Christine Lahti didn’t expect to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but she did expect to be ambulatory if her name was called. Like Hazel, the 1940s no-nonsense factory worker in Swing Shift, which brought her the Oscar nomination, Lahti was self-assured and self-possessed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last month. But as the moment of truth arrived, there was a moment of panic. “As they read the nominees, I realized my foot was asleep,” she recalls. “I thought, what if I do win? My foot is asleep and I can’t walk!”
Such graceless moments—offstage or on—are rare for Lahti, 34. She is an actress of singular aplomb who has sought out roles as single professionals. She has won a lead as a career woman in a Mary Tyler Moore film about friendship, which starts shooting next month. Last week she co-starred with fellow Oscar nominee Sam Waterston in the ABC-TV movie Love Lives On. And this week she winds up a run at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But taking on the role of Tennessee Williams’ wily Southern woman is a turning point for Lahti. Not long ago “I might have been bothered by the low self-image of this woman,” she says. “I think I’m much more comfortable now, walking around in my slip, and I can allow her sensuality to come out.” In an earlier, angry incarnation the actress spoke out against what she considered to be sexism. “I had to prove I wasn’t a dumb woman, that I was bright and funny. I wanted to be taken seriously.” She has since spent a couple of years in therapy, which has altered her perspective, if not her politics. “I’ve developed, thank God, much more of a sense of humor about myself.”
That humor was a necessity on Swing Shift. Many critics said that Lahti stole the movie from Hawn, and there were reports that Hawn may have thought so too, particularly after the movie went through rigorous editing in which Lahti’s role was whittled down. “I know there are a lot of stories about how in postproduction Goldie was really wielding her power,” says Lahti. “I don’t know about that. But what I do know is, honest to God, she was far from being a prima donna or star. She was completely generous.” Although Lahti won the New York Film Critics Circle Award in December, Warner Bros, took no trade ads pushing her for an Oscar nomination. Instead her manager financed a few on his own. Once Lahti was nominated, the studio did mount a campaign. According to Lahti, Hazel is a reasonable facsimile of herself. “I’m very close to her,” she says. “I seem so relaxed and in control but I’m a wussie, really.”
The tough exterior and comic talents were developed during Lahti’s youth in Birmingham, Mich., where her father is a surgeon and her mother is a painter. As a 5’10” schoolgirl “I was called the Jolly Green Giant,” she remembers. “I couldn’t get by on my looks. I had to develop in other ways. I had to be the funny one.” Feminism was not yet a concern for Lahti. As a teen of the times, she worked several summers as a singing cocktail waitress in a honeybee costume. “I’d get onstage and sing Hey Big Spender. I have repressed what the stinger looked like,” she says.
At the University of Michigan in 1968 she joined a sorority and went husband hunting. But Lahti has a penchant for phases, and the ’50s fantasy was just another one, which, like a lot of things in her past, she now laughs at. “I rejected all the husband stuff and became a hippie,” she says. She quit shaving her legs, ironed the curls out of her hair and gave up makeup. But, she says, “I was a funny hippie. I could never do it full out. I kept doing plays and couldn’t be involved in sit-ins or politics. It wasn’t cool to be ambitious, so I had a problem there.”
In New York following graduation Lahti had more problems—two and a half years of relative unemployment as an actress and lots of bills. So, to make money, she styled her hair, donned makeup and bought her first grown-up suit. The breakthrough came with a commercial that didn’t fit her politics or self-image. “I can see myself,” she cooed to a plate in a Joy commercial. Eventually she did some high-powered, highly praised work opposite Al Pacino in the film “…And Justice for All” and on Broadway with George C. Scott in Present Laughter. “I think the way my career has gone has been absolutely right,” she says. “I’ve had no big break. It’s been slow and steady. Because I’ve not been a big star, I’ve been able to take risks. The fame and fortune were always seductive to me. Now I’m ready for it.”
She’s also made progress in love. “I used to be attracted to men who are mean, withholding and kind of cool—Ken dolls, the kind that didn’t give a lot.” But a year and a half ago she married a close friend, TV director Thomas Schlamme (rhymes with Tommy). “We were just best friends and we still are,” says Schlamme. “I get the extra luxury of sleeping with her every night.” The couple recently bought a six-room coop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. After living alone for eight years, married life has tested Lahti’s principles. “Little things like decorating become conflicts,” she says. “Tommy’s a real high-tech freak and I’m a Victorian freak. The fights we had! I wish he wasn’t a feminist so I could have control of decorating the household. I mean—that’s my job, right?” Oh, well, maybe it’s just another phase.