In her adopted home, she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen, but in her native U.S., actress Constance Cummings, 68, has gotten more fine notices than notice. Her very finest ever are for Arthur Kopit’s current Wings, in which she plays a stroke victim. The New York Times critic called it “the most extraordinary performance I have seen anywhere this season.” Broadway insiders consign her a nomination if not the ’79 Tony. That will be determined in June. But, until a recent rise in business, it seemed as if the emotionally wrenching drama would not be around then. Says Cummings: “The play is something very special. It’s not something everyone would want to buy like an ice-cream cone.”
As she is the first to admit, it is not exactly the ticket for “the tired-businessman public that wants to be entertained.” Cummings is not speaking as a cultural or anti-business snob. After the death of her husband, Benn Levy, five years ago, she was left with their 600-acre dairy farm in Oxfordshire. Levy, a former member of Parliament and a playwright (Springtime for Henry), had also directed his wife in the West End and on Broadway. Cummings last played New York in 1969 as Gertrude in the Nicol Williamson Hamlet.
She came to Broadway 51 years ago. Born Constance Halverstadt (Cummings was her mother’s maiden name) in Seattle, she decided at 17 to be a dancer. Her mother accompanied her to Manhattan (her lawyer father had died two years before) and sold china in Wanamaker’s department store to support Constance’s ambitions, which soon turned to acting. “I was plump and a little too corn-fed for a chorus girl,” Cummings admits. Even stage-door Johnnies did not make advances. “I never got offers of anything,” she says with mock dismay.
Eventually she caught on as the ingenue’s understudy in the Broadway play June Moon. And, true to the movie scripts of that time, she got lucky when a New York Sun reporter happened to be in the audience the one matinee Cummings went on. His words of praise caught the eye of Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn. Cummings was summoned for a screen test and was cast as Ronald Colman’s leading lady, only to “get thrown out of the movie. I was young and not sophisticated enough for the part,” she recalls. “I cried and cried. It was Disasterville.” One week later she was signed for The Criminal Code, and a string of movie leads followed, from Blithe Spirit to Peter Sellers’ Battle of the Sexes.
On the RKO lot in 1932 she met Levy, then writing in Hollywood. The war and two babies later, the Levys had a flat in London and the farm. Over the years she landed plum parts like Mary Tyrone opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Long Day’s Journey into Night at the National Theater. Her only blue period came in the ’50s when she believed: “I wasn’t acting well, I was just saying the words. I felt absolutely dead. Mechanical. Suddenly a cloud lifted and I felt all right again,” says Cummings.
Today her low moments are the lonely ones. Son Jonathan, 29, is in London studying medicine. Daughter Jemima, 27, is married to a yacht broker and has a fancy chandler’s shop in Florence. Their mother lives in a Manhattan residential hotel. “I have no special beau because I don’t want one,” she says. “I don’t want to marry again. I’d rather live with the memories.”
Stage memories, too. “Oh, there have been ups and downs,” Cummings admits, “but this is a great moment right now. Wings is my most demanding role.” Then she adds with a sly smile: “But I’m not sure that the latest part isn’t always the most demanding.”