Queen of Broadway and Her Texas Ranch: Betty Buckley on Divas, Horses, and Therapy
A lifetime of therapy helped the Tony Award-winning Betty Buckley prepare for her latest movie. In a candid interview, she talks musicals, love, her ranch, and what ‘diva’ means.
Wow, that bed looks great, I said, wandering into Betty Buckley’s swish Manhattan hotel room.
Would you like to lie on it? the Tony Award-winning actress—and jolly nice but ill-fated gym teacher with amazing flick-hairdo in Carrie—asked.
And so we did. Reclining as politely as two strangers can when giving themselves over to such sudden intimacy, Buckley—dressed in black, and with a swirling crown of gray hair—fetched some extra pillows and raved about my colorful socks.
Indeed, she confessed her own love of socks and asked an assistant to bring her some of her own. These were duly delivered.
Buckley has taught students to act and sing for nearly 50 years, she said, and part of that is to “nurture themselves and their self-esteem”—and socks cheer her up.
This was an all-smiles opening salvo to an initially grim reason to meet. If you’re an M. Night Shyamalan fan, harking back to the gripping The Sixth Sense, you’ll be waiting for the twist in his new movie, Split. The ta-dah, rug-pull moment. He’s never matched that fantastic gotcha moment in The Sixth Sense, but he’ll probably never stop trying.
Indeed, at a recent advance screening of Split, we were instructed not to reveal anything about the end of the movie. Fine. That’s if you last that long. Quite unlike The Sixth Sense, Split is an ugly, exploitative film that manages not just to dwell luridly on the kidnap and violence endured by a trio of teenage girls—who are inevitably required to be divested of their clothes as they are tortured and fear for their lives—but also on the madness of their persecutor, played by James McAvoy.
McAvoy’s acting, as he orbits among several personalities, is impressive, but two of his multiple personalities include a prim, menacing woman and frothy camp fashion-lover, and so the Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) his character suffers from includes two all-too-familiar gay and trans stereotypes.
And so an already unpleasant film also has more than a trace of homophobia while propagating the notion that people with DID are murderous psychopaths.
But hey, if you find all those things as funny as some people in the audience I saw it with did, you’re in for a dandy evening’s entertainment.
Split’s grim, very long two hours are thankfully leavened by the presence of Buckley, 69, who plays a therapist trying to make sense of McAvoy’s lunatic mind. Her character also gives the film a semblance of an intellectual heart, as she and her patient interrogate DID, its science, and what it means.
Buckley’s career is wide-ranging, from her award-winning performances in Cats and Sunset Boulevard on stage, to her role as Miss Collins in Brian de Palma’s Carrie, and the mom in the late 1970s drama-comedy Eight Is Enough. On TV in more recent years she has appeared in Oz, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Leftovers. She has recorded 16 albums. Her résumé is impressively diverse, and she relishes that.
In 2012 Buckley was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, but she does not embrace the term “diva.” Indeed, being termed as such—and “difficult”—was one of the reasons she left New York in 2002 to live on a ranch in her native Texas, where she has spent the last 14 years riding and training cutting horses (horses trained in separating cattle from the herd).
Of Split, Buckley said she has long been fascinated with the subject of multiple personalities, “and the enormous creativity of the human mind and what it’s capable of in the face of pain, suffering, and even torture.”
As a younger woman, she read Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil, about a woman with DID, and saw the similarly themed The Three Faces of Eve.
“I had known about the subject matter for some time, and gone through my own analysis,” Buckley said. She also worked with a psychologist to prepare for the film to ensure her character “was doing everything with the right professional decorum.”
She has been in therapy herself since she was 21 and is now in “classical analysis.”
“For me back then it was about unraveling what a complicated family history I had. I grew up in Fort Worth with a very Victorian, fundamentalist, military father [Ernest]. He was very strict and saw the world in very black-and-white terms. He was very repressive, suppressive, and didn’t want me to be an actress or a singer—yet he loved my mother [Betty Bob].
“She was a very talented singer, but then he shut her down on that one. He wouldn’t let it happen once they got married. She gave up her career to be a mother and wife.”
Buckley’s mother had an extensive collection of cast albums, which Buckley learned Broadway scores from. Buckley bought rock ‘n’ roll, Brazilian, and world music with babysitting money. She sang at church and learned dance.
“My mom was a lot of a stage mother,” she said, laughing, with young Betty symbolizing “what she wanted for herself but what my father had forced her to give up. When she found out I had a love of music and song, she was delighted, and she shaped that.”
Aged 11, Buckley went to see her first piece of musical theater, The Pajama Game, and was “immediately smitten” by Bob Fosse’s choreography. Until then Buckley had been placed in the back row of the choir. “I never knew there was a purpose for girls with loud voices until I discovered musical theater. I had this awareness as an 11-year-old that this was something I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Her mother and father “had huge fights” about her performing, but her mother would sneak her out of the house for competitions and lessons. With mentors in Fort Worth, she studied tap, ballet, and jazz. She starred in productions of Gypsy, West Side Story, Oklahoma, and Desert Song. She was crowned Miss Fort Worth in 1966 and was a runner-up for Miss Texas.
“My father didn’t want me to go to New York City, and I was determined to go,” Buckley said. “Learning to give myself the permission to be who I was in the world and to make my own choices was hard. I needed help to give me the courage of my own convictions.”
And so she began to have therapy. “When you grow up like that it’s always there, it’s something you have to be aware of. You learn what situations in life retrigger that original pain and learn to walk away from situations, both professional and personal. To have an outside third party, who is unbiased but knows your history that you can connect with, is great.”
She said she has been seriously depressed. “I think everyone in our culture has been if they admitted it. There are a lot of lies in our culture that we live with on a daily basis. We’re programmed hugely every day by all these outside influences that affect our self-esteem and ideas of perfection. That’s why I teach.”
Buckley herself had a fair number of spiritual and professional mentors, so she feels it is her duty to give back to the students she has taught for 45 years and advise them on all aspects of show business. Her golden advice: “You have to acknowledge the rule by which others are operating. You don’t want to challenge them on that, but you can walk around them and do things your own way. Just don’t make a big deal about it.”
As a young actor—inspired by Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, and later Gena Rowlands—Buckley studied to be “able to portray truth and reality so well that if it was seen on film, audiences would experience a documentary level of truth, and to musical theater too. I did an OK job in Carrie but wanted to do better. When I was doing Eight Is Enough I would study my dailies to see what looked real and what looked phony.”
Buckley studied at Stella Adler—script analysis and the negotiation and mind games of producers—feeling at the end she had received “a master’s degree in show business.”
Her father attended Buckley’s debut Broadway performance in 1776, a role she got on her first day in New York when she was 21, in 1969.
Later, she recalled, in a short space of time, she performed a one-woman show and filmed the movie Tender Mercies, for which she sang “Over You,” a song that was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe.
Then she hit very big in the original Broadway production of Cats playing Grizabella, for which she won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical. This run of laurels felt like the fruition of all she had learned, Buckley said.
But her father wouldn’t come to see her in Cats. Nor would he attend the Tony Awards with her.
I asked if they had reconciled before his death, when her father—who became a civil engineer and architect after retiring from the Air Force—came to see a property in Los Angeles she was thinking about buying.
Hills loomed over it, and Buckley was worried the property might be in danger. “He gave me his counsel. I think he liked that I had asked for his opinion.”
She invited her father to see her then-stage show, I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, and drove him back to his hotel after the show. She asked what he thought of her performance. “‘You know, Betty Lynn, I always thought you had a fine mind, and I was always afraid of you wasting it, because I always thought show business is a superficial profession,’” he told her (she recalling his words). “‘And so I tried to tell you that as a child. I think your mother is a bit of a flibbertigibbet over show business, and so I tried to give you a value system and help you understand.’”
Buckley replied: “I wish you’d explained it in these terms instead of the way you did.”
Her father told her, “‘Well from what I saw tonight’”—and here Buckley’s voice cracked, and she began to cry—“it’s so moving to remember him saying this… ‘You really care about people, don’t you?’”
“Yeah, I think I do,” Buckley told him.
“‘I can see that and I think you’re really trying to make a contribution in what you’re doing, and I saw that tonight and I’m proud of you,’” Buckley’s father told her, she said.
As we lay on the bed, Buckley wept a little more, then wiped her eyes. “So that was really nice. That was a major breakthrough for us. After that he would recede into his old ways again. I call that moment ‘detente.’ It lasted for a little while.”
She smiled as she revealed that her very much alive mother, Betty Bob, is 91 and still going to every opening night she can with her friend Bobbie Wygant, herself an entertainment reporter at the NBC affiliate in Fort Worth, having started in the job 68 years ago.
“They’re the party girls of Fort Worth,” said Buckley, laughing. “They go to every opening, movie premiere, ballet, concert, every major artistic occasion—they are there. They have matching cars, they like to get all glam, and they know everybody. They’re a testimony to how to stay vital. They are both beautiful and glamorous and love life. My mother complains she’s slowing down, but when I try to make a date with her she’s always busy.”
Buckley asked if I liked Split. I told her, honestly, no, not really, and revealed why. Buckley, naturally, spoke supportively of the film and why she felt the apparently trans and gay characters are not a mockery, and how grounded Shyamalan’s approach to psychology is. This is the second film they have worked on together, and she feels a great deal of affection for him.
I asked how she felt about the “diva” label. “I guess I was really conscious of it being applied to me when I did Sunset Boulevard. It was an interesting, very high-profile job. But I wanted to say, I can play a diva, crazy lady, dysfunctional, self-destructive, alcoholic—that doesn’t mean I are one. Sorry, I use the word ‘are.’”
Buckley said she felt fulfilled and enjoyed the eclectic nature of her work to date. Yes, she’d like to return to Broadway. She had “high hopes” the production of Grey Gardens she starred in in Sag Harbor and Los Angeles recently would come to Broadway, “but for various reasons it has not. Theater is a gamble, and a tough road.” She has a new solo album coming out on February, Story Songs, her 17th album and a recording of her evening of music performed at Joe’s Pub in New York City, where she will appear in a new show this autumn.
Having studied meditation, world religions, and spiritual philosophy, she feels all right about aging, though she denounces “the pressures of a culture that is immensely unkind and self-rejecting of our aging process, instead of respectful. There really is a beauty to the aging process. It’s very subtle and lovely in many ways, but we have to be taught to see it that way. And we see it harshly right now. We treasure youth. It’s ridiculous.
“One of the great human problems,” Buckley said, was inertia, “the instinct be a couch potato, but you have to get up.” She trained, “like an athlete,” to do Sunset Boulevard in 1994 and 1995 in London and New York.
The “consistent commitment of work” means she does not give in—although running up and down stairs in high heels in 35-pound gowns for Sunset did Buckley’s knees in, so no more running for her.
It’s a “not yet” to the question of plastic surgery. “I’d like to not if I can, because it’s risky and what if I don’t like the results, and also because I’m a singer I don’t know to what degree that would affect things.” (Buckley said she would not be attending the upcoming production of Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close, though she was “excited and happy” for Close to revisit the role Close had performed in the original Broadway production.)
Age was an early bugbear: As Miss Collins in Carrie, Buckley was the same age as the actors playing the schoolkids, “but I was treated as an older person because I was playing an authority figure.” In Eight Is Enough, she was told she’d be a groovy stepmother of 28, but she was soon made to seem older and dowdier.
“I had to really fight for the integrity of that character with these cruel men who were the producers. I literally fought these jerks, with the help of a big show business attorney or two,” Buckley said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Guys, the American mother has changed.’ They were stuck in the 1950s. They didn’t like I was pulling them out of their mendacity.”
Buckley said the Eight Is Enough producers were so riled by her assertiveness they threatened to bad-mouth her (“Wherever you go, we’ll get there first”), and so it came to pass: At new projects, she’d be told that the word was she was “difficult,” whereas the truth was, Buckley insisted, she wanted to make the work better. “It was a long road,” she said.
Buckley is single. She was married between 1972 and 1979 to director and acting coach Peter Flood. She has no children, and said her children were her acting students, and those horses, donkeys, dogs, and cats she has rescued as a passionate animal lover. She and Flood remain close friends.
“I didn’t want to be married. I was afraid of recreating the very oppressive environment I grew up in,” she said. “I was afraid of being trapped, and I really wanted an independent life but didn’t have courage to own up to that totally. Peter convinced me that we should be married, to take the pressure of my father off. We stayed married for a number of years. We couldn’t bring ourselves to divorce because we were one another’s best friends.”
They have met each other’s boyfriends and girlfriends, advising each other on who is and who isn’t right. She is close friends with Flood and his partner.
Buckley herself had an on-off relationship with a man she met in her thirties, until very recently. “We thought we’d get together at some point. Recently we had a very intimate conversation and I thought, ‘This is finally happening,’ and then I realized it was not going to happen, and I thought, ‘Enough, no more.’ I have to clear that space in my head and heart now, and move on.”
Buckley is extremely close to her assistant Cathy Brighenti, who has worked with her for 16 years. “I only do a couple of things well. She does everything else. Without her my life would be disheveled, disorganized, and dysfunctional. I’m very fortunate to have such a good friend who is also my work companion.”
As for meeting another partner, “I’m very open to meeting a wonderful dude, but he’d have to be pretty exceptional at this point to make me change my ways.”
She missed having her own children “for a moment” in her forties. She laughed, recalling the Roy Lichtenstein ’50s Pop Art image of a woman, bemoaning the same.
At an ashram in upstate New York, she recalled, a “spiritual teacher”—knowing the confusion Buckley was having about having children—thought it might be an idea for Buckley to look after another woman’s baby for the day.
Buckley was surprised at the amount of strength that was required to take care of the infant. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is huge! Imagine doing this, day and night, being on call for this being with so much energy. Is this what you want to do?’”
Buckley’s wig-maker invited Buckley to the birth of her child, again recognizing that the actress was asking herself whether she should be a parent.
While Buckley was moved that her colleague’s baby—who she had sung to while in the womb—seemed to recognize her voice once born, the experience also helped Buckley realize that birth was not for her, she said.
Last year, Buckley fractured six vertebrae after falling off one of her beloved cutting horses, and she joked later to her Grey Gardens director that she wouldn’t be acting when hobbling around as an older Edie.
She moved back to Texas in 2002 “partly because of 9/11. None of us know how much time we’ve got.” She had always wanted to help train cutting horses, and at the time she lived on the Upper West Side. It had been her plan to be successful in show business, then buy a horse ranch and ride cutting horses. Then aged 55, and with the guidance of an expert horse trainer, she did it.
“It’s an incredible counterpoint. There’s so much effort to being a performer: the makeup, getting dressed, performing. And on the ranch, in the early days, I’d be in boots, spurs, dirty jeans. My mother would say, ‘Betty Lynn, you look like one of those ranch women who doesn’t care what she looks like. You need to put on some lipstick.’”
The diva label also hastened Buckley’s move to Texas. “In the years after Sunset Boulevard, there was so much gossip and conjecture about me being a diva or difficult. I was constantly being asked to address a projection or idea of me that had nothing to do with me. People are so simplistic. Just because I play a diva or complicated person doesn’t mean I am a diva.”
Horses were the answer: “You have to be completely authentic or the horse won’t respond to you. They are profoundly empathetic. Riding a horse, I didn’t care any more about show business and crazy negotiations. I’d be riding in the dirt, or chasing a cow across an arena, or brushing these horses. It authenticizes life. It brings you back to earth. You don’t care what anyone says or thinks.”
Buckley laughed. The night before, she’d been out for dinner, after another day of promoting Split, and all she wanted was to be back on the ranch with the horses.
“Now I don’t have anything to prove. I just want to keep working because I love to collaborate with people I really admire.”
I asked if she would like to return to Broadway. Of course she would. Buckley once proposed an all-action, Wild West-themed Annie Get Your Gun for Broadway (she playing Annie Oakley), though “producers didn’t get the concept.” She would love any young, brilliant Broadway composers out there to write her a show.
We decamped from the bed, popped sensible shoes over our colorful socks, and went to the hotel elevators.
Buckley said she had stopped participating in cutting horse competitions four years ago. She has just two horses now. Did she miss competing? Yes, she said, smiling. She was out riding recently one of the horses, who “squealed with pleasure when he separated a cow from the herd, as if to say, ‘Come on, this is what I do.’”
Buckley loves performing and horses equally, although the irony is she has to work a lot to keep her horses properly—which means a lot of time away from them. “I don’t know how long I can keep this boat afloat, but for now I’m trying to do that,” Buckley said, smiling.
On trips such as this one to New York, as she prepares to leave the horses in the hands of her trusted caretakers, Buckley said she tells the animals, “Guys, I am the guy who pays for the grain, the hay, and the guy who cleans the stalls, so be chill. I’ll be back.”
And then, after a warm farewell hug, Betty Buckley suggested I next write about socks.
Split is released on Jan. 20.