Saturday, February 27, 2016

(February 11, 1925 - August 13, 2001)

"Kim Stanley was often called the greatest actress of her generation, though today relatively few people know who she was."
            George Riddick, book review, Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley by Jon Krampner

She was known as "First Lady of the Actors Studio".

Her birth name was Patricia Beth Reid; she was born in Tularosa, New Mexico. Her mother was an interior decorator; her father a professor of philosophy and education at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Patricia majored in drama at the University of New Mexico and later studied at the Pasadena Playhouse where she adopted her maternal grandmother's surname as her stage name.
                     Earlier at the age of 16 she had already decided to become an actor after seeing Katharine Hepburn in a touring version of The Philadelphia Story.  "I was overcome", she said, "transfixed."After the Pasadena Playhouse she relocated to New York, joined the Actors Studio and studied the method acting under Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan.

       After appearing in an off-Broadway production of Gertrude Stein's Yes Is For A Very Young Man (1949), in which she played an older American woman (at age 24) infatuated by a young French soldier played by Anthony Franciosa (at age 21), she was cast in her first Broadway role, replacing Julie Harris in Lillian Hellman's short-lived historical play, Montserrat

      In 1953 she won the New York Drama Critics Award for playing the tomboy Millie Owen in William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic.  The character was supposed to be 16; Kim was 28.  Due to her success in Picnic, Inge cast her as Cherie in Bus Stop, probably her finest stage portrayal.  The New York Times hailed her "glowing performance full of amusing detail--cheap, ignorant, bewildered, but also radiant with personality."  During the run she suffered nightly nerves and missed a few performances. Marital troubles with her second husband, actor Curt Conway, the father of her two children, was partly responsible.

Marilyn Monroe, who played the role in the film, studied at the Actors Studio to prepare for the role of Cherie, while Kim was known as the "First Lady of the Studio". Many believed Monroe's performance was actually based on Kim's.   She would continue to get critical acclaim in role after role on Broadway, though many of her plays were not successful, and except for Bus Stop, she rarely appeared in any play longer than two or three months, often with frequent absences in even those short runs.

In 1958, when she appeared as Sara Melody, the daughter of the drunken bar owner Con Melody played by Eric Portman in Eugene O'Neill's
A Touch of the Poet, on Broadway, for which she was highly praised, she again missed a number of performances.  She abruptly left the play altogether after blaming Portman for slapping her in one scene with what she said was "excessive zeal".
  Helen Hayes, who played her mother in the play, tried to explain Kim's behavior from observing her during rehearsal. "If we don't get something from a director, we're terrified, We think we're so bad because he doesn't know what to say to us. This is how far from conceited actors are, and I assure you that I've worked with. . .You know, Kim Stanley, with all her fighting and everything else--that's the basis of Kim's fighting. It's such a personal insecurity about herself----"Oh, how terrible I am, I can't do this." And the greater the insecurity is, the more they put on this act of bravado sometimes."   (Actors Talk About Acting, arranged and edited by Lewis Funke and John E. Booth, 1961)    Kim had divorced Conway and married actor/director Alfred Ryder, by whom she had another daughter.
       Before that marriage ended in divorce, Ryder directed her in Henry Denker's play A Far Country (1961) as a young woman afflicted by hysterical paralysis and helped by Sigmund Freud.
Note:  As a sophomore drama major at San Jose State University, I saw her in A Far Country when it came to San Francisco on tour and I was like she had been regarding seeing Katharine Hepburn--"overcome and transfixed."  I kept impersonating her voice and behavior; I wanted to do what she did. But only Kim could sustain that inner light which made her so brilliant and moving.

Three years later she appeared as Masha in the Actors Studio production of Chekhov's Three Sisters with Geraldine Page and
Shirley Knight directed by Lee Strasberg and recorded on film.  Unfortunately when the play was invited to the Aldwych Theatre in London as part of the 1965 World Theatre season, it was a disaster. The ill-prepared cast, with some late substitutes, had trouble with the raked stage, and the production was greeted with laughter. It was too much for her. She had a nervous breakdown and never stepped on stage again.


Between 1949 and 1960 she appeared in over 40 live dramas, only a handful of which have survived in kinescopes.  Among her many starring roles was Wilma, a star-struck 15-year-old girl from the U.S. Gulf Coast of Texas in Horton Foote's A Young Lady of Property, which aired on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1953.

She never considered herself a sexpot but was able through her acting skills to convey the glamour of the Monroe-type film star in The Goddess (1958) desperately seeking attention and love denied her in childhood.
               The lust for celebrity was also a theme in Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) in which she played a medium organizing a kidnapping so that she can use her powers to find a child. Subtly changing her character from moment to moment, she was nominated for an Oscar.

Theatre World Award for her role in The Chase (1952).  Two Tony nominations for Best Actress in a Play for Sara in A Touch of the Poet and for the lead in A Far Country.  The New York Film Critics Circle Award for  Best Actress, Oscar nomination for
Seance on a Wet Afternoon.  Second Oscar nomination for playing the mother of Frances Farmer
in Frances starring Jessica Lange (1982)
Primetime Emmy for outstanding supporting actress as Big Mama in the TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1985)  Inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1985.

           In Rick McKay's 2003 film Broadway: The Golden Age, Frank Langella, Elaine Stritch and other actors were interviewed describing the impact of Stanley's acting, providing an enticing prelude to a fuller discussion of her life and work.  Her reputation, her elusiveness, and the few tantalizing appearances that have survived on film and tape, have given her practically mythic status, as Jon Krampner's book Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley illustrates.  That label, "The Female Brando," may seem like a commercial attempt to compare her to the more widely known name, but as the author reveals, the comparison of Stanley to Brando was a recurrent one throughout her career. Both were Actors Studio Method actors, considered by many actors and critics to be at the top of their profession.

"Nobody can adequately describe her brilliance, for actors are sculptors who carve in snow."
       Bryan Forbes, director and writer, Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Krampner, Jon. Female Brando: the Legend of Kim Stanley, Back Stage Books (2006)
Bergan, Ronald, Obituary, The Guardian. August 24, 2001

Saturday, February 13, 2016

(Feb. 14, 1880 - October 11, 1914)

"The Queen of the Cakewalk" or as composer Bert Stamps called her in his ode to her--"a terrestrial 'fairy' on feet."

At an early age she gained an education and considerable musical training in New York City.  She started her career in the late 1880s as a chorus member in "Black Patti's Troubadours,"  where she met her husband, George Walker who, with his partner Bert Williams, were the major black vaudeville and musical comedy powerhouses of the era.

Around the time of her marriage to George in 1899, Williams and Walker began to concentrate on writing and performing full-length musicals rather than stand-alone songs and sketches in the vaudeville tradition.
She first gained attention in 1900, when her performance of "Miss Hannah From Savannah" in their show Sons of Ham became an instant hit. In 1903 she played a command performance at Buckingham Palace for King Edward VII, thus gaining international stardom.
           For the next ten years, she would be known for her work in musical theater as the talented trio (George, Bert and Aida) performed in successful shows such as In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906) and Bandana Land (1908).  She choreographed all of the productions as well as Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson's popular The Red Moon (1909). The era of the Williams and Walker musicals came to an end with Bandana Land, as George Walker became ill midway through the show's run in 1909 and passed away in 1911.

Aida and George Walker
The last three years of her career have been largely ignored by scholars. In The Last "darky", Louis Chude-Sokei stressed that Aida was not merely an accessory to the creative duo of Williams and Walker, but a star in her own right.

The final full-length musical of her career was the Smart Set Company's
His Honor the Barber (1911). When she joined the company, she was billed as a supporting actress alongside director and star S. H. Dudley; however the press remembered them as co-stars. Her performance was considered the highlight of the show.  Critic Sylvester Russell commented that her tour with the Smart Set Company "demonstrated that she is the dominant feature of the show and the box office draw. Without her last season, there would have been no box office attraction."  In the New York Dramatic Mirror the critic wrote: "...Miss Walker, as is well known, is the best Negro comedienne today...her impersonation of a Negro 'chappie' the real hit of the play.  The Chicago Defender: "All the people who ventured out to see...the Smart Set Company were drawn there to see Mrs.Walker, the most fascinating and vivacious female comedy actress the Negro race has ever produced. Her male specialty, "Thats why they call me shine" held her audiences spellbound.
 Both of the reviews mentioned her performances in male attire. Such drag numbers were her specialty--she had taken over her ill husband's role in Bandana Land and was considered to be the only person who could accurately imitate him.

In 1912 it was announced that she would perform her interpretation of the "Salome" dance at Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre. This dance, which originally premiered in Bandana Land (1908) was her response to the "Salomania" craze that swept through the white vaudeville circuit in 1907.  The nationwide fascination with all things Salome began in 1907 when the Metropolitan Opera House shut down Richard Strauss' opera Salome after a single performance.   Many white dancers, quick to capitalize on the American public's appetite for the risque, made a name for themselves through their own sexually charged adaptations of the "dance of the seven veils".

Her adaptation of the Salome dance was very different from the titillating performances of countless white actresses and indeed, from Aida's own perspective, it had to be. She was aware of the potential impact the performing arts could have on race relations, having written in a 1905 article for Colored American, "I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people."
        Through her work she strove to combat the prevalent stereotype that African-American women in general, and black actresses in particular, were immoral and oversexed. "I am aware of the fact that many well-meaning people dislike stage life, especially our women," she wrote. "On that point I would say, a woman does not lose her dignity. . .when she enters stage life."

As Salome in 1912 wearing a diamond necklace
that could double as a tiara
Performing Salome as a figure that "epitomized the inherent sensuality and, according to some, perversity of women" was out of the question. She downplayed the erotic aspects of the Salome dance, beginning with the costume. A cartoon in The New York World was accompanied by the caption that "she dances better than some of the Salomes that wear fewer clothes." She chose to emphasize the dramatic elements of the performance, coordinating her movements and expressions in order to convey the thoughts and emotions of the Salome character. The result was a technically innovative dance that "transformed the role of a highly sexualized dancer. . . into a dramatic achievement."

The success of her performance at Hammerstein's Victoria Theater, a space previously restricted to white entertainers, was evidenced when she was again welcomed to the theater the following year.

This time she was not a solo artist, but the leader and choreographer of her vaudeville troupe of dancing girls. She performed the drag number "Bon Bon Buddy," originally popularized by her husband. It became a beloved part of her vaudeville act.
             Her final engagement outside of New York took place at the Pekin Theatre in Chicago. "One of Miss Walker's ambitions has been to produce her own show", reported the Chicago Defender, "and for this special engagement she has surrounded herself with a large number of clever, pretty girls of sweet voices and nimble of feet."   For her entirely new and novel repertoire, readers were advised to secure seats in advance and avoid the rush.  Another article about  her Chicago performances commented, "Here were arrayed the cream of vaudevillians, presenting the latest and best in their line, headed by the divine Aida. . .There is but one thing that is a bit disappointing, she doesn't appear often enough on the bill."  Even in her final appearances on the stage, Aida Walker Overton always left the audience wanting more.    The theater had to turn people away nightly and the show was considered the most popular and the biggest financial success ever produced in Chicago from private sources."
        How galling it must have been to see Vernon and Irene Castle so thoroughly appropriate the popular ragtime dance craze she'd helped to initiate.  She died from kidney failure at such an early age.  Lying in state in the new St. Philip's Episcopal Church, thousands passed her bier.
       An article published two weeks after her death in New York at the age of 34, titled "Race Still Mourns for Aida Overton Walker"  reflected: "She had not passed on life's highway the stone that  marks the highest point of her achievement, but being weary for a moment she laid down by the wayside to rest." Her primary obituary in the Chicago Defender included a similar statement that "she had died before the "zenith of life".  The Philadelphia Tribune maintained that she was "in a class by herself. . . second to none in her line of work."

Resources:  Wikipedia,

Sunday, February 7, 2016

(February 10, 1897 - Jaunary 3, 1992)

"I have not myself a very serene temperament." Judith Anderson knew she gave fellow actors a hard time.  During the many years she starred as Medea she was extremely aware of anyone moving on her lines or taking a tone from a line that had just been said, and the cast came to dread her extensive notes after a performance.  Marian Seldes, who played one of her ladies-in-waiting, remarked that "her standards for behavior in and out of the theater were high...."

Born in Adelaide, Australia, she decided at the age of seven--when she saw Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian signer perform--that she wanted to act.
Her father, who had once been known as the "Silver king of Australia," lost his money through gambling and left his family when she was five, leaving her mother to support her children.  When they moved to Sydney in 1915 she made her first professional appearance as Stephanie in Julius Knight's production of A Royal Divorce.  After touring in several popular plays for a couple of years, members of Knight's company convinced her to try her luck in America. Armed with a letter of introduction to Cecil B. De Mille and accompanied by her mother, she traveled to Hollywood.  After four unsuccessful months, she and her mother relocated to New York.
                            Her Broadway debut occurred in 1922.  Billed as Frances Anderson (her birth name), she appeared with Arnold Daly in On the Stairs.  Changing her first name to Judith, her next notable performance was as Elsie Von Zile in Martin Brown's Cobra (1924). David Belasco cast her in a two-season run of Willard Mack's  play The Dove.  Following her role in George Kelly's
Behold the Bridegroom (1927), she succeeded Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude. Other starring roles in New York included: Lavinia in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, Delia in Zoe Akins's Pulitzer-prize winning drama The Old Maid.  She had no formal training or experience in classical drama, but Guthrie McClintic insisted on casting her as Gertrude in the John Gielgud production of Hamlet (1936).  Thus was her reputation as a 'classical' actress established.  A London appearance at the Old Vic in 1937 as Lady Macbeth opposite Laurence Olivier followed.

She starred as Clytemnestra and directed Robinson Jeffers's
The Tower Beyond Tragedy.  Critics praised her Lady Macbeth opposite Maurice Evans in 1941 and when Katharine Cornell revived
The Three Sisters, she played Olga to high praise.

All of her prior performances were eclipsed however when in 1947, under the direction of John Gielgud, she created the vengeful Medea in Jeffers's adaptation of Euripides' tragedy.  It was the premiere of his play, Gielgud's first production of a Greek classic, and the first time it had been done in the modern professional theatre.  Considered by most critics to be Anderson's most brilliant portrayal, she received the Donaldson Award, the New York Critics' Award and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for best speech, and she was named the "First Lady of the Theatre" by the General Federation of Women's Clubs.

As Medea
She won the Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance and toured in this role in Germany in 1951 and to France and Australia 1955-56.

In 1953 she was directed by Charles Laughton in his adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body with a cast featuring Raymond Massey and Tyrone Power.
 She toured extensively in her most famous roles and played the lead in Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen. She realized a long-held ambition to play Hamlet on a national tour of the U.S. and at New York's Carnegie Hall.   Playing Hamlet was in emulation of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt.  And in 1982 she played the role of the Nurse in Medea starring Zoe Caldwell. The New Yorker praised her "who, at eighty four, is as strong-voiced and commanding a stage presence as ever." (May 17, 1982).  Note: I saw her play the Nurse and went back stage to meet her.  She was tiny and very gracious but I was surprised at her diminutive stature, considering the fierce power of her on stage presence and voice.

As Lady Macbeth

Who has ever seen the film of Du Maurier's Rebecca, is not likely to forget her sinister, off center, Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who tries to destroy Joan Fontaine, the second mistress of Manderley. For this convincing performance she was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. The role led to several film appearances during the 1940s in Lady Scarface,
Kings Row, All Through the Night, Laura, The Diary of a Chambermaid. and a memorable role as Emily Brent in Rene Clair's And Then There Were None.
Other roles included a gold digger in The Furies (1950), Herodias in Salome and most notably "Big Mama" with Burl Ives as "Big Daddy" in the screen adaptation of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof also starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.
       On television she recreated her roles as Medea and for  Lady Macbeth she won two Emmy Awards.  

As Mrs. Danvers
In the 1950s to the 1970s she recorded many 'spoken word' record albums for Caedmon Audio, including her performance as Lady Macbeth (opposite Anthony Quayle). Other recordings include an adaptation of Medea, Robert Louis Stevenson verses and readings from the Bible. For her work on the Wuthering Heights recording she received a grammy nomination.

In 1960 she received her highest honor when she was created Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (D.B.E.) in recognition of "her most distinguished contribution to the stage."
On June 10, 1991, in the Queen's Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), "in recognition of service to the performing arts."

Source:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.   Faye E. Head
Wikipedia site.