James Cromwell and the house that love tried to build

A veteran character actor has his day in a tale of a Maritimer crushed by city hall

The house that love tried to build

Photograph by Ken Woroner

In a career spanning four decades, James Cromwell has appeared in 50 movies and more than 100 TV shows, playing everyone from mad scientists and American presidents to Prince Philip and Pope John Paul II. But he’s more familiar as a face than a name, and has never had a lead role, until now. He doesn’t count the movie he’s famous for, co-starring with a pig as farmer Hoggett in Babe (1995). Back then, the studio tried to submit his name to the Academy Awards as Babe’s lead actor, he recalls. “They said, ‘Your name comes first.’ I said, ‘Yeah, because you couldn’t say: starring the pig. I have 16 lines! The pig is the lead!’ ” Cromwell got his way, and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor—the tallest actor ever so honoured. Standing six foot seven, his is an imposing presence; even at 73, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with, especially when he raises his voice.

As the stoical hero of Still Mine, a lovely Canadian movie set in New Brunswick, this yeoman actor has finally found a leading role commensurate with his stature. The film is based on the true story of Craig Morrison, who became locked in an epic feud as provincial bureaucrats tried to stop him from building a house on a parcel of his own land in St. Martins, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Morrison was a master carpenter and sawmill operator, but because his hand-milled lumber was unstamped and his materials didn’t conform to the building code, the province tried to block construction, then threatened to bulldoze the house. After six court appearances and a front-page story in the St. John Telegraph Journal, Morrison eventually won his battle three years ago at age 91.

The movie is an octogenarian romance: Morrison builds the house to give his wife, Irene, a room with a view as she succumbs to dementia. Writer-director Michael McGowan (Score: A Hockey Musical, One Week) found the story’s Capra-esque elements irresistable. “You find out he’s doing it for love. Then you fly out there and see how beautiful St. Martins is, and when you meet him, he says, ‘By the way, I got this baseball I got signed by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth when I was 10.’ ”

The casting produced its own fable, with the casting of Quebec legend Geneviève Bujold as Irene. “I’ve had a crush on Geneviève since I was in college,” Cromwell says.

“I thought she was the hottest thing ever.” Talk about delayed gratification: half a century later, he would share a nude love scene with her. Cromwell didn’t hestitate—“I love taking my clothes off”—but Bujold, 70, refused at first. McGowan told his crew to take a break while he talked to her. “If you keep the camisole on,” he told her, “then it’s going to be about keeping the camisole on. We’ll shoot it tastefully. It’s not about the nudity. It’s about the intimacy and vulnerability.”

Bujold relented. The scene occurs after Cromwell’s character blows up at his wife, who has left the stove on. “Geneviève did it so beautifully,” the actor recalls. “She dropped her chemise and stood there. Some actresses can drop their clothes and never get naked. She stood completely naked in front of me and said, ‘This is it.’ I looked at her face and didn’t lower my eyes. I watched to see she was okay. She was. And I reached out and pulled her into my chest. That’s where I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ She says, ‘Sorry for what?’ ”

After Away from Her (2006) and Amour (2012), Still Mine is yet another elder drama of a man watching his wife lose her faculties. But it’s more whimsical than the others, with a singular chemistry at its core. Cromwell is a veteran who’s never stopped working, and an ebullient activist. Bujold’s Hollywood career peaked in 1970, with an Oscar nomination for Anne of a Thousand Days. After a bitter conflict with a studio, she fled stardom and has limited herself to sparse roles in indie films. Now these two renegades are joined in an unlikely love story—all because a bureaucrat tried to stop an old guy from giving his wife a room with view. She’s now in a nursing home; Morrison died in February at 93, two weeks before Cromwell won his first lead actor prize, at the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards. Bujold didn’t win her nomination, but drew a standing ovation just for showing up.