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Sigourney Weaver: An Appreciation

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Elizabeth Inglis

Born on October 8, 1949 in Manhattan, the commanding brunet we know and love as Alien’s iconic Ripley is from a showbiz family: Her British-born mother Elizabeth Inglis (née Desiree Mary Lucy Hawkins) acted on the big screen in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, and her dad Sylvester Weaver was a television pioneer and the President of NBC for years.

Her father wanted to name her Flavia because of his passion for Roman history (elder brother’s name is Trajan), but Susan was the winner in appreciation of mum’s bestie, the explorer Susan Pretzlik. Susan means “lily flower,” while the name Sigourney, a French male moniker used perhaps most famously in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, means “daring king.” Regardless of gender, which name would you rather have – that of a posy or a potentate? At the age of 14, the future supernova decided she would have a new and fitting name.

Following some stage work and a couple of tiny bits onscreen, Alien yielded Sigourney’s third and largest role. After May 25, 1979 her life would never be the same. That’s not to say Alien was a huge hit. Few dubbed it an instant classic and Sigourney’s take on Lieutenant Ripley wasn’t even singled out as being badass – she’s barely even mentioned in the reviews.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert dismissed Alien as “basically just an intergalactic haunted-house thriller,” while Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader described the creature as “a rubber monster running amok in a spaceship,” and film itself as “An empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it.” Leonard Maltin griped that Alien’s “stomach-churning violence, slime, and shocks” were “some people’s idea of a good time.”

The venerated and opinionated New Yorker critic Pauline Kael sniped, “This was a haunted-house-with-gorilla picture set in outer space.” And Michael Sragow of the L.A. Herald Examiner wrote, “An overblown B-movie… technically impressive but awfully portentous and as difficult to sit through as a Black Mass sung in Latin … Alien, like Dawn of the Dead, only scares you away from the movies.”

Even though she was wandering around a spaceship in her undies and battling mutant Xenomorphs while hugging a tabby cat, the then-unknown actress managed to escape the critics’ wrath. Instead she garnered a BAFTA Most Promising Newcomer nomination for the role, then went on to star in Oscar-bait flicks Eyewitness (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).

She’s won a ton of awards, but to genre fans she’s “The Sci-Fi Queen.” Not only because of her reoccurring role in the Alien franchise, but she’s been unforgettable over the decades from turns in Ghostbusters (1984) to Avatar (2009). And, as Interview mag said, she not afraid to make fun of herself: “After the fourth installment of the Alien franchise, Weaver hilariously firebombed fandom, Hollywood, her own image, and everything in between as the desperate and venal star of a long-running TV sci-fi series, in Galaxy Quest (1997).”

That’s one of the coolest things about the actress who plays badass babes, avenging angels and ice queens so very well – she can be warm and funny too. And not just onscreen; most-everyone who knows her says she’s very sweet and down-to-earth. That isn’t something one usually hears about folks to who grew up in the lap of luxury, raised with nannies and maids, and who attended posh private academies. But maybe her ever-changing childhood—the Weaver family moved from coast-to-coast—is what helped her become adaptable and able to take on different roles with equal aplomb.

Or maybe it’s her ability to imagine she’s in another movie entirely. She told Vulture recently, “You know, when I was doing Alien—because I was such a snob, so I didn’t really want to do science fiction—I just pretended I was doing Henry V the entire time. I thought, ‘Well, as a woman, I’ll never be cast as Henry V, so this is my Henry V.’” The role of Ripley was originally written for a male, so it seems her mindset was right on target.

She said in an interview with Films and Filming magazine, “Looking back, in some ways Ripley was the most unimaginative character I ever played – which isn’t to say I don’t like her. Actually, the part I wanted to play was Lambert, Veronica Cartwright’s part. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act.” [Read more of this fascinating interview here]

One thing you won’t ever see are Sigourney stories in tabloids. She’s a straight-arrow, having been married to stage director Jim Simpson since 1984. Sigourney told the story of her marriage in Interview magazine: ”I met my husband during the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1983, when I was doing a Pinter play with Dianne Wiest and the late, great Ed Herrmann. Jim was directing the nonequity groups, [and] he was also the bartender at the bar we called the Zoo. Within six months, I had invited him to a party, and he stayed late to help me put away the decorations, and then I asked him out to dinner, and three months later we decided to get married. That’s how it happens.”

The couple have a daughter, who was born in 1990. Sigourney told The Guardian, “Charlotte is absolutely the most important thing to me. My family comes first and I’m so grateful to them that they let me go off and make films. But I find it very difficult to leave them. I hate it.”

While you may not associate the cinema star with music, there is a song all about her by Mike Garrigan…

…And she sings, too!

(Well, kind of.)

In the midst of a storied career including three Oscar nominations, more than $2 billion in lifetime grosses, what’s next for the 68-year-old actress? Aside from her work on TV in the series “The Defenders” she’s slated for several more Avatar movies. But still… we can hope Ripley will return to that haunted house in space one day.

And maybe we will. Sigourney plans on growing old gratefully, and gracefully: “I like getting older—it’s interesting,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “I don’t think it’s attractive to have a taut face with a 65-year-old’s body. I find that look scary. My mother was a great beauty and she never succumbed to plastic surgery. She thought it was best to grow old gracefully. I feel the same. We change ourselves by looking back and trying to stay young instead of moving forward.”

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