In the film version of Marilyn French’s feminist novel The Women’s Room, she was driven to a nervous breakdown. In The Competition, she withdrew into a career as a piano teacher after her affair with a famous conductor went flat. In Tribute, she was the cast-aside ex-wife of a wisecracking press agent played by Jack Lemmon. Now, in this week’s TV rendition of Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter (ABC, May 3), she plays a rubber plantation manager’s tormented spouse who claims to have been raped by a family friend, then shoots him.
At 46, Lee Remick seems to hold the franchise on portrayals of women undone. The sultry blonde with the asking blue eyes has played troubled, troublemaking beauties since she burst onto the screen 25 years ago as a sexpot drum majorette in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd and followed that with her acclaimed performance as the lusciously available Army wife in Anatomy of a Murder. Not surprisingly, she was pleased to find her role in The Letter, produced by her English husband, William “Kip” Gowans, 52, very much in the Remick vein: “A woman so seemingly in control,” as she puts it, “yet so out of control of her passions.”
That, she insists, is just her screen persona. Actually, she finds her romantic life just fine, thank you—and getting even better now that she’s come home to America. Eleven years after she fled to London to marry Kip, she and Gowans have moved to Los Angeles. Following what seemed to Lee like “a lifetime on polar flights” to and from U.S. acting jobs, they decided to move in 1980, once she had wrapped The Women’s Room, The Competition and Tribute in a five-month filming marathon. While the roles paid for the Gowanses’ four-bedroom Brentwood house, “I wouldn’t recommend a schedule like that to anyone,” Lee says.
For the better part of a decade she had been content to subordinate her career to Kip, their house in London, her two children by her first marriage, and his two by his. Then in 1980 she played Brooke Hayward’s actress mother, Margaret Sullavan, in Warner Brothers’ CBS-TV movie Haywire (Kip was a consultant on the film). That not only won her raves but also officially lofted Gowans into producing. Having worked at various levels on more than 100 movies since the 1940s, he got the nod to put The Women’s Room together for Warner’s. With The Letter, his second production, behind him, he’s scouting for other properties for the studio—and Remick—to make. Their professional partnership “has made life fuller,” says Lee. “Above all, it allows us to be together. Before, I’d be in Toronto and he’d be in Vienna. Then I’d go back to London to be with the kids and Kip would have moved on to the Pyrenees.”
At present Gowans has three Remick films in the writing stage. None of them, he hopes, will set off quite the furor ignited by The Women’s Room. Though Kip thought French’s book about the struggle of a suburban housewife to forge a life of her own was basically suited to Lee, he also felt that “the novel was quite impossible to take. There wasn’t a man in it with a single redeeming quality. It had to be softened up a little to make it acceptable as a movie.” But some critics felt the story was not softened up enough—which strikes Remick as “bone stupid.” Her eyes blazing for a moment with something like the intensity Kazan must have seen when he cast her at 20 in A Face in the Crowd, she says: “The whole point was that for some women marriage is just like that. The wife has all the drudgery of the housework and looking after the children. How many wives must wish they were the ones going off to work!”
There has been little drudgery in Lee’s life, to be sure. Her prosperous father owns Remick’s, a department store in Quincy, Mass. After her parents divorced when she was 7, her actress mother took her to Manhattan and had her properly “finished” at Miss Hewitt’s. Some work in summer stock led to the part of a “dopey teenager” in a Broadway play, which in turn led to TV roles and—after a semester at Barnard College—to A Face in the Crowd. She played libidinous teases in four of her first six pictures and was soon hailed as “America’s answer to Brigitte Bardot.” Yet all the time she was a wife (for 11 years to TV producer-director Bill Colleran), a mother (to Kate, now 23 and a senior at Smith, and Matthew, 20, who aims for a filmmaking career) and a homebody whose idea of a hot time was lazing in front of an open fire.
Indeed, the first time she ever did anything really racy was when she fell for Kip Gowans. Her marriage to Colleran had collapsed when she met Kip in 1969 in Brussels, on the set of a James Coburn film, Hard Contract; she was Coburn’s co-star, and Kip was first assistant director. After the movie and three romantic months with Kip in Europe, Lee went home to New York “to be with my kids and spend a year fretting about my life.” Several transatlantic trips later, she moved to London and wound up as the corespondent in the divorce suit served on Gowans by his wife, actress Valerie Gearon. “My friends said how brave I was to be making the move, but I wasn’t brave at all,” Lee recalls. “I was in love.”
Kip grew up in a London suburb, where his father, a former coal miner, worked in a munitions plant during World War II. “When the bombing was really bad during the blitz,” he recalls, “my parents would send me to my grandparents in Northumberland.” Perhaps to compensate for his less than enchanting real life, he became “crazy about films. I must have seen four a week.”
At 14, Gowans left school to work at Denham Studios, where he quickly fell in with two other movie-crazed teenagers, Jean Simmons and Anthony Newley. “I was an office boy,” Kip says, “a runner, literally. I was so keen I used to run everywhere.” In the golden age of British cinema, he was happy to get work as a fourth assistant director—”That meant you got tea for the crew”—on films such as The Red Shoes, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. “My only regret,” he says, “is that I didn’t branch into producing a bit earlier.”
Their London years were difficult for Kip and Lee, not just because their schedules were always out of sync but also because they had to raise both Lee’s kids and his. (Nicola Gowans, 19, is now a student at Santa Monica City College; 18-year-old Justine lives in London with her mother.) Remick found being a film-star parent “the hardest thing in the world. Children get teased when they’re 14. It’s not easy when your mother’s on TV or in a movie acting like a slut or a bitch. At that age, you just want your mother to be safe and boring.” For a while, Kip adds, the kids “bit at each other all the time. But they get on fine now.”
In L.A., Lee and Kip remain as domesticated as they were in London. They wind up a long day at Warner’s, where he has an office they both use, by hopping in their Audi 5000. “We’ll grab something to eat on the way home, fall into the bath or shower and hit the sack,” says Kip. On Sunday they meet with their friends comedienne Nancy Walker and her husband, David Craig, for spaghetti and 60 Minutes. At their summer place on Cape Cod they go clamming and sail their 16-foot boat. They spend a lot of time just reading scripts, novels and even newspaper features that might be translated into movies.
Gowans misses London, but can’t imagine life without Lee. “I’m ever so proud of her,” he says. “Our life gets better and better. And I think she’s one of the most important actresses working in America today—no, working anywhere.”
“Steady on, now,” says Lee dryly.
“I do. I do!” he protests.