The look Dorothy Tristan gives across the small table is frank and frankly assessing. Actress, model, painter, writer of books, plays, and films, her career focus has gone from glamour to gritty to grandmother in a career spanning six decades. At 80, she’s finished filming her role in director-husband John Hancock’s latest movie, Swan Song, and has lost none of her ability to look deeply into the psyche of her characters.
She reflected on her career at the Hancock family farmstead in La Porte County, Indiana, where she and her Academy Award-nominated husband enjoy the pastoral environs, well away from their fire-and-earthquake experiences in Los Angeles. On this day Hancock is on his way into the kitchen and calls out, “I just spoke to Sam Goldwyn. He says we need a major distributor.”
Tristan raises her hands, and says fervently, “We do!”
The couple co-wrote Swan Song, in which a 13-year-old girl who’s just lost her mother comes to La Porte County to live with her grandmother, played by Tristan. The grandmother wants to connect with her granddaughter, who’s just as stubborn as she is. A former star of stage and screen, the grandmother discovers the girl (played by Grace Tarnow of La Porte) possesses an unusually powerful singing voice, and hopes it can be the bridge to a meaningful relationship.
The title and themes hold significance and a tentative look into the future. Tristan and Hancock sound definite as they echo each other: “This will probably be our last film.” But Hancock smiles a little as he confesses, “Actually I am working on a new project right now.” Tristan allows as how she doesn’t miss the days of filming that can begin at 4:30 a.m., but, “If I had a small role, something interesting, I’d enjoy that.”
Not that she’d simply take the script and think a little about the character. She’d think a lot about the character, as she did for her role as the drug-addicted prostitute in Warner Brothers’ 1971 mystery thriller Klute.
Keeping it real
“Klute got under my skin. Jane (Fonda, who had the lead role) and I would research, go out and pretend to be hookers. Jane would put on a hat and sunglasses, but that face, that voice — people knew it was Jane Fonda. But I hung out with prostitutes and pimps. The pimps, I hated that. But there was one gal (a prostitute) I really liked. I worried about her. I finally had to cut that tie with her, I had young children.
“I learned a lot; it was very beneficial to my part, particularly when (my character) died.” Tristan brightens and adds, “I get into things, and learn — because I’m nosy!” After an internationally successful modeling career, her acting credits include several TV show episodes, and films including Scarecrow (1973), California Dreaming (1979), and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).
Of Tristan’s roles before Swan Song Hancock observes, “You’re fairly tormented until this role,” and she agrees. “But I always manage to have fun. A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream was fun.” So was writing the bawdy Bohemian Nights. Performed at the Acorn Theatre in Three Oaks and in Chicago in 2007, it elicited mixed reviews, some of them scandalized, in a city that has seen its share of graphic scenes.
Kinder, gentler ‘Swan’
There’s none of that in Swan Song, though. The care to protect the 13-year-old ingenue Grace Tarnow began well before any filming.
“We spent a lot of time with her,” says Hancock. “We’d pick her up after school and go shopping, get something to eat. We were concerned with bonding with her, making sure she was comfortable.”
And she was. “She’s such a natural artist,” marvels Tristan, and Hancock nods. “I had the same reaction to her in the auditions as I did with Robert DeNiro (Bang the Drum Slowly). She was wise in filming, everything she does matches (the mood and intent) and she’s spontaneous.” Tristan adds, “A lot of our dialogue was improvised."
“The role is hard to do without digging into it together. I’d say to Grace, 'Pretend it was (a true, sorrowful time in your life)', and she really tore it up.”
In the film Tristan’s character exhibits some early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and the octogenarian admits that during the filming, “It was hard falling on the floor. It hurt.” She shrugs. “But it was to be done.”
Swan Song is the fourth movie from Hancock’s production company FilmAcres shot in the LaPorte County-Southwest Michigan area, after the Christmas classic Prancer in 1989; A Piece of Eden, 1999; and Suspended Animation, 2001. Others cast members in Swan Song include Jeff Puckett, Elizabeth Stenholt, Griffin Carlson, Vickie K. Cash and Anthony Panzica, all area talent.
It’s currently in the screening stage, with one that's already been held in Chicago yielding a very positive audience reaction — “93 percent, that’s phenomenal,” notes Hancock — and another screening in New York at the end of August.
Here, at their peaceful countryside farmstead, the couple’s contentment with each other is palpable. Hancock can’t resist showing off some of his wife’s paintings, which range from the hauntingly mystical to the fanciful and comic. Tristan wrote her memoir, the recently-published Joy Street here, an account of pain and growth through a career filled with famous names and places.