Susan Anspach obituary: ethereal star of New Hollywood

Elusive but unforgettable, the Five Easy Pieces and Blume in Love actress left an indelible impression in her too-brief career on screen.

23 November 1942–2 April 2018.

Peter Tonguette

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Susan Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Susan Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

In 1984, 14 years after she burst onto the scene in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, Susan Anspach was featured in another film from a stalwart of New Hollywood: Jerry Schatzberg’s Misunderstood. To be sure, it is something of an overstatement to claim that she was ‘featured’ in the film – in fact, she is more remembered than seen.

Anspach, who died last week at 75, lent her enigmatic presence to the part of Lily, the wife of an executive in Tunisia, Ned (Gene Hackman). The couple are parents to a pair of children, Andrew (Henry Thomas) and Miles (Huckleberry Fox). Yet, because the story unfolds in the aftermath of Lily’s untimely death, Anspach is glimpsed only in a succession of flashbacks.

In the opening scene, Ned stands at Lily’s gravesite while memories of their life together are overlaid on the image. Strikingly, Schatzberg declines to fully dissolve to flashbacks, but instead lets the memories hang in the air: Lily running into Ned’s arms, Lily playfully waltzing with Andrew, and so on. Later Andrew recalls her in shards – in one startling passage, he happens upon an audio recording of her and dreams up the encounter that led to it. Like few other films, Misunderstood replicates the fleeting sensation of remembrance.

Misunderstood (1984)

Misunderstood (1984)

It was rare for an actress of Anspach’s standing to make such a cursory, cameo-like appearance. “There are a few brief flashbacks of a radiant Susan Anspach,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times, “who looks much too robust to have succumbed to a mysterious Tunisian malady.”

Yet there was always something elusive about Anspach: her washed-out complexion and hair suggested a state of ethereal impermanence – accounting, perhaps, for the choice to cast her in Play It Again, Sam (1972) as the wife of Woody Allen who dumps him while she dries off from a shower, delivering her goodbyes with a rat-a-tat-tat nonchalance: “I can’t stand the marriage. I don’t find you any fun. I feel you suffocate me.” And away she goes.

She left an impression along the way, though. In a phone interview last week, Schatzberg remembered that Anspach bonded with the actors while making Misunderstood; after all, Hackman, Thomas and Fox would spend most of the movie expressing sorrow over her absence.

“From the time she arrived, you knew that she was working on those kids,” Schatzberg said. “When she wasn’t going to be in the film anymore, you could see that she had made an impression… I think more of it depended on what she did off-camera with them to make them feel that way, because they had to really get it, too – the kids.”

He added: “I adored her. She was just so sweet.”

With Richard Dreyfuss in The Big Fix (1978)

With Richard Dreyfuss in The Big Fix (1978)

Yet Anspach’s school-of-hard-knocks background did not necessarily suggest a sweet disposition. According to a 1978 profile in People, the New York native spent her early years in the care of a great aunt; her parents took over when she was five, but she struck out on her own at 15. To People, the actress claimed that the Catholic Church and her psychoanalyst “were my parents” for close to ten years of her youth.

Then, after winning roles on Broadway and television, Anspach had a banner year in 1970. The Landlord was released in May and Five Easy Pieces in September, when it premiered at the New York Film Festival.

In the latter, Anspach was cast as Catherine, the put-together significant other of the supercilious sibling of slumming musician Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), whose gifts at the piano are left to moulder as he whiles away his days on an oil rig. After learning of the precarious health of his father, Bobby journeys to his family’s abode, which is filled with pianists and pretension. Bobby is largely unmoved, but he is entranced with Catherine – a real alternative to the uncultured Rayette (Karen Black). After Bobby tries his hand at some Chopin, Catherine – eyes glistening – reacts appreciatively: “I was really very moved by that.” Bobby laughs off her praise, but Anspach’s honest face shows that genuine sentiment can result from counterfeit artistry – a typically tough Rafelson perception.

Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Yet when Bobby decides to pursue Catherine, she has already moved on. “I couldn’t go with you,” she tells him coolly. Anspach – whose “piercing eyes” are noted by Rafelson on the DVD commentary track – looks straight into the camera in an enormous close-up even as she delivers her adieu. Just as Bobby departs without Catherine, the movies trudged along largely without Anspach. She had plum parts in Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love (1973) and Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix (1978) and was seen on television throughout the 1980s, but her subsequent credits were scant.

“What people do with their careers is difficult to say,” Schatzberg said. “Every time I show Panic in Needle Park [1971], the obvious question at the end is: ‘What ever happened to Kitty Winn?’ And she just decided to live her life a certain way, and I’m sure Susan had to make those choices, too.”

Reached by email, Rafelson was pithy and poignant in remembering Anspach, whose death follows the loss of her Five Easy Pieces co-stars John Ryan in 2007, Karen Black in 2013 and Ralph Waite in 2014. “She was born troubled, and knew how to play it,” Rafelson said. “Please, Jack, outlive me. Half of the cast of Easy Pieces is dead. I cannot do another obit.”

Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Anspach in Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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