Better late than never

Better late than never

Race to oscars

Better late than never

June Squibb, 84, was nominated for an Oscar for playing a way-past-giving-a-hoot Montanan in Nebraska. What does her character think of her dead sister-in-law? While standing over the woman’s grave, Squibb’s foul-mouthed Kate gives her hilariously matter-of-fact answer: “What a whore.”

But when I went to visit Squibb, the bespectacled actress greeted me not with a volley of expletives but with an invitation to listen to her singing teddy bear. “Push her paw — go ahead, push it!” she said of her 18-inch-tall bear Violetta. And sing Violetta did. “So adorable,” Squibb said. Not nearly as adorable as her owner.

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said quietly over coffee. “So lucky.”

That is true to a degree. Luck is a factor in any successful Hollywood career, and Squibb found out about Nebraska, only because a friend, actress Margo Martindale, 62, mentioned it. “Margo said, ‘I have this great script, but I’m too young for it, and, oh, my God, June, you’re perfect for it,’ ” Squibb recalled. “She was right about the script being good. My mouth just hung open as I read it.”

Delayed opportunities

But that is where luck ended for Squibb. Her best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination — along with a Screen Actors Guild nod, a trip to the Golden Globes and a passel of critics’ group honours — is the result of something that is overlooked and underappreciated in Hollywood: Squibb has kept plugging away and plugging away and plugging away.

Day after day, decade after decade, she has pounded the audition pavement, taken acting classes, worked on the stage and even taken soap opera work if she felt she could grow from the experience. And, like most character actors, Squibb has done it with a quiet dignity. She doesn’t need a limo to the set, thanks. Just show her mark. “It’s called being a pro,” said Alexander Payne, who directed Nebraska, for which he was also nominated for an Oscar.

Payne knew Squibb well, having directed her in About Schmidt, his 2002 comedic drama, in which she played Jack Nicholson’s wife. But Payne initially rebuffed her. “I don’t know why, exactly,” he said. “I just didn’t see her as Kate.”Ultimately, Payne agreed to allow her to audition — on video — and Squibb performed the assigned scene two ways and sent it in. Payne was sold. “Talk about a lesson in how to audition on tape,” he said.

In character

Extra-salty, extra-assertive characters are one of Squibb’s specialties of late. Last month, HBO’s Getting On, set in a hospital’s geriatric wing, cast her as a racist, homophobic, obscenity-spouting patient. “These broads all look half-dead,” her Varla said before (intentionally?) vomiting on a nurse and then demanding a cigarette. Squibb will next play Lena Dunham’s grandmother in HBO’s rough-edged Girls, appearing in the ninth episode of the season.

“June has a playfulness and a spontaneity that is unusual in an actor of any age,” Dunham said. “I loved her willingness to improvise — she’s one of the best — and her devilish smile. She can move so quickly between a comic moment and a tragic one, and she approached playing a sick character with all the gusto of playing a live wire. I just adore her.”

Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and starring Bruce Dern may have only about $10 million in ticket sales, but it has made her famous in a way that roles in the television series The Ghost Whisperer or even the movie Scent of a Woman never did.Squibb grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Vandalia, Illinois, as the only child of an insurance-salesman father and piano-playing mother. Always set on being an actress, Squibb first pursued theatre in St Louis and Cleveland, before moving to New York in 1957. In 1959, she got her break, taking over the part of the stripper Electra in Ethel Merman’s Gypsy on Broadway.

Signature line: “I’m electrifying, and I ain’t even trying.”

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