Marsha Mason: A Time To Plant

President Barack Obama's daughter Sasha hides behind the sofa as she sneaks up on him at the end of the day in the Oval Office, Aug. 5, 2009.
White House Photo/Pete Souza
She was the "Goodbye Girl," famous for this 1977 film as well as roles in literally dozens of other movies, TV shows, and plays. She was nominated for an Oscar four times.

So why would she say good-bye to Hollywood and move to a farm in rural New Mexico. Sunday Morning's Charles Osgood finds out.

The river Chama bends as it passes through Mason's farm, which she has named, "Resting In The River."

"There was an article, one that I read, about the idea of how a stone just simply rests in a river and there was something very peaceful about it," says Mason as she walks by the river. "And because of this river and then because of this pond over here, for all the wildlife, I suddenly got the sense that I was resting in the river."

In the nine years since she packed up and left Hollywood, Mason has changed.

The river and the mountains and the sky, the birds, the little woods called a bosque, and the pond she had dug, they've all helped to change her for the better, she's convinced.

"I can look out at the fields now and I can see this, this green, verdant painting and it gives me as much pleasure and satisfaction as a job well done acting," she says.

For Marsha Mason, that's saying something. Growing up in St. Louis,Mason dreamed of little else but acting.

"I went to New York with $500, and that's it. So I knew I would try and get a job and I just would figure it out once I got there," she says.

And figure it out she did. "Cinderella Liberty," with James Caan, was only the second movie she ever made, but it won her an Oscar nomination.

There was "The Good-Bye Girl," with Richard Dreyfuss, and another Oscar nomination. She's been nominated four times.

"But I don't think that I really matured as an actor till I did "Only When I Laugh," she says.

She played an alcoholic, the kind of drinker her mother was.

"Both my parents drank too much, but they drank socially and they didn't know that their personalities changed as much as they did when they drank. Being the child of alcoholics tends to affect one's whole life," she says.

That's the key to understanding Mason, her career, even how she ended up in New Mexico. The title of her autobiography says it all. It's her "Journey" to get past what her parents' alcoholism did to her.

"If I'm in a situation that's unfamiliar or scary, then I will look for that mentor. I'll look for that person, that protector. I'll look for that teacher. I think that's probably how I survive or survived," Mason says.

An important stop along the way, her marriage to playwright Neil Simon, exactly three weeks after she met him, during auditions for his play, "The Good Doctor."

Simon was grieving for his first wife, who had died of cancer a few months before.

"He was talking to the entire cast and he just, very casually, put his hand on my shoulder and I totally instinctively reached up and patted it. I think just like that, three times. The connection was just, I mean, to reach up and pat it, seemed so intimate to me considering I didn't know him and I just knew, I just knew that that's what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be with him," Mason says.

Simon wrote plays and movies for Mason to star in. "Chapter Two" was the story of their romance. Mason's Oscar nomination for that film was in effect, for playing herself.

The marriage lasted 10 years. "I turned 40. The business was changing. I got divorced. I mean there were all known structures, everything that would've been something that you could lean on, or something, that I had built, if you will, to make me feel secure, all broke away, in a major way, so it was a pretty traumatic time.

How did she pick up the pieces?

"It took me quite a while to pick up the pieces, actually. I mean it took me a long time. You don't even know that you're spinning out of control but you are," Mason says.

She was like a race car in the sport that Paul Newman introduced her to. Mason managed to get to the national runoffs three different times; learning to control her car, she learned to control her life again. But by that time, first-rate movie roles for a woman in her forties were few and far between.

"My total identity at a certain point, I realized, was in my work. I thought to myself, 'What is the thing that scares me most,' and I said, 'Well, that my career is over. I'll never work again.' And that really scared me. So I said,'OK, let's assume that's going to happen and let's sit with that fear' and then I thought, 'Well, the first thing I would do is, why should I live in California as a single woman,'" she says.

Which is why she's now living in Abiquiu, New Mexico, with five rescued dogs. Piece by piece, her new life has fallen into place.

On her 250-acre farm, her life is no longer about being protected; here, she is doing the protecting.

Now when she talks about "the business," she means the herb business. Assisted by a Bolivian agronomist, she grows three-dozen different kinds of medicinal herbs and is marketing a line of herbal products.

She buries sacks; call them mixed bags. Native American, Buddhist and Indian spiritualism, combined with organic farming techniques. Somehow, Mason says, the herbs she grows are bigger and more potent than other people's.

"I don't know; it's woo-woo," she says.

What isn't woo-woo is her very real sense of responsibility to her land and the people who make their livings from it.

"I'm getting poor here," Mason says, laughing. "Because I can't get a farm to pay for itself. That's why we're going to try this line of products to see if we can help the farm pay for itself and then the profits will go into a foundation and profit-sharing for the men and women here."

"The acting that I do totally subsidizes the farm. It's the only reason why I get panicky about not working," Mason adds.

So Mason works every chance she gets. But her excursions back to her old life seem to her a little like trips to another universe.

This past spring, she was in Washington to do a radio version of Gore Vidal's play, "The Best Man."

Mason plays the wife of a presidential candidate opposite real-life senator, Fred Thompson. At one point, Thompson has to interrupt the rehearsal and rush back to the Senate for a vote.

Actual performances are recorded before a live audience. The Voice of America has just released the production on CD.

"The part of me that sure would like to have a second coming and finally win an Academy Award, you know, be rediscovered, get your second wind, that doesn't leave you. The difference is, that's just a thought. It's a feeling, but it isn't ruling one's happiness anymore.

Mason admits she loves every second of the acting she does, but now, when she works, her excitement is tinged with regret that she has to leave her farm.

"It's very difficult in my business, you know, I was so programmed and clear about, 'Oh, I wanna do this' and 'I wanna do that,' and it was always in the future. You have to surrender to what the natural cycles of life are here, and so consequently, I've learned patience and the best part is, I think, I've learned to be in the present. Because I don't think so much about the future, because you're constantly dealing with what's now," Mason says.