Friday, May 24, 2024

Oscar Winner Mary Steenburgen: How She Became a Hit Singer, Songwriter Overnight


Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen (Best Supporting Actress, 1981, for “Melvin and Howard”) is pretty well known for doing drama and light comedy. She’s 60, she’s married to Ted Danson, she’s worked for about 40 years in movies and I still have a crush on her from “Ragtime.”

And here’s something no one knew: She’s recently signed a contract with Universal Music Publishing as a songwriter. She has 46 songwriting credits already registered with ASCAP.

But until last year, no one knew she could sing or write songs. Not even Mary herself knew it. She sings like a bird in “Last Vegas,” even one of her own songs, as she’s busy stealing the movie from four other Oscar winners: Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. Not easy to do.

Turns out, Mary says, she’s had a phenomenon. She didn’t even realize that “Last Vegas” director Jon Turtletaub directed John Travolta in a great movie called “Phenomenon” much along the same lines. I reminded her about it last night at the 21 Club dinner for “Last Vegas,” a home run of a studio comedy– very funny, smart, likeable, and a real romp.

In 2007 she had surgery on her forearm. She was under anesthesia. Soon after, music started playing in her head day and night. “I couldn’t turn it off,” she said. She took music lessons. “I figured I’d better do something.” She likened it to what Dr. Oliver Sacks described in a recent book as “Musicophilia.” It just came pouring out of her.

This explains why Steenburgen and Danson moved to Nashville. She’s been writing and recording songs for the last five years. Her guests last night at the premiere included Oscar nominated hit songwriter Troy Verges, with whom she’s been collaborating on new material.

In “Last Vegas,” she’s the only woman, really, in a movie that might be called a “Hangover” for the older set. But it’s a really a hilarious film about friendship. Director Turtletaub has done a wonderful job. And the screenplay — while contemporarily smutty– is smart. The characters like each other, the audience likes them.

At last night’s premiere: all of the cast except for Kline, who’s shooting a movie. DeNiro with wife Grace, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, the latter coming off a terrific career year with this film and “Beyond the Candelabra” for HBO. The director of that film, Steven Soderbergh, put in an appearance, and I had a long talk with Douglas’s college roommate from UC Santa Barbara, now an art teacher at Brooklyn College. They are still great pals after 50 years, just like the guys in “Last Vegas.” Nice.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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