Until recently, I had never seen one of O’Neill plays performed live, though I do recall watching the film version of “Long Days Journey Into Night” in college and being struck by how much Katharine Hepburn looked like my mother: same high cheekbones, flashing eyes and accent (and both claiming roots in Hartford, CT). I felt smug, being related to O’Neill AND having a mom that looked like this New England icon.
In that moment I fell prey to that very American disease: finding value in being associated with famous people I barely know or are barely related to.
This week I decided to re-watch “Long Days Journey Into Night” as part of my “reporting” for this essay. All four primary actors won Academy Awards in 1962, a first at the time. Each player musters forth scathing levels of contempt, cynicism, and lies in a dreary portrait of American family life that most of us probably find somehow familiar on at least some level.
I had forgotten how in the end Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn, muses out loud about “something” she once had but lost when she married James Tyrone. She stares into the camera, her eyes burning with tears, and recounts how she used to pray to the Blessed Mary.
My grandmother—Elizabeth Stanton O’Neil—always loved and honored the Blessed Mary and knelt down in prayer to say the “Hail of Mary” three times a day. Whenever we were in a car together and an ambulance passed, she’d recite the prayer out loud—a way of wishing whomever had been in the accident all the best.