Actors like to describe their voices as “instruments,” but it’s hard to imagine what kind of instrument Julie Hagerty’s voice might be. Part childlike whisper, part comic gossamer wheeze, her voice can sound at times like the noise you might get if you blew into the wrong end of a flute made of cotton candy. It’s not exactly an intimidating bellow, so it’s no surprise that, when describing how she phoned her agents to prod them to chase a role for her in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Hagerty says in a slight hush, “I’m not aggressive like that, ever. My agents were bowled over. They were like, who’s this on the line?” But when I asked her director, Walter Bobbie, what makes Hagerty funny, he cited the Voice: “That wonderful, winsome, sweet voice,” he explained, made all the more comical by the fact that it issues forth from this “bundle of fragility.”
Of course, winsomeness plus fragility doesn’t seem to equal hilarity. But for the better part of the eighties, Hagerty—with her ex-model’s good looks, her “What? Me sexy?” innocence, and her blue eyes that can goggle open to Margaret Keane–painting proportions—was someone America loved to laugh at. In Airplane! and its sequel, she played Elaine, the stricken stewardess who wrapped her lips around the crotch-mounted inflation nozzle of a slumping autopilot. In Lost in America, opposite Albert Brooks, she proved to be perhaps the only actress on earth likable enough to stupidly gamble away her family’s nest egg and not have the audience rooting for her to be locked in a capsule and shot into space.
In Bette and Boo, Christopher Durang’s deranged look at the idiocy of love and the impossibility of marital happiness (Bobbie calls it not a comedy but rather a “hilarious tragedy”), Hagerty plays Boo’s mother, Soot, another wide-eyed, faintly oblivious woman who’s tottering at the edge of an abyss. This time it’s not an airliner but her rancid marriage to Karl that’s going down. He chuckles and waves a cigar and calls her “the dumbest white woman alive,” like it’s a term of endearment. And she simply grins, eyes agape, and, in the play’s stage directions, responds like this:
Soot: Oh, Karl. [Laughs, exits.]
Good actors can make being funny seem so effortless that you might forget they’re acting at all. Hagerty has this problem, and this gift. “Hopefully one doesn’t see the work—as in anything, if you do your job well,” she says. Soot, for example, could be an acting disaster—she could be such a simpering, kicked-puppy victim that the frustrated audience turns on her. Instead, Hagerty manages a polished portrait of a frail woman who’s been scorched like bleached bones in the hot sun of her husband’s contempt. “I’ve been in a lot of comedies,” she says. “And you can’t just go, Here’s the funny bit. You have to find that character.” Finding the character can be a problem when you’ve got the Voice, but this time, it fits perfectly. Soot’s sad resignation—Oh, Karl—would hardly work if it was delivered in, say, Kathleen Turner’s husky seductress’s purr.
Like Soot, Hagerty seemed to laugh, then exit, after her early-eighties successes. She was an unknown 25-year-old when Airplane! came out in 1980, someone whose big break thus far had been almost getting a part in All That Jazz. (Hagerty and Bob Fosse did end up a couple, living together briefly in New York.) She’d walked into an audition, after which the directors, Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, knew they’d found their Elaine—someone who could skillfully handle their brand of comedy, which required brilliantly modulated deadpan rather than punch lines delivered like uppercuts. These skills made Leslie Nielsen an unlikely late-life comedy star, but neither Hagerty nor her co-star Robert Hays enjoyed the same post-Airplane! success. Hagerty did A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy for Woody Allen, then Lost in America, and a landmark stage production of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves at Lincoln Center in 1986. But between then and now, she’s managed that unusual trick peculiar to aging actresses: to be both busy and publicly invisible, her recent résumé crammed with made-for-TV movies and guest spots on sitcoms.
During an interview about the latest Indiana Jones film, Karen Allen compared her own career (in an article headlined “Remember Karen Allen?”) to those of a “generation of fantastic actresses” we seem to never see anymore, and pointed to Jessica Lange, Debra Winger, and Julie Hagerty. “Somebody sent me that article,” Hagerty says. “I was so touched by that. And so bowled over by what she said.” Like Allen, she’s done her time in that Hollywood purgatory between ingénue and mother-of-the-bride. “I love to work. Everybody does. But I don’t get offers,” she says. “I have to go and knock on doors.” So when she heard about this part, in this play, she started banging. “I said, ‘Could you please let them know, could I have a chance?’ ” Walter Bobbie remembers it differently. “I heard that she was very interested and I thought it was a good idea. She’s just funny. There’s some people—how do you describe what they have? They have a quality that’s uniquely theirs. When you decide you want to work with Julie Hagerty, who else is on that list?”
As for sidestepping the perils of playing a role like Soot, he points to Hagerty’s anchoring strength. “You meet her and she seems to be just a bundle of fragility. An elegant, sweet, vulnerable face. Those eyes that don’t seem to have a shred of cynicism in them, still. She’s managed, even as a mature woman, to seem to look out on the world with untarnished purity. But underneath all that, there’s a strong girl. Otherwise it would be unbearable.” Soot never does fall apart, despite the forces battering her—in fact, she even gets to have a moment. It’s brief, and fleeting, but it’s there: The eyes narrow, the smile tightens, the spine regenerates. That winsome tinkle of a voice is banished by a growl. After Bette gives birth to a dead baby, one of many (it’s a dark play, folks), Soot tells her son, Boo, to be good to Bette. Better than Karl’s been to her, which shouldn’t be hard. “I wish I had dead children,” she says. “I wish I had 200 dead children,” then she roars, “I’d stuff them down Karl’s throat.” Then she brightens. The sunny wheeze returns. “Of course, I’m only kidding,” she says, and laughs.