Director Herb Ross ("Turning Point," "Pennies From Heaven," "Footloose") has a theory for how to avoid domestic stress. "Never come home and say, 'What did you do today?' " suggested the man who's been married for the last 20-plus years to Nora Kaye, prima ballerina of the 1940s, whose previous marriage was to Isaac Stern. Yet this particular union is very much about career-- his . Within the film community, it has long been said that Nora Kaye gave Herb Ross the impetus to succeed, and survive. And Ross is himself strong enough to say "absolutely true. . . . For a very long time people felt I was gifted, but erratic, and wasting the gift," he admitted. "With marriage, the change was extraordinary."
The rise, from choreographer of 1960s Broadway musicals like "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Apple Tree," to directing what amounts to a score of films, from "The Sunshine Boys" to "The Goodbye Girl" has been steady. (Not that there haven't been slides, notably "Nijinsky." And last fall Ross abruptly left the Broadway direction of John Pielmier's troubled play "The Boys of Winter" due to "creative differences.")
The point about Mr. and Mrs. Ross is the combining of two talents into one career, thus staving off the Hollywood bugaboo about abandonment. (Read: Lonely at the top.) Featured in "Passages," Gail Sheehy's 1976 study of the crises of adult life, the chapter devoted to the Rosses is called "Living Out the Fantasy." Nora Kaye had been a girlhood idol of Sheehy's, but instead of a sadly aging former dancer, the writer found a happily married woman, with a husband 10 years younger. The question--"Isn't an understanding creative woman the best mate for an artist?"--got answered, affirmatively. The Rosses seemed to Sheehy, as they seem now, "like fragments of a picture being mended."
The turning point here came in the 1950s when the couple, after working together in Europe, were driving through the Black Forest. Kaye threw a pair of toe shoes out the window of Ross' MGA, and then another pair, and then another. She never danced again. Instead, she transferred the creative instinct to helping her husband, both as a credited and uncredited co-producer. Thus Kaye handled the traditional dancer's anxiety about what happens after 40.
"But Nora has no interest in some of the movies I do," said Ross, over a lunch in Le Dome's back room. Ross is soft-spoken in the extreme, but simultaneously speedy about what he has to say. He seems to be playing "catch-up" for the unproductive years. If he's known for handling stars (Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Goldie Hawn, Anne Bancroft) Ross is also known for understanding their psyches. ("Herb teaches you how to use your fears," said Richard Dreyfuss just before "Goodbye Girl" won him an Oscar. "No director has tapped into that with me before.") Ross is the direct antithesis of Bob Fosse, the man whose career most resembles his. If Fosse's life and projects ("All That Jazz," "Star 80") are all about the dark side--the Ross career seems to be about rising above darkness. Indeed, "Pennies From Heaven," his melancholy musical about the Great Depression, is his "most ambitious effort" and least successful picture. Observers thought the film's failure caused Kaye to back off from working on more of her husband's movies.
"Not at all," insisted Ross, who this summer will direct Michael J. Fox in "Private Affairs" for Universal. " 'Footloose' just didn't interest her, that's all. Nor 'Protocol.' And when she's not interested, she's not involved, and I go on about my business." In other words, the couple is independent enough to be dependent, but not totally.
"People gave the marriage 15 minutes originally," said Kaye, devouring \o7 pommes frites \f7 in a way she could not when she dominated the stages of Berlin and Rome. "But devoting your energies to private life has its rewards, too."
"Artists," said Ross simply, "have traditionally lived in one of two ways. Either as the \o7 gypsy\f7 or the \o7 bourgeoisie.\f7 'Turning Point' dealt with that a bit, and the actresses in the movie are perfect examples. Annie (Bancroft) who's our neighbor in Brentwood, is perfectly happy cooking pasta and making movies. Balanchine lived the \o7 bourgeois\f7 life, and so did Picasso. Then there's Shirley (MacLaine), who wanders the world, living like a vagabond artist, on the creative edge. That's brave, but it's whichever way works for you."
"And you have to explore before you know," added Kaye, pointing two fingers in the air for emphasis. "You must have a lot of experience before you settle down. A lot."
"Yes," said Ross, as though unconsciously finishing her sentence. "When you are young, in your 20s and 30s, you're really just practicing. You're in rehearsal for the long relationship that lasts. You don't, and usually can't, find it when you're young. And you will be nervous all the time if you try . . ."