Well known to television audiences for her roles in “Designing Women” and “Will and Grace”, Ivey’s real distinction is as a stage actor. Her Tony Award-winning roles include “Steaming” (1983) where she spent most of her time on stage in the nude and “Hurlyburly” (1985) in which she portrayed a woman’s feral sexuality. And just recently, Ben Brantley described her portrayal of the matriarch in a double bill of Edward Albee plays as “priceless” like “the purring contentment of a cat who has eaten an entire aviary of canaries.” On that note, there is a peculiar quack to the voice of Ann Landers in “The Lady With All The Answers” that isn’t there when Judith Ivey talks.
Judith Ivey Interview
By Isa Goldberg
"The Lady With All The Answers"
So that is Ann Landers’ voice – nasal, high in the forehead?
It’s very Midwestern. I grew up in the Midwest part of my life, so it’s very familiar to me. It kind of makes me giggle. I could listen to her and really take on a lot of her mannerisms and speech patterns.
You portray Ann Landers in all of her manifestations…comic, filled with pathos, Jewish, I could go on and on. How did you arrive at portraying her with such verisimilitude and finesse?
Fortunately, there’s a lot of footage so I could watch her in action. Because they are mostly interviews she is in a more animated state, so I’m guessing at how she actually behaves.
While you’re well known for acting and directing solo pieces, what are the particular challenges of portraying a real life person such as Ann Landers?
Because people know her you want to be as close to her as you can possibly get. You have a little bit of license because it’s a play, but it’s not a documentary or an episode of Biography for the stage. You also want to honor who she was and what made her uniquely Eppie Lederer.
For one thing, she was very gregarious, very out there and at the same time she was somewhat conservative in her thinking. As she admits in the play she changes with the times; she examines and reexamines. I think that’s something to capture in her personality. Her willingness to listen to your point of view, analyze and then say, ‘you’re right. I’m going to change my ways about that.’
There’s a kind of bubbly aspect to her personality to which I feel responsible.
During the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky dalliance, Frank Rich interviewed Ann Landers who commented that “people are much more willing to forgive now… more permissive…more realistic”.
In portraying her you choose to be forgiving, free of anger and neither jealous nor vindictive which would be natural responses for a woman scorned. To what extent is that true to biographical material or fictionalized by the author or your interpretation?
It’s very true. She remained friends with her ex-husband and in fact financially supported him until his death.
Even though he was the owner of Budget Rent A Car?
Right. Well, he sold it. Unfortunately he sold it for stock options and the stock went down. So he lost his fortune and was very ill in the last few years of his life. And Eppie paid for everything. She really did remain his best friend even when his second wife was, from everything I read, not as supportive.
How is the Ann Landers correspondence relevant in this age of social networking where we all know everything about each other and everyone gives advice willy-nilly?
I see it as something of a cautionary tale because I see the blogging and constant revealing of just about everything including sexting — where kids put naked pictures of themselves and talk in sexese. It’s kind of all spiraled out into an area that seems pretty unhealthy to me. The great thing about Eppie Lederer a.k.a. Ana Landers is that she wasn’t necessarily expressing her opinion all the time. As pointed out in the play, she went to experts. And because she was so well connected and famous, many of the experts were more than happy to be her reference point. When she gave advice she took it very seriously and felt a responsibility to be accurate and well informed, not just here’s what I think you should do.
Today there are so many talk shows, and reality shows and the Internet, everybody’s expressing their opinions …everybody’s got one…but that is not what Ann Landers was doing. So I think it would be very wise for us to look back and see what someone who was an advice columnist indeed accomplished.
What is your favorite Ann Landers story?
The most moving one is about her trip to Vietnam and her visits with the soldiers in the hospitals. She met with every single one of them, took their names and the phone number of someone they wanted her to call…that part is in the play. But, she didn’t go there to bring attention to herself. It was never publicized. There were no photo ops.
The other stories that ring true to me are about her gift as a jokester. She loved to give people a hard time. That’s what I try to hang onto when I’m performing her. She let a smile be her umbrella. She didn’t let things bring her down. That’s why she could be so loving and accepting of her husband when he revealed what he had done. She was a good egg and inspirational in that way.
I just love the chocolates, she hides them from herself, but she knows just where they are.