When Eileen Heckart played the part of Mrs. Florence Baker in the Broadway production of Butterflies are Free, she lost the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress to Blythe Danner who played the hippie-neighbour next door in the same play. But when the play was turned into a movie, only Eileen Heckart reprised her stage role – and won an Oscar for her efforts.
Like Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue, Eileen Heckart plays the mother of a blind child. But that’s about all that these two roles have in common. While Shelley Winter’s Rose-Ann is cruel and full of hate, Eileen Heckart’s Mrs. Baker is over-protective, full of love and unwilling to let go and give her son his own freedom. She plays the sort of mother a lot of people know: criticizing your apartment, bringing you new clothes, looking into your refrigerator to see what you’re eating.
Butterflies are Free can be parted into three chapters: Before mother comes, while mother is there and after mother is gone. Eileen Heckart’s strong presence and unique voice dominate the whole movie just like her character is supposed to be. In an unforgettable way she comes into Donnie’s apartment and begins to criticize everything she sees, but not in an unlikable way but in a way (almost) every mother does: out of love.
Eileen Heckart plays Mrs. Baker with a wonderful combination of dry humour and honest feelings. There can be so much sarcasm in her voice the one moment and an incredible amount of love and worry the next one. An early highlight is when she sees Goldie Hawn in her underwear and Goldie tells her that she came by because she had trouble zipping up her blouse and she responds with a big, friendly smile ‘So I see. Where is your blouse?’
From that moment on Eileen Heckart and Mrs. Baker dominate everything around her, trying to convince her son to leave this place and come back home again with her. In all the arguments that follow, Eileen Heckart always makes it perfectly clear how much Mrs. Baker loves her son and how unwilling she is to see that he needs his freedom and his own life.
Especially in her scenes with Goldie Hawn. Eileen Heckart’s dry humour comes to perfection as she couldn’t make it more obvious how much she disapproves the relation between her and her son. In one scene particular Eileen is wonderful, when Goldie says ‘I don’t think anyone could call me a prude’ and Eileen says ‘I’d like to see them try!’
The big arc of her character comes at the end when, finally, Mrs. Baker realises that she has to let her son go – her touching close-ups are heartbreaking and she is especially wonderful when she tells her son ‘You know Donnie, it’s not easy to adjust to not being needed anymore…’ And when she says goodbye to her son and tells him that she loves him her son tells her that he knows – and the audience knows, too.
Maybe a little problem I have with this performance is the fact that, sometimes, Eileen Heckart appears a little too calculated. It seems rather obvious that she played this part on the stage many times as everything seems well rehearsed and Eileen Heckart almost rushes through some scenes as if she had something else to do.
Still, does are only small complaints that can’t ruin an overall wonderful performance.