Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...

updated 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>Maureen Stapleton

TELLING IT LIKE IT WAS

Unlike many stars, Maureen Stapleton never had to worry if looks alone had earned her a spot in the limelight. The plainspoken, plain-faced actress became a star on Broadway (The Rose Tattoo, Toys in the Attic) and in the movies (Reds, Airport, Cocoon) on the strength of searing, emotional portrayals. She says her friend Marilyn Monroe couldn't get taken seriously as an actress because of her beauty; Stapleton had a different problem. "People looked at me onstage and said, 'Jesus, that broad better be able to act.' "

Her audiences were not disappointed. She won an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony in her long career. Now, Staple-ton, 70, is showing off her talents on the printed page. She delivers a typically feisty performance in A Hell of a Life (Simon & Schuster, $24), the autobiography she has written with Jane Scovell. Stapleton admits to a slew of sins, including heavy drinking, serious cussing and ruining marriages to theater producer Max Allentuck and play-wright David Rayfiel out of an inability to comfortably play the role of a real-life wife. Seeing her father, an Irish immigrant, succumb to alcoholism did not warn Stapleton off the bottle. She never drank before a performance, but life after the curtain was an open bar. She is not proud of the consequences. Her young son Danny Allentuck, now 45, would shout at her when she slurred her words: "Stop talking German, Mom. I hate it when you talk German!" At a Hollywood party in the '50s, Stapleton drank too much and taunted Burt Lancaster about wearing sunglasses indoors. When he didn't answer, she took a swing at him and missed.

She is not without humor, however. In 1970 she was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Airport and wore a favorite old dress that she had trouble getting into. "I actually think my girdle should have won for technical achievement," she writes. When she finally won an Academy Award—for Best Supporting Actress in Reds 11 years later—she slimmed down and fit into a new gown.

Today, Stapleton lives in Lenox, Mass., near her two grandchildren and still hopes for plum roles. Writing her memoirs was fun, she reports, but she has no literary pretensions. What does she hope readers will get out of A Hell of a Life? Says the author: "Oh, just a few laughs."

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