The Great 'Divide' Between Blair Brown and Richard Jordan Is More Than Continental, It's Matrimonial
At one point in the new romantic comedy Continental Divide, smart, stubborn, WASPy ornithologist Nell Porter comes down from the Rocky Mountain aerie where she's been studying bald eagles for four years to give a lecture. There the guy who has the hots for her, smart, stubborn, swarthy Chicago newspaperman Ernie Souchak, asks about the love life of her favorite bird. Eagles mate in midair, Nell explains enthusiastically, "talons locking, plunging and tumbling.... They near the ground, they separate, open their wings and soar, each alone. That's the only way they can fly."
And that's the central metaphor of the movie, which deals with how willful opposites like the characters played by co-stars Blair Brown (Nell) and John Belushi (Ernie) manage to find love while keeping their careers—and their independence. The eagles could also stand for Blair, 32, and her real mate, actor Richard Jordan, 43, who is due to appear as a power-broking D.C. lawyer in a CBS movie, Washington Mistress. Brown and Jordan have been winging it since 1976, when they fell in love while making the NBC miniseries, Captains and the Kings. They live in a 66-year-old castlelike home in Malibu that they are renovating, and they are expecting a baby in late February. Can marriage be next? "Not sure," offers the free-spirited Brown, who feels that wedlock is something "like closing a door." The once-divorced Jordan has twice invited the auburn-haired actress to join him at the altar, only to have her change her mind as the dreaded door began creaking shut. Observes Richard: "The longer the relationship lasts, the more possessive I get."
Unlike the lovers in Continental Divide, Brown and Jordan have more in common than entwined talons. Both are East Coast preppies: He went into acting via Hotchkiss and Harvard, she after Madeira ("pre-Jean Harris," she says) and Pine Manor. Both are also solid performers whose careers have never quite taken off. But that could change, especially for Brown, who won good notices this year not only for Divide but also as William Hurt's wife in Altered States. Still, recognition is a problem. Says Blair: "People always think I look familiar, but they think they met me at a party, or that I'm somebody's girlfriend."
When Brown and Jordan met on the Captains and the Kings set, in fact, they hadn't even heard of each other. Jordan's first thought when he saw her was, "Who is that sexy little thing?" His second was to cool it. He had been divorced from his first wife, actress Kathleen Widdoes, for four years, and had had his fill of fleeting attachments. Blair, he decided, was "trouble—someone just passing through."
But she wasn't. She was so smitten with the 6'1" Jordan, she says, that she "didn't like doing love scenes with him, because it felt too private. Though we hadn't gotten together yet, this was a person I cared about." Still, Jordan wouldn't even take her out until the Captains shooting was over. "I kept saying, 'Take it easy, there's no rush,' " he recalls. "I made her wait."
When they did move in together, it was the Manhattan-born Jordan who was the rising star. His father, Robert, ran an appliance business; his mother, Constance, taught at New York's Brearley School. Richard had become interested in acting as a child and received quiet encouragement from a famous grandfather—Federal Judge Learned Hand. "He had some theatrical qualities himself," Jordan observes. After studying English literature at Harvard, Richard headed back to Manhattan, where in 1963 he landed the male lead in a Joseph Papp production of Romeo and Juliet. He came out of that not only with his first important credit, but also with his wife: Widdoes was his Juliet. They married quickly and divorced in 1972; Widdoes has custody of their daughter, Nina, now 17.
After seven seasons with Papp's Shakespeare Festival Theater, Jordan broke into film and TV. Though he would like to forget such ill-advised gobblers as Raise the Titanic, The French Atlantic Affair and Logan's Run, he is proud of his work in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Woody Allen's Interiors. But it was his role in Captains and the Kings that brought him a kind of stardom and his new leading lady.
Blair grew up in the D.C. area as the debutante daughter of Milton Brown, a now-retired CIA official, and his wife, Ann. As an only child, she recalls "living a lot in my head. My original attraction to acting was sinking into other lives and becoming other people, taking on different values and a different outlook." At Pine Manor, near Boston, she also sank into a bit of a funk. She spent hours watching old movies and eventually skipped her final exams. Later she pulled herself together and entered Montreal's National Theatre School, determined to become "a great classical actor." Then she switched her focus to Hollywood.
Alas, she says, by the time she met Jordan in 1976 she was mired in TV and couldn't get a movie she wanted. Jordan helped her out of the rut. After Captains and the Kings, he persuaded her to take a role she didn't want: as Rock Hudson's mistress in the 1978 TV miniseries Wheels. Then she got lucky. Director Arthur Penn saw Blair in Wheels just when he was casting Altered States (on which he was later replaced by Ken Russell). And when British director Michael Apted saw her in that, he was taken with what he calls her "intelligence and lack of phoniness." He cast Blair with Belushi in Continental Divide partly because he thought she could help the Animal House star in his first non-Neanderthal part. Says Apted: "I needed an actress who could be very supportive and show him, not in a patronizing way, how to handle a role like this." It worked. Belushi hails Blair as "the best actress I've worked with."
Considering her place in the film business, Brown likes to think of herself as one of a group. "I identify with Sissy Spacek, Meryl Streep and Jill Clayburgh," she says, "because we are all people who came up through the 1960s and who knew we were going to work. We have had a more even footing with men." Her independence, she believes, isn't compromised by living with Jordan. In fact, their work often keeps them apart. When she was in Colorado last year filming Continental Divide, he was in Boston for a stage role in Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Blair finds the separations therapeutic. "It's good to miss someone rather than being sick of having them around," she says.
As for Jordan, he claims to admire headstrong women ("I would lose interest in the housewife type"), but admits that "competition" between him and Brown is inevitable. "But what am I supposed to do?" he asks. "I can't ask her not to work. So you learn to live with it, and if you don't, you break up."
Like most human beings, however, Blair is not totally liberated. She confesses she has never lost her "eagerness to please," and in Malibu she dutifully tends the Brown-Jordan menagerie. Her four-footed charges include a cat named Holden (after Caulfield) and two mutts, Redford ("because he's so gorgeous") and Alfred E. Neuman. "She also enjoys fixing up the place and cooking and washing," says Jordan. Might he try once more to marry her, perhaps before the baby arrives? Richard just smiles and points to their castle. "We own this together," he observes with a grin. "It's 50 tons of stone. That's a fairly large commitment—much heavier than a marriage contract."
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