Lainie Kazan is a queen of stage and screen, with a bigger-than-life personality in her work and life alike. Her roles in Beaches, Cemetery Club, My Favorite Year, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding are sometimes more memorable than the films themselves. Kazan started out onstage at a very young age and began receiving public and critical acclaim for understudying and filling in for an ill Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl on Broadway in the 1960s. Now she’s at it again, with this week’s opening of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, reprising her hysterical role of Maria Portokalos. On the phone, Kazan was bubbly, charming, and warm with us when we asked her what five films she might consider her favorites. Here is what she said:
I saw it years ago and I was in the movie — as far as I was concerned, I was the star of the movie [laughs]. I so identified with her — with Olivia de Havilland. And Vivien Leigh. Oh, I was in the movie! It was a time that I wish I had been born but I didn’t want to be so uncomfortable, know what I mean? But I just love that time in history. I love the costumes. I thought the cinematography was extraordinary. For that time it was such a magnificent piece. And Clark Gable – I didn’t learn until much later that he had rotten teeth [laughs]. But I adored him. I was with the woman who played the baby. She passed away this past year. She was at a party that Esther Williams gave about two years ago, maybe three years ago. And she called me over to her and told me she loved my work and she told me she was the baby in Gone with the Wind. She was the little baby when they were running away from the fire. She was in the horse and buggy with the nanny.
The whole [Godfather] series was brilliant. I loved all three of them. But my favorite was number two. I thought it was extraordinarily shot. I think the way Francis Coppola puts these incredible stories together where he has the juxtaposition of having people be killed while this incredible symphonic music is playing and some opera is taking place — it’s all an opera. I think the whole Godfather series is like one magnificent opera. I just think it’s one of the great movies of the century — since film making. I think he is a genius. I think he just captured the passion and the anger and the ignorance of the whole world of the Mafia, and what that meant — the Black Hand. He glamorized them in a way that made us want to know them, be there, experience it — even though it speaks of great danger. But there was something so enticing about their world, that whole world. And the people were such rich studies of character. Robert De Niro was the greatest he’d ever been, and of course, Pacino. Those performances – every single performance was genius. I loved the films. I even like the third one.
Don’t think I’m in love with the mob [laughs]. I think it has great humor even though it’s about killing and murder and the design of all that. There were wonderful humorous moments in that film and it came from such a real earthy place. The humor was so steeped in the truth — it was the truth. I tell you, I happen to know that world because I ran night clubs. I know that world very well. So I think it was such an incredible depiction of the mob and their lives and the horrible things — I mean Joe Pesci — he was so mean and so ignorant and so arrogant and yet you loved him. It’s very hard to do and it was really great. I was torn between that and Raging Bull. I think Goodfellas was more textured — a more interesting study of character. But Raging Bull has a high place in my best films. Goodfellas is very funny. It’s not in any way billed as a comic film, but it’s quite a phenomenal character study as well, with great humor. Godfather doesn’t have any humor in it, but that’s OK.
The story, the acting was sublime. [Director] Mike Nichols did an incredible job. He just did such an amazing job. The story of the old woman and the young student was so new — we had never seen that onscreen, a depiction of that. Once again, I thought this was just a brilliant character study of these people. The story was extraordinary. I loved the relationship with Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman. I just thought that was staggering. And Dustin Hoffman’s performance was so sweet, and he was so insecure and a mumbling fool in so many ways. And she was so seductive. You know, she was a counselor at my camp? She was a drama counselor. When I was nine, she was 17 or 18, and she came to the camp and I was the only one who really took to her of all my camp friends. She would have me lie on the ground and we’d be in this bunk — like in a rehearsal hall or something — she would have us lie on the floor and picture the sky and picture all the different things that could come from the sky [laughing]. She just inspired me. Then I watched her on The Goldbergs — not the new Goldbergs — but The Goldbergs with Molly Goldberg, the brilliant, brilliant television show in the 1950s. Then I saw her in The Graduate — I was a young woman — and I was just — oh my God, she was so beautiful. And I couldn’t believe I had known her. She inspired me to act, she really did. As did Francis Coppola. I went to college with him — Hofstra University. He was the person who wrote all the plays. He wrote the shows — all the original shows that I was the star of. I’d be hired to do all the shows that he had written and his uncle would write the music, so it was kind of great.
I think it’s just such a romantic adventure and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart — oh my God! And that dialogue is so iconic. Paul Henreid — I just loved all the people that were in it. And the lighting was so dramatic — the way it was shot. It was an iconic film, I just loved it.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 opens tomorrow in wide release.