On Sunday, I was so excited to attend a screening of The Bad Seed (1956) at NYC's Film Forum. It's always a pleasure to watch this startlingly modern film wrapped in a startlingly '50s melodrama — it prefigured Psycho (1960) — but the bonus was a rare personal appearance by the film's Oscar-nominated star Patty McCormack.
McCormack, 76, who plays breathtakingly evil child psychopath Rhoda Penmark in the movie, also originated the role on Broadway from 1954-1955. She was then absent from the New York stage for 66 years, until October 20, when previews began for an off-Broadway revival of Morning's at Seven. (The show closed December 5.)
During a lively post-screening Q&A — kicked off with a literally thunderous entrance! — that was moderated by film historian Foster Hirsch, McCormack talked about what she could remember of auditioning for the Broadway show (another girl got the part first, leaving me to fantasize whether, in a case of life imitating art, Patty offed her!), bonding with the project's actors (among them Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Henry Jones), as well as other topics.
"I shouldn't start conversations if I don't see the end in sight," she said at one point, but those are the most fun.
She is, after all, an actor who has worked for 70 years.
Among other noteworthy moments in her career, McCormack originated the role of Helen Keller in the 1957 Playhouse 90 production of The Miracle Worker opposite Teresa Wright (this predated the Broadway and film version), worked with Orson Welles on his abortive Don Quixote unfinished film (1955-1972), starred on TV's The Ropers (1979-1980) and had plum supporting roles on The Sopranos (2000-2006) playing Adriana's mom and in the film Frost/Nixon (2008) playing Pat Nixon.
McCormack radiated humility, and seemingly had never even considered some of the points Hirsch made about her signature role, even though she's had so long to think on it, and has been asked about it so often she admitted that she went through a period when she really didn't want to talk about The Bad Seed. At all.
She has now come to embrace the film, considering what a special experience it was and how many people have enjoyed it ever since.
After the warm talk, McCormack sweetly met all her fans and did photos with anyone who asked. She had brought her trusty nephew along, Alfred "Fred" Cerullo, a former soap actor and Staten Island politico, and attracted members of the Morning's at Seven cast and crew.
I was excited to see venerable theater critic Rex Reed, 83, in the audience. I've been a fan of his since he was Raquel Welch! When he was waiting to greet Patty, I asked if he'd like a photo. "That would be lovely," he said, "but not in a mask!" Patty was in a mask but would remove it for photos. She also had one glove on, and laughed heartily when I observed at one point, "It's the glove that'll save you."
It was such a wonderful night. I've missed events like this, and it's always so much more fun when the celebrity is like this. In fact, I was almost the last person in the lobby (I took some shots of her with Fred) and was able to tell her quickly that I adored The Ropers, mentioning Audra Lindley and Norman Fell.
She brightened (you never know how a performer will react to any project you name, so I was pleased) and interjected, "And Jeffrey Tambor!" So apparently he was easier to get along with in the '70s!
If you have not seen The Bad Seed lately, do. I tend to agree with Mr. Hirsch that it was way ahead of its time, and that rather than campy, it has an intentionally heightened theatricality is like a language that discerning filmgoers can speak fluently.
Patty is the last surviving credited member of The Bad Seed's cast, though I was surprised to learn that uncredited actors in various school scenes include famous names Shelley Fabares and Kathy Garver.