Add another name to your next round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Lucy Brightman. For those of you stumped by the connection, both were in the 1991 rom-com He Said, She Said, Bacon in a starring role, Brightman playing Aunt Olga—a part that involved little more than a close-up of her face.
But on May 1 at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, the Gaithersburg, Md., actress finally got her chance to shine as the star of the feature-length film Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. The film—which traces the life of a lesbian poet who, in the ’20s, shocked two continents with a novel about love between two women before being thrust back into the spotlight in the mid-’60s—is an adaptation of real-life gay writer May Sarton’s semiautobiographical book of the same title.
“People in our audience in Miami who knew May Sarton said that Lucy absolutely evoked Sarton’s spirit and essence,” says the film’s writer, director, and producer, Linda Thornburg, who resides in Columbus, Ohio. “Sarton [who died in 1995] had this kind of elegance about her, and so does Lucy.”
As a young woman, Brightman put her passion for performing on the back burner to focus on her marriage and on her children. In the ’70s, Brightman, then in her 50s, finally began to pursue a professional career in acting.
“When the children were growing up, their father was very involved with work,” she says. “Somebody had to keep the home fires burning, and that somebody was me. It was only when David [the youngest of Brightman’s four children] graduated from high school that I decided it was my turn.”
Brightman found minor roles in such motion pictures as 1999’s Falling to Peaces, but she is best known for her stage work. A former student of prolific playwright Horton Foote, Brightman has an impressive CV that reflects a longtime commitment to Foote through her activities with Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre, which specializes in Foote’s works.
The role of Mrs. Stevens originally belonged to British actress Glenda Jackson, who was forced to quit the movie after her successful bid for a seat in Parliament. When he learned of the opening, Tom Metz—partner of Brightman’s son David and a close friend of Thornburg’s—recommended Brightman for the part.
Though Brightman says she was “thrilled” when Thornburg offered her the role, she says she was concerned that she might not be able to play the part of a lesbian as well as a gay actress would.
“I asked [Thornburg] if it mattered to her that I was not a lesbian,” remembers Brightman. “But Linda didn’t have any part of that. She said, ‘No, you just have to be a good actor.’ And so I said, ‘I qualify.’”
She had a solid work ethic to boot, says Thornburg: When shooting began in 2000 on Kelleys Island in Lake Erie, the actress, then 83, worked up to 14 hours a day.
“Lucy was more energetic than other actors younger than she, and [she] never once complained about working such long hours,” says Thornburg. “She absolutely inspired everyone on the set.”
Brightman says she is looking forward to attending more film-festival screenings of Mrs. Stevens. (The film has not yet had a theatrical release; Thornburg is still searching for a distributor.) Until then, Brightman says, she will savor her memories of the Miami premiere.
“I had such a wonderful time,” she says. “[But] after three days of being a celebrity, believe me, I was glad to get home, where I’m just one of the gang.” —Heather Morgan Shott