy romance Winter’s Tale with Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey). In 2006, Saint played Martha Kent in Superman Returns and starred in Because of Winn-Dixie in 2005.
She’s still charming her co-stars: Farrell gave her five dozen roses on the final day of shooting. But her focus remains on her husband and family, including son Darrell Hayden, a design instructor at a San Francisco university, daughter Laurette Hayden, a marriage and family therapist and three grandchildren.
Acting “could be a lonely life. I met older actresses who never married, never had children. That’s not for me,” said Saint. As a young woman, she recalled thinking, “Much as I love this business, I don’t want to grow old alone.”
She and Hayden take an hour-long walk daily to help stay healthy, she said.
But work still beckons, including promotion for her TCM special.
“Then I’ll be on to something else,” Saint said, confidently.
Don’t miss it
Catch screenings of Eva Marie Saint films North by Northwest (1959) on April 3 and 4 and Raintree County on April 19 and 20 on TCM.