Seventeen years ago today, the actress Kim Stanley (born Patricia Reid) died at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, around 200 miles from Tularosa, the city in which she was born seventy-six years earlier. At the time of her death, she had been living in New Mexico for many years, far away from the lights of Broadway, where she had once been one of its brightest stars. Alongside Julie Harris and Geraldine Page, she was considered to be among the finest stage actresses of her day (and, in an odd coincidence, all three were born within a thirteen-month stretch of one another between 1924 and 1925). Beyond the theatre, Stanley was prolific in the early days of live television in the 1950s, and into the early '60s, earning an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on the famed medical series, Ben Casey. Partly by choice, she would appear in a paltry five feature films in her lifetime (she had said that she hated the medium with its filming out of order and numerable takes). But considering she received Academy Award nominations for two of the five (1964's Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and 1982's Frances), her film acting proved she knew what she was doing, especially as a doomed actress in Paddy Chayefsky's The Goddess (1958).
Kim Stanley as Emily Ann Faulkner a/k/a Rita Shawn in The Goddess (1958).
The totality of the dozen Broadway shows in which she appeared occurred over a span of just fifteen years, beginning in 1946, when she took over for Julie Harris in French playwright Emmanuel Robles' Montserrat, adapted and staged by Lillian Hellman, and finishing when she took part in a 1964 Actors Studio production of Chekhov's Three Sisters (with Geraldine Page—in another connection between these actresses). Though lukewarmly received on Broadway, Three Sisters was a disaster when it moved to London and played the West End. Not only was it booed on opening night, but the critics excoriated the company for mangling a beloved classic play with their Method acting. After that, she made the decision to quit the stage (and stuck to it).
Kim Stanley (center) as Masha in Three Sisters, with Geraldine Page (left) as Olga,
and Shirley Knight (right) as Irina (1964).
From then on, Stanley worked sparingly, until her final performance at age fifty-nine as Big Mama in a TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned her a second Emmy. And, interestingly enough, Stanley had played Maggie the Cat in the play’s 1958 London premiere. But after 1984, she was done with acting entirely and taught it instead in New York, as well as at the College of Santa Fe. There would be no more performances of any kind from this volatile talent for the remaining seventeen years of her life, a great deal of which was consumed by health issues, which were compounded by her longtime alcohol abuse
Quotes from critics, or Stanley's fellow actors, could fill the rest of this column of how onstage she was like no other. Vivian Nathan was in the cast of Montserrat when Stanley joined the production, and told those gathered at Stanley's 2001 memorial in New York that "I walked on stage during the first day of rehearsals and there was this real person standing there. And then she began to talk to me!" It was Stanley's surprisingly naturalistic approach to acting that froze Nathan on the spot. But indeed, there was a price to pay for her kind of commitment, as the late actress Anne Jackson told Playbill on-line after Stanley's passing: "She had a quality of stopping the moment with such a sense of truth that it was awesome. I loved her in Bus Stop, I thought she was marvelous. I loved to see her do something light like that. The other psychological plays that she was drawn to, I would worry about her."
There is no worse story about the level of pain which Stanley could bring to a role than what occurred in 1972, when when she was offered a job by a former favorite director, Tony Richardson, for a filmed version of Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance, with a cast to be led by Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield. Richardson hired Stanley over major protestation from producer Eli Landau, who feared she was a risk and would not be able to deliver, due to her well known drinking. But the part was that of an alcoholic, and Richardson deeply felt that she would bring something thrilling to the role. Then, when it came time to read through the screenplay for the first time, and after he had delicately asked that it be read in a casual manner and not acted, Stanley dove into overdrive. In Richardson's own words from his autobiography The Long Distance Runner, he wrote:
"She [Stanley] began to improvise on Edward [Albee’s] text; she crawled on the floor, she sputtered, she cried. Looked on one way it was a parody of the stereotypical view of Method acting. In a London first-floor drawing room, expressing her emotions, her flesh, her bulk, it was almost obscene. ‘How could you have let that happen to us?' Paul [Scofield] ... hissed violently at me when we finally broke up. But it was magnificent—its reality so compelling, so violently and truthfully exposed, that there was more knowledge of the depths of human experience and of alcoholism than I’ve seen in any other performance. It transcended anything I’d ever imagined could be in the play, and I knew instantly how to direct it. It had the ugliness, the truth, the understanding of great art. But it was clear that Kim’s truth was at the expense of everything else—the other performers, the text of the play, and the exigencies of the production. If we had had a year to shoot I could have gotten something so disturbing on film it might have been unwatchable."
I include this story of her losing out on this role, both verbatim and at length, because it is probably the most articulate and empathetic assessment of what drove Stanley to greatness ... as well as what kept her from sustaining that impossible level of exactitude. After that first reading, Hepburn threatened to quit the project unless Stanley was fired, which resulted in her dismissal. There was a sad irony in all this, told in Stanley's own words: "When I was sixteen, I saw Katharine Hepburn in a touring production of The Philadelphia Story and I was overcome," she said. "I was terrified. It was of course a comedy, but after the final curtain I sat down and cried, because I wanted to watch it all over again."
Kim Stanley, in a photograph by Carl Van Vechten (1961).
I wish I could have seen Kim Stanley on stage, as her finest performances were long before I attended the theatre. It's important to note that her first success was portraying a sixteen-year-old in William Inge's Picnic, an example of something that can really only work in the theatre, as she turned twenty-eight eight days before opening night (and not at all a waif). But such was her magic, Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times: "As a tom-boy with brains and artistic gifts, Kim Stanley gives a penetrating performance that conveys the distinction as well as the gaucheries of a disarming young lady."
Stanley as Millie Owens (with Ralph Meeker as Hal Carter) in William Inge's Picnic (1953).
Two years after Picnic, Inge again went to Stanley for his next play, Bus Stop. As Cherie, a young night club singer with dreams and aspirations that may never take her beyond a small town west of Kansas City, Stanley weaved a spell over the audience. Again, Brooks Atkinson raved, "Kim Stanley is superb ... she gives a glowing performance that is full of amusing detail—cheap, ignorant, bewildered, but also radiant with personality ... [her] comic acting has plenty of human truth inside."
Kim Stanley as Cherie in Bus Stop (1955).
There were other well received performances in the 1950s and 60s including Arthur Laurents' A Clearing in the Woods (1957); Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet (1958); Henry Denker's A Far Country (1961) and Inge (for the third and final time), in Natural Affection (1963). And if those film and TV performances are all I have to go on to evaluate her gifts, then I must cite as perhaps my favorite Kim Stanley performance, an uncredited one, in the classic 1962 film of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She came to it by way of its screenwriter, Horton Foote, a friend of Stanley's (her second Broadway show in 1952 was Foote's The Chase, and she later played the title role in his The Traveling Lady in 1954). It was he who suggested to Mockingbird's director Robert Mulligan, that Stanley might be the perfect adult voice for the film's narrator, the character of Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as Scout. Though never seen, the next time you watch that beautiful movie, listen carefully to the southern tones provided by Stanley, in all its natural warmth and accessibility—as pure a distillation of her remarkable talents as we shall probably ever know.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.