Friday, October 16, 2015

Ruby Dee

Last year, there was a 25th anniversary block party celebration in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Do the Right Thing was filmed. Absent the building where "Sal's Pizzeria" stood, it's more or less the same now as it was in 1989. On that day there was a stage at one end of the street, flanked by booths down the block and banners hanging from the gates and fire escapes of the surrounding brownstones. There was one banner devoted to Ruby Dee, who had died in June. It hung from a front gate; it was a recent picture of her next to the legend, "We speak your name!"

I don't need to tell you how important and groundbreaking that movie was, nor how it continues to speak to America today. Dee was one part of a huge ensemble cast in writer-director Spike Lee's film, all of which were meant to be evocative of the kind of people you might see in an urban black neighborhood in 1989 (although I don't remember anyone in my old neighborhood like Mother Sister).

You can't talk about Ruby Dee without also talking about her husband of over fifty years and nine movies, Ossie Davis. I used to imagine that in the movie of my life, they would play my parents, especially Davis. He didn't look like my father did exactly, but there was something about his screen persona that reminded me of my father so much: the warmth, the wisdom, the physical presence (IMDB lists him as 6' 2"). My mother isn't as short as Dee was (5' 2 1/4" - Davis dwarfed her!), nor is she as skinny, but Dee could've gotten away with it, and honestly, I wouldn't have wanted anyone else. It's a moot point now. (My current choices: Dennis Haysbert and Loretta Devine.)

Dee with long-time husband Ossie Davis
You may be aware of Dee and Davis' political activism over the years. Dee, for example, was a member of the NAACP, CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were both friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and rallied other actors to their social justice cause under the banner of the Association of Artists for Freedom, the group they co-founded.

Did you also know they once experimented with an open marriage? In their joint biography, With Ossie & Ruby, they say that they tried it in an attempt to avoid lies about affairs. To quote Dee:
...we both came to realize that we were very fortunate that, in all of the deep profound, fundamental ways, we really, really only wanted each other. It was like a rediscovery of something from the beginning. It's not something that you'd recommend to everybody. But often Ossie has said - and I've thought too - the best way to have somebody is to let it go. If it doesn't come back you are free in another kind of sense - in that you find the strength to let go and wish somebody well. So, we thought an open marriage was appropriate for us but it turned out not to be.
From what I know of open relationships (which is more than you would think), I know that it is possible to love one person while sleeping with someone else, but personally, I think it's more trouble than it's worth. It sounds like Dee and Davis beat the odds by discovering that they preferred each other in the end. That's good.

Oh, yeah, they also made movies and TV shows! Dee was a six-time Primetime Emmy-nominee, winning for the 1990 TV movie Decoration Day, with James Garner, and a three-time Daytime Emmy nominee for her voice work in animation. She and Davis also won a Grammy in 2007, in the Spoken Word Album category for the audio version of With Ossie & Ruby, awarded after Davis' death.

And of course, she won that Supporting Actress SAG Award for American Gangster. I remember how that came as a surprise. That was the year of Cate Blanchett's gender-bending role as "Bob Dylan" in I'm Not There, which received massive critical praise, as well as Tilda Swinton's turn in Michael Clayton. All three women would go on to get Oscar nominated, with Swinton winning, but as I recall, Dee didn't exactly rack up a lot of major critics or guild awards by comparison, hence the surprise. Still, Dee was very good in her limited role in the film, and I'm glad she won the SAG.

I wish I could say I've seen more of her movies. There's A Raisin in the Sun, of course. Dee was part of the original Broadway cast of Lorraine Hansberry's play, as well as the film version. Dee had worked with Sidney Poitier in the American Negro Theater, and she was also part of the American Shakespeare Festival for a time. It's easy to take her role in Raisin for granted, compared to the showier roles by Poitier and Claudia McNeil, but she has excellent chemistry with Poitier, and I think her character, more than anyone else's in the play, keeps him grounded - a necessary element, and one she performed well.

Individually, Dee and Davis were exceptional, principled actors. Together, they were an inspirational, loving couple who were one of the rare examples of a successful Hollywood marriage. The industry, and the world, seems slightly diminished with their absence.

Next: Vincent Price

Movies with Ruby Dee:
A Raisin in the Sun

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson   
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean   Ethel Waters   
William Powell   Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter   Douglas Fairbanks   
Gloria Swanson   Robert Wise   Saul Bass


  1. Individually, and as a couple, they made their presence felt on this earth. No mean feat.

    As a kid, my Janet was familiar with the older gentleman that was Ossie Davis. One of the legacy films in this family of movie buffs is 1950s "No Way Out". It was a favourite of my dad's and when she was in junior high I thought it was time to make Janet watch it. Ossie and Ruby both have roles in the movie. I did the old "do you recognize that guy?" (she loves it when I do that - not). It was the voice that got her! She sat next to the set and giggled.

    PS: I can see Cerrano as your dad.


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