Pop Culture

Teri Garr writes about movies, men and MS

Teri Garr has worked with Hollywood’s best and brightest from her Oscar-nominated role in “Tootsie” opposite Dustin Hoffman, where she plays the feisty, confused feminist Sandy, to the classic comedy “Young Frankenstein” with Gene Wilder, to her recurring role on “Friends” as Phoebe’s eccentric birthmother. But for the past four years, Garr’s main speaking role has been to talk openly about multiple sclerosis — a disease she lived with for almost 20 years before being officially diagnosed in 1999. Garr was invited on “Today” to discuss her book, “Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood,” written with Henriette Mantel, which will be available in paperback next week, her life, and her upcoming movie, “Unaccompanied Minors.” Read an excerpt of her book:

Chapter one
Hollywood: This Mess Is a Place
On March 29, 1982, the day of The Academy Awards, I woke up excited and ready to go to the Oscars for the first time in my life (I’d always watched them on TV, like everyone else). It was a perfect day in L. A., the same beautiful day any self-respecting Los Angeleno takes for granted.  Outside my window the skies were blue and a hummingbird flirted with the lemon tree.But today was different. I had been nominated for an Academy Award for my performance as Sandy Lester, Dustin Hoffman’s neurotic, struggling actress girlfriend, in “Tootsie.” Under Sydney Pollack’s direction, “Tootsie” had been a runaway hit starring Dustin as an unemployed actor who pretends to be a woman in order to land a role in a soap opera.I couldn’t believe my good fortune — I had been really, truly nominated, like all my big screen idols — Ginger Rogers, Shirley MacLaine, and Geraldine Page.  The nomination also officially made me a member of the illustrious Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which offered major perks, such as getting free copies of the nominated films every year, screening invites, and voting privileges; I was proud.  The Academy not only knew I existed, they thought I was good!I tried to sleep in, but by eight o’clock, I couldn’t fight the excitement any longer.  I pulled myself out of bed, my mind moving faster than my body in contemplation of the major issues of the day: My hair, my makeup, and my dress, all of which ranked right up there with the Cold War, at least on that special day. But first order of business: the gym.I went to Jane Fonda’s Workout Studio on Robertson in Beverly Hills. I figured I’d go for the burn before I went for the gold. And so I worked out, exhausted myself but still didn’t put a dent into my hyper-excitement.  Even though I’d grown up around movie sets and actors, my nomination brought with it the magic that bridged the ordinary with the fantasy, and I was buying into it.  Why not?  I rushed home to start my “toilette.”By the time I pulled my silver Mercedes back into the driveway my “stylists” had arrived at my Laurel Canyon home. Nowadays stars are styled by those who are fashionistas in their own right, but back then I turned to the hair and makeup people I was working with on the set of my next movie, “Mr. Mom.”  Like the movie crews I’d grown up around, Bob Mills and Jamie Smith were two down-to-earth craftsmen who, like me, were from the San Fernando Valley. I knew I could trust them. Bob was no small talent in the world of make-up. (He’d later go on to work on Glenn Close for years). After he created my look, it was Jamie’s turn to do my hair. Staggering through the front door under the weight of a vast trunk which I assumed contained various high-tech hair-styling instruments, I would soon learn that there was only one high-volume secret to his art: a tub of gel.Serious as a surgeon, Jamie wasted no time. That’s what I liked about him. So practical, so reliable. So, shall we say, gay? Jamie sat me down at my dining room table. There was no mirror in front of me like there would be at the salon, but what could possibly go wrong?  Jamie was a man of few words, and I, by contrast, was so intensely excited I was hovering two feet above the chair. So for the next three hours I blathered on about who might win what while he yanked my hair with such force that I felt as if I’d gotten a facelift as a bonus. After a flurry of twirling, curling, blowing, teasing, and enough Aquanet to permanently damage the ozone layer, he released me from the chair to see the results of his handiwork in the bathroom mirror. My long, blonde locks rose high around my head like the feathers of a peacock.  It was a gravitational feat. A masterpiece.It had taken me forever to find the perfect dress to wear to the Awards. In those days, the designers and jewelers didn’t just call you up and volunteer to lend you their million dollar one-of-a-kind haute couture extravaganzas. Back then, you actually had to go out and schlep around, looking for a dress like everybody else, or at least pay someone to do it for you. (Searching for the perfect Oscar frock reminded me of the wedding dress that I never planned to shop for).  I looked until I was dizzy at all the usual places on Rodeo Drive: Valentino, Gucci, Saks, I finally decided on a black, capped-sleeve, floor-length dress from Neiman Marcus, which was slit up the side to show my legs. It was covered with sparkling jewels, boasted the requisite five inch thick shoulder pads, and was the newest look from the hot designer Frabrice.

Ever hear of him? Exactly. The dress uniquely captured that timeless “Dynasty” look. My boyfriend Roger Birnbaum, an aspiring producer who would later go on to develop such films as “Seabiscuit,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Rainman,” looked positively dignified in his freshly rented tux, and I looked like a Linda Evans wannabe. I know that styles change, and fashion is ephemeral. But looking back, I’ll tell you one thing: hideous is forever.At this point you’d be wise to ask, “What the hell were you thinking? Why didn’t anyone stop you?” But you needed to live it to know: it was like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” We were all in the same Dynasty-induced, shoulder-padded, zombie-eyed haze. With all the spraying and primping and wrestling myself into my dress, before I knew it, it was two pm and my limo had arrived. My mother, my brother, Ed, and my sister-in-law, Bunny, showed up at the door to take pictures, as if Roger and I were heading off to the Prom. After a few obligatory snapshots, I dispensed my well-practiced air kisses, and off we went. Maybe I was on my way to collect my statuette…Who knew?!The rest of that day and evening is pretty much a blur now. The adrenaline-fueled trip down the red carpet, the interviews with Siskel and Ebert, the blinding flashes of hundreds of cameras as the photographers shouted, “Teri! Over here! Over here!” Just about the only thing I’m sure really happened is that the paparazzi confused me with Joe Namath. Who could blame them? Those shoulder pads!All the photos of me from the red carpet that day show the same great big grin. I was happy inside but also wired. Years of hard work had finally come together, in one auspicious achievement. Like any little girl who’s ever dreamed of a career in show business, I’d imagined this moment a few million times, except I was usually wearing a better dress. And now, here I was. Roger and I made our way down the red carpet, chatting with the TV reporters, and other nominees like Peter O’Toole and Jack Lemmon. At one point, Meryl Streep, who was nominated for Best Actress in “Sophie’s Choice,” turned to me and said, “Isn’t this exciting?” And, just as you’d expect from a clever comedienne, I responded: “Yeah, I guess so.”I was so excited I was unexcited. By the time Roger and I took our seats in the theater, I was a nervous mess. “Best Supporting Actress” was my category, and one of the first ones up, so, luckily, I didn’t have long to wait.  The show zipped along for what seemed like 36 hours, but was really only about four minutes.  Then, finally … Next up, Best Supporting Actress.My co-star, Jessica Lange (it’s okay if you haven’t heard of her) had also been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in “Tootsie.” It’s not unusual for two actors in the same film to be nominated for the same award—it’s happened throughout Oscar history from “The Godfather” (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor) to “Chicago” (Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones were nominated for Best Supporting Actress). But this time it was happening to me. The others nominated in my category were Kim Stanley for “Frances,” Leslie Ann Warren for “Victor/Victoria,” and Glenn Close for “The World According to Garp.” I figured Glenn Close would win, and not just because Jessica and I would split the “Tootsie” vote.  I thought she was perfect in “Garp” as the nurse mother. And after all, I was the girl who’d danced in Elvis movies and played the Statue of Liberty on roller skates. I’d been buried in sand for an Annette Funicello movie. Was I really going to win an Academy Award?When the envelope was opened, my heart stopped. “And the winner is…. . . Jessica Lange.” I instantly smiled, bigger perhaps than I’ve ever smiled before.  I may have played the Statue of Liberty on roller skates once, but I’m no fool — while the winner is adjusting her girdle and kissing everyone within a ten-person radius, the camera is always on the losers.  Of course the movie “The Oscar” with Stephen Boyd came to mind.

Was it the insufferable Jessica Lange’s impeccable timing in “Tootsie” that won her “Best Supporting Actress”? (Incidentally, I thought she was very nice until she won the Oscar and I didn’t. Nothing personal.) Or was it a sympathy vote? The fact that she was much, much older than me? Who knows? She’d been nominated for “Best Actress” for “Frances,” in which she was brilliant, but there was no way anybody was going to beat out Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.”

At any rate, the pressure was off me. I took some comfort in the fact that just a few days earlier The Washington Post had said that I was, “Not quite the girl next door; that would be too perfect. She's more like the girl next door to the girl next door.” I wasn’t sure what that meant but I figured: it was too much of a stretch for the girl next door to the girl next door to win an Academy Award.   So, I didn’t win.  I fell back on the old adage “being nominated is just as good as winning, and I had a fabulous view of the ceremony, I was invited to all the big after-parties, and, oh yeah, I’d worked my ass off to get here, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it, even bad hors-d’oeuvres. .  .   It wasn’t my style to fixate on the loss for too long, and I had my life pretty much in perspective: I was a successful actress. I was making movies, good movies, if I do say so myself. I was working with the best directors in the business — Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, and Steven Spielberg. I was living the life I’d dreamed of . . . I was on top of the world, and nothing was going to get in the way of that, especially the loss of an Academy Award to what’s her name.When the lights went up, Roger and I went out to retrieve our car from the valets. So did everyone else. Win or lose, star or not, you wait for your car with everyone else, and waiting for your car is a drag. But we finally got out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and drove to the superagent Swifty Lazar’s party at the famous Beverly Hills restaurant Spago. There I was, in a fabulous dress that would be hot for at least another thirty seconds, riding in a limo to the most fabled celebrity haunt in town, toasting my director, the esteemed Sydney Pollack, and rubbing elbows with every movie star who was hot at the time.  I felt as frothy and as light and flowing, as . . . my hair. I was also planning to knock back a few. I am Irish, after all.

Champagne flowed late into the night, and by the time I got home, my family, who, for some strange reason, had stayed at my place to watch the show, was gone. On the top of an empty pizza box they had written, “Win or lose, we love you anyway.” Which was sweet. But there wasn’t time to linger in my near-perfect glory. I had work the next day — I was shooting “Mr. Mom,” playing the mom to Michael Keaton’s Mr. — and as the lead, calling in sick wasn’t an option. So I crawled into bed with Roger and closed my eyes. I wondered what Leslie Ann Warren was thinking. After all, we all must have thought we were going to win at some point. Oscar or no Oscar, I had a boyfriend sleeping next to me. My career was blazing. I had a sweet house in the Hollywood Hills. I was a regular on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman.” I was on the cover of Ms. magazine, and in the New Yorker Pauline Kael said I had “become the funniest neurotic dizzy dame on the screen.” It took me all of five minutes to put the loss of the Oscar into perspective. Life was good.

* * *

I sure made it look easy, didn’t I?

I thought it would be simple from then on. I was a working actress! In my mind it was all going according to plan. But it ain’t always so, is it? My body had a trick or two up its sleeve. A stumble here, a tingling finger there. I was trained as a dancer and knew better than to indulge the random aches and pains that visited now and then. Being a successful Hollywood actress may be challenging, but little did I know that the very body that had always been my calling card would betray me. The biggest challenges of my life were still ahead.

Excerpted from “Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood,” by Teri Garr written with Henriette Mantel. Copyright © 2005 Teri Garr. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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