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There are stars and there is Mia Farrow. The point is brought home on this, the day the flaxen-haired actress has come to town to give select interviews about her new film, Reckless (opening tomorrow).

She has ordered a moratorium on all questions related to Woody Allen, her ex-partner in film and battered family relations. All assembled media types comply, save for a brash American who reduces her to tears by refusing to follow said orders.

Farrow threatens to walk out, to leave the rest of us cooling our heels on the upholstered carpet outside her hotel room where she sits on a corner of a queen-sized bed. We are thankful that Canadians to her mind are a kinder and gentler breed than the Yankee Doodle kind and so we are permitted entry. She cowers as we advance, tape recorder unsheathed, pencils sharpened, and offers a quivering handshake.

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Not wanting to let her down, we go along with this Bambi "act," and stroke her with questions that make no mention of the big bad Woody Wolf. But it's not easy. Heretofore innocent words and combinations of words such as "would he" and "(S)oon" compel us to blush and sweat and shift nervously. And to make matters worse, Farrow stares, her large round eyes like headlights pinning us down and making us feel that our very presence constitutes a faux pas.

If this is passive-aggressive behaviour, she has made it an art.

For virtually all of her 50 years, Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow has been in the public eye and not always shining like the ingenue she would have us all believe she is.

Incessant scrutiny of her upbringing as one of nine children born to Tarzan's Jane, a.k.a. Maureen O'Sullivan, and the late screenwriter and director John Farrow, of her broken marriages to Frank Sinatra and Andre Previn (not to mention her eating butterflies in the St. Regis Hotel with Salvador Dali), of her dozen children - some adopted, some her own - of her up-and-down career and of her recent and messy child custody suit involving herself and you-know-who, have made her wary of the Machiavellian ways of the world and its press.

Her need to protect herself results in such understatements as this: "Oh, my life? Well, I think it's really boring."

But boring, she continues without missing a beat, is a positive thing when you're an actress as it makes you strike out for roles that are "extreme."

"I'm least comfortable playing anything stereotypical," she adds. "I don't know, maybe it's more fun and maybe easier for me to do a broad sketch of a person in broad strokes. Maybe it's because I'm less of a personality than people would believe. I am, you know, quite shy, and when I have a character to play who's got lots of eccentricities and lots of extremes then it is not only good for me to do, it's liberating."

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She has produced her best work playing the eccentrics: the waif-like innocent who meets the devil in Rosemary's Baby, for instance, and the gum-snapping gangster's moll in Broadway Danny Rose. Certain to be added to the list is her latest role as the picaresque housewife in Reckless.

In Reckless, a black comedy directed by Norman Rene from a screenplay by Craig Lucas based on his successful off-Broadway play of the same name, Farrow plays Rachel, a woman whose journey towards painful self-knowledge begins when her husband (Tony Goldwyn) pushes her out the bedroom window on Christmas Eve, her favourite time of the year. He has had a contract taken out on her life (for the insurance money) but comes to regret it and tosses her out of the family home to save her life.

That fateful first push places her in a picturesque landscape of ice and snow where life is mercilessly cruel. Through many mishaps and adventures, including an episode where she loses her power of speech and is brought back to health by a nun (Eileen Brennan) who practices primal scream therapy, Rachel finally awakens from the fairy-tale existence of her dreams to embrace grown-up responsibility.

As The New York Times noted when Reckless opened in the United States last month, Farrow is so perfectly cast as Rachel that the character seems a distillation of every role she has played since the Peyton Place TV series of the early 1960s. It also seems true-to-life in the sense that Farrow, with her impossibly fresh and wrinkle-less complexion and tiny whine of a voice, "has always epitomized a precocious, over-grown princess whose garrulity inspires protectiveness tinged with irritation."

"I do identify with her a little bit," concurs Farrow. "Rachel is a woman who can't acknowledge parts of herself. She's in denial and has a very unrealistic view of herself. She's not very self-aware. She's just going along and doing her best."

Farrow's not that out of it. Unlike Rachel, she is rather self-aware even if, like Rachel, she tends to see the world through child-like eyes.

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Her willful nurturing of the naif within stems from when she was nine years old, the year she contracted polio. In a 1992 interview in Vanity Fair, Farrow recalled that the little girl in the iron lung next to her in the hospital died and that when she went home all her toys had been burned to prevent the disease from spreading. Every Christmas after her recovery she put on a play to raise money for a polio fund. That's how her acting career started and also how she developed her mothering instinct: her first productions were always showcases for her brothers and sisters and all the neighbourhood children.

She says she just wanted a normal family life for herself. And even today, as she continues to gather children around her - she recently adopted two more, a baby daughter from Ireland and a young blind boy from Calcutta - "my last" - Farrow continues to play the mother hen.

"It is the way I have gone about my life. Given the world and what it is and how outrageously unfair it can be, it is the only way I am able to sleep at nights and get through life. Otherwise, I don't think it would be acceptable or bearable," she says. "And this is my way. In the middle of any given night, I can wake up and safely feel that I've done my best and in the process it has made my life meaningful and given me a joy I never knew existed outside my dreams."

She speaks suddenly with conviction and clarity. But then she bounds out the door, having spied an old friend (male, American). "Dah-ling," she cries. Smooch-smooch. Giggle-giggle. Mia Farrow isn't quivering any more.

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