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Mary Steenburgen

Celebrating Mary Steenburgen's distinguished Hollywood career and political activism.

Mary's voice is the first thing you notice about her. Her soft, southern drawl has been described by film critic Charles Taylor as coming to "your ears like honey arriving on a moonbeam". There is no other voice like it in Hollywood.

She was born on February 8, 1953, in Newport, Arkansas to Maurice Steenburgen, a freight train conductor, and Nellie Mae Wall Steenburgen, a school secretary. The name Steenburgen is of Dutch origin. It's pronounced with a soft "g" as in the word urge.

She was discovered by Jack Nicholson in the 70s, and was chosen to star with him in Goin' South' in 1978, which was her first film. She won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in only her third movie, Melvin and Howard, in 1980.

Mary Steenburgen

Mary Steenburgen. See Diane Lane


More Mary. See Helen Mirren

Mary Steenburgen

More Mary. See Marisa Tomei

She met her first husband, Malcolm McDowell when they worked together in the time-travel romantic comedy Time after Time in 1979. She married McDowell on September 29, 1980; they had two children: actress Lilly McDowell and producer/director Charlie McDowell. They both starred in Cross Creek in 1983. In it she played Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. Her husband appeared in the film as Rawlings's editor, Max Perkins.

Mary spent a number of years living in London. In 1987, she made her London stage debut, co-starring with McDowell in Philip Barrie's Holiday at the Old Vic Theatre. She divorced McDowell in 1989. McDowell is best remembered for his role as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971). He was also in the superb If (1968) and Robert Altman's The Player' (1992).

On October 7, 1995, Mary married actor Ted Danson at their home in Martha's Vineyard. They had met when he had auditioned unsuccessfully for a part in Cross Creek, and they later worked together in the movie Pontiac Moon in 1994.

Her other notable movie roles were as schoolteacher Clara Clayton in Back to the Future III (1993), and as a frustrated housewife who seduces Johnny Depp's character in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). She played Belinda Conine in Philapdelphia in 1993, Richard Nixon's mother Hannah in Nixon in 1995, and Emily in Elf in 2003.

Mary is a favorite of independent film maker John Sayles, starring in Sunshine State (2002), Casa de los Babys (2003), and Honeydripper (2007).

She explains how Sayles approached her to start in Sunshine State: "It was kind of magical in its simplicity, a fax came over the fax machine one day saying, My name is John Sayles, and I've always been a fan of yours. I'd love you to play a part in my new film, which is very kind of human, but not the way my business usually works. It's usually my people speak to your people and then they speak around each other and trade calls for weeks. And, you know, it was just kind of so human, so it was great."

In addition to her film work, she has worked in television on the sitcom Ink, the miniseries Gulliver's Travels, and as her self alongside her husband Ted Danson in the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. She has also campaigned enthusiastically for her friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, and for president Barack Obama.

Current movie: The Proposal, a comedy out in 2009, starring Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. Directed by Anne Fletcher.

Best Steenburgen movies: Melvin and Howard (for which she won an Oscar and did a nude scene as a stripper), Sunshine State, Nixon, Parenthood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

Roger Ebert writes of the brilliant Jonathan Demme movie Melvin and Howard: "This is a slice of American life. It shows the flip side of Gary Gilmore's Utah. It is a world of mobile homes, Pop Tarts, dust, kids and dreams of glory."

Best Steenburgen nude scene: As a stripper in Melvin and Howard.

Steenburgen duds Nobody's baby.

Weirdest movie: Clifford with Martin Short as a 10-year-old boy. Bizarre. Roger Ebert says of Clifford: "It's not bad in any usual way. It's bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it's based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope."

John Sayles on working with Mary: I try not to [write with specific actors in mind] because you never know who's going to be available and if they'll want to do it, and you don't want to be too disappointed. Naturally, you go back to the actors you've worked with before that you'd like to work with again. I'd just done Sunshine State with Mary Steenburgen so she was definitely on the list for Casa De Los Babys.

On working with Larry David: Larry is no genius. Larry's going to be my guest all summer at Martha's Vineyard. We call him Larry the Lodger, because once he gets in there he won't get out. We had fun on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I guess what I like is what we did on Step Brothers more than what we did on Curb because on Curb, there's no script and on Step Brothers, there is a script that you do first. You do the takes as written, and then you go play, and you get that wonderful balance of both. Because in the end, writers are writers, and actors are not. Environmental protection group supported by Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

Buy John Sayles' movies starring Mary Steenburgen: Honeydripper; Casa de los Babys ; Sunshine State.

By Athina Simonidou

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