DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. – Last autumn, a pilot whale washed up on a cobblestone beach in Nova Scotia that happens to be Jane Alexander’s yard. The carcass was seven feet long. It was a baby. No apparent cause of death. Skin like the finest Italian leather: dark black with a gray glow. Jane planned to document its decay and dismemberment, expecting the gulls to strip its blubber by day and the foxes to take its guts at night. But scavengers barely touched it. Eventually, a winter storm pushed the carcass up toward Jane’s house, swaddling it in seaweed, so that its melon head poked out of the green-brown shroud. It was tender, beautiful, strange. While she was gone for two weeks, the dune grass grew so tall that the carcass was unfindable upon her return. Not even the dogs sniffed out its remains. It was gone.
“I haven’t figured it out yet.”
It’s mid-September. Another autumn upon us. Jane has driven 15 hours from her coastal Canadian refuge to New York’s Hudson Valley. She has a couple of matters to attend to, here in civilization. On Sunday, at age 81, Jane is up for a delayed Tony Award, her eighth career nomination – a tally that ties Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst and pushes her toward a Mount Rushmore of American actresses with one or two more: Julie Harris, Audra McDonald and Chita Rivera.
But first, lunch. Jane orders iced tea. Her hair is an ivory curtain, her mood content but searching. The Hudson River is a white ribbon of sunlight. The whale is still on her mind.
“I know it’s important,” she says.
Jane’s husband died in 2017. The pandemic magnified her loneliness. As a wildlife advocate, she had journeyed to the thick heart of the Amazon and the grassy infinity of the Serengeti. Stuck at home, she would drag her kayak out to the water and wonder, as she paddled, what would happen if she just set off for the horizon. To stay connected to life, she had written her observations about the changing world in a daily log, as if her own life was a field visit. She noted the cycles of flora and fauna on her acres of bog and forest and beach, and human events like Kamala Harris becoming vice president.
And the whale. That rich, unscavenged heap – deposited by nature, disappeared without ceremony. Sign? Gift? Warning?
“It’s a metaphor for something,” she concludes, inconclusively.
Days before the pandemic froze the world, Jane finished what is probably her last appearance on Broadway, more than a half-century since her sensational debut in “The Great White Hope” opposite James Earl Jones. The new play was called “Grand Horizons,” and Jane played a woman who wanted a fresh start after 50 years of marriage.
The Tony nomination is a capstone for Jane’s career in the arts, which took off in 1965 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and brought her back to the capital decades later to steer the National Endowment for the Arts through a series of political storms. In between was a run of film and TV that deserves to be ranked among those of her more famous peers, if only Jane were better at seeking the spotlight than redirecting it to the piping plovers of Nova Scotia or the orchid-eating tree kangaroos of Papua New Guinea – species she has fought to preserve during decades of wildlife advocacy. The 1970 film version of “The Great White Hope” brought her the first of four Academy Award nominations. It only took her two brief scenes to earn a second, for “All the President’s Men.”
“There’s not anything I want to do anymore – except one thing,” Jane says, smiling at her last career ambition. “I want to be known as the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award. I said to my agent: Find me the role so that I can stand up there and say, ‘Tony, I beat ya!'” (Her friend Anthony Hopkins took the mantle earlier this year, at age 83.)
Jane’s days documenting human dramas onstage, however, may be ending. Doing another play would cut into birding, her beloved ritual, and distract her from her central mission: calling attention to the wonders of the Earth, and the threats against them.
“I know that this chapter of my life is devoted to biodiversity,” Jane says, “and what it means for the health of us all.”
And: “I want people to recognize that the old lady can somehow help.”
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A metaphor can help make life – and death – a little less disorienting. Jane Alexander is still figuring out the meaning of the whale. In the meantime, let’s consider the meaning of Jane Alexander.
Her mother’s people settled in Nova Scotia in 1751. Her paternal grandfather was Buffalo Bill Cody’s doctor in Nebraska. Jane was delivered in Massachusetts in 1939 by obstetrician John Rock, co-inventor of the first birth-control pill. By fifth grade, she was a “nature girl” and “tomboy” playing Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” at school. She came to Washington at age 25 to be Joan of Arc at Arena Stage, her artistic home for the turbulent late ’60s. She performed in “The Crucible” and “Macbeth” at night; by day she protested the Vietnam Warat the Pentagon. “The Great White Hope,” about a Black boxer fighting a much larger battle outside the ring, blended her classical skills and political proclivities.
“Miss Alexander, as bright as a sparrow and with an almost spiritual beauty, makes a wonderful foil for Mr. Jones, a kind of frail and defiantly loving Desdemona to this 20th-century Othello,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times when the play transferred from D.C. to Broadway.
She did Ibsen, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. On-screen she played Calamity Jane, Queen Elizabeth II, Georgia O’Keeffe and two Roosevelts – Eleanor from ages 18 to 60 in a mid-’70s miniseries, then Sara in HBO’s “Warm Springs” 30 years later.
Her spooked bookkeeper in “All the President’s Men” barely uttered a word but cracked the plot wide open. Meryl Streep had the juicy scenes in “Kramer vs. Kramer” but Jane, as the mutual friend tethering a broken marriage, was the heart of the picture. Madeline Kahn got the big laughs in Wendy Wasserstein’s play “The Sisters Rosensweig,” but Jane was its backbone.
Her characters tended to be doers, not divas.
“She was not necessarily a dramatic personality,” recalls Daniel Sullivan, who directed “The Sisters Rosensweig.” “But she was someone so connected to the world, in a careful, forgiving and generous way. And we don’t see that a lot anymore, on the stage or in life.”
Her finest film is 1983’s “Testament,” in which Jane plays a housewife who cares for her small town as radioactive fallout drifts in from nuclear war. It is a grim story about an invisible enemy – newly resonant during the pandemic – and it ends not with salvation but with Jane lighting birthday candles in the face of certain death.
“What do we wish for, Mom?” her character’s son asks, seeing the futility.
“That we remember it all,” Jane says, exuding calm and dignity. “The good and the awful. The way we finally lived. That we never gave up.”
“One of the most powerful movie scenes I’ve ever seen,” Roger Ebert wrote.
“Testament” is a cautionary tale, partly born of Jane’s activism for nuclear disarmament, but Jane’s other choices clocked a changing world. “The Great White Hope” staged an interracial couple in bed, a shocking scene at the time; for that, she and Jones got hate mail and death threats. Twenty years before Ellen DeGeneres came out, Jane and Gena Rowlands played a lesbian couple fighting for custody of a child in the TV movie “A Question of Love.” As that aired on ABC in the fall of 1978, Jane was on Broadway playing the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, three years before the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor – who in 1993 would swear in Jane as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose grants had midwifed “The Great White Hope” into existence. Republicans wanted to gut the NEA. Jane set out to protect it.
The NEA is funded through the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior, which puts the arts on the same ledger as sage-grouse conservation and the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay – a curious bureaucratic pairing that Jane has imbued with elegant meaning: “The care of the land and the care of the soul are both intimate needs of the citizenry.”
As chair, Jane visited all 50 states, pointing to seeds of art that germinated in communities because of public funding. She charmed Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, fierce foes of the agency. She championed free speech in the name of artists who were smeared as obscene or degenerate, while schooling herself in the political jujitsu required to influence policy and funding.
“She had to do so much highly visible defensive work with Congress – and got such tepid support from the (Clinton) administration – that I think it’s quite an accomplishment, her 3 1/2 years,” says Bill Ivey, who succeeded her. “She did a very nice job of leading the agency through its toughest time.”
“The reason the NEA exists as strong as it does is because of the work of Jane,” says former senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. “This is a terrible thing to say about her, but: She would’ve been a great politician.”
“She is the epitome of an artist-citizen,” says Michael Kahn, former artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “And that is, I think, the highest form of being in the world, if you’re an artist.”
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These days, being in the world means being attuned to loss. Extinctions are accelerating; a million species are on the verge. The current budget for the NEA, meanwhile, is 4 percent smaller than when Jane assumed the chairmanship, while the U.S. population is 26 percent larger. A third of Americans believe in the fantasy that voter fraud delivered Joe Biden to the White House. The pandemic has revealed our interconnectedness but driven us further apart.
Conservation is something that communities do, and community is an endangered concept. Jane thinks there must be a connection between a loss of biodiversity and the fragmentation of society.
We have a land problem, and a soul problem.
“It’s a scary moment, where the reality of the tough parts of climate change is playing out,” says Susan Bell, chair of the National Audubon Society, whose board includes Jane. “It is a moment where we need calm and inspiring and smart voices saying, ‘Everybody breathe, and here’s what we need to do.’ And Jane is one of those.”
She advocates for indigenous stewardship of the boreal forest in Canada. She brings backstories of jaguars from the jungles of Belize and black-necked cranes from the valleys of the Himalayas. She counts birds for Audubon.
“All you have to do is protect the birds,” she says, with the succinct intensity she brought to her dramatic roles, “and you begin to protect everything else.”
Scientists prize her blend of expertise and empathy, her talent for speaking on behalf of wonders we cannot see, her service on multiple wildlife boards.
“She’s incomparable,” says Rob Shumaker, president and chief executive of the Indianapolis Zoo, which gives out a “wildlife ambassador” award named in Jane’s honor. “She has this tremendous personal commitment and a durability to her efforts, which are largely unmatched. Very, very few other public personas have done this in the way Jane has.”
The old lady can help, still. A lunch with her is a pep talk. This is the not the scariest time to be alive, she says. It is the most extraordinary time to be alive. Look at the infrastructure focus in an otherwise chaotic Congress, and how people are recognizing the connectivity between the environment, economics, race and justice. Yes, the world is in peril, but the world is always ending, in a way. The world of your childhood was never going to last; the world of your children will fall away, too. That is the way of life. New wonders replace old wonders. One problem is solved in time to tackle the next one.
We adapt. We age. We breathe. We remember. We do our best. We don’t give up.
“I can help you not despair,” Jane says at the end of lunch. There’s an echo here of a character she played 41 years ago in the Holocaust movie “Playing for Time,” about musicians trying to survive a concentration camp by maintaining a prisoners’ orchestra.
“I must say, you probably saved us all, so I thank you from my heart,” a fearful pianist played by Vanessa Redgrave tells her stoic conductor.
Says Jane, as the conductor, chin held high: “You can thank my refusal to despair.”
It’s a theme through her life, in worlds imaginary and real. A dead whale doesn’t have to be a certain signal or abad omen. It can simplybe evidence of beauty, change and mystery.
Look for a metaphor, if you want. Or look for Jane Alexander, taking notes on small wonders – scenes from a larger work that involves, and implicates, all of us.
This weekend, in the span of 24 hours, she will attend the biennial prize gala of the Indianapolis Zoo, to present her namesake award and then the Tonys, in a fuchsia gown, with her 17-year-old grandson.
Care of the land, care of the soul. She may not be back on Broadway again, but it’s not because she sees the end. It’s because she sees a thousand other beginnings.
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The Tony Awards will be broadcast in two parts Sunday night. From 7 to 9 p.m. EDT, the awards ceremony will be hosted live from Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre by Audra McDonald and streamed on Paramount Plus (paramountplus.com). Then, from 9 to 11 p.m., a two-hour show will follow on CBS and also stream on Paramount Plus: “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!” live from the Winter Garden and hosted by Leslie Odom Jr.