Hunter is back at the Barrymore, where she debuted on Broadway 50 years ago
It even sounded like the crack of theatrical lightning, the one that marked the moment a half-century ago this year when on December 3, 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire made its historic stop at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The list of passengers it carried into Broadway folklore included author Tennessee Williams, director Elia Kazan, producer Irene Mayer Selznick and a cast headed by Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden.
The aforeyelled Stella Stella Du Bois Kowalski, the object of Brando's anguished desire Hunter can be found back at the Barrymore nowadays, stylishly at play with Michael Allinson, Stephanie Beacham, Madeleine Potter, Nicky Henson and James Warwick in An Ideal Husband, and no happier wed than before as the complaining Lady Markby.
All her plot damage is done in Act I, introducing a blackmailing bitch-on-wheels (Beacham, of course) into British society, and the actress spends the rest of the evening in her dressing room, waiting for her curtain call, reading, playing solitaire. "It's a bit boring, this business of being off the whole second act," she allows, "but it's worth it for being on in the first."
Memories keep her company, filling the star dressing room she still thinks of it as Jessica Tandy's and can mentally rearrange the furniture to the way it was then. "I haven't played the Barrymore since Streetcar, but I've been back as a member of the audience. I guess I was last here for Irene Selznick's memorial."
It was Irene's then-husband, David O. Selznick, who started Hunter toward stardom. He signed her up fresh out of Pasadena Playhouse but spent her contract, loaning her out to other producers. Hoping to prove he'd squandered a major talent, Irene waved Hunter aboard Streetcar for her Broadway debut. On opening night the Selznicks bickered over who had spotted her talent first.
Hunter read for the role once and learned, on getting back to her hotel, the part was hers. "The only question they asked was how tall I was. John Garfield was going to play Stanley, and he was short. A month before rehearsals began, he bowed out. He'd not been on Broadway for some time, and he felt when he came back the play should be his, not Blanche's."
Brando's brilliant Stanley helped balance the books better tip the scales in his favor, to some minds but Hunter believes the play's priorities stayed intact. "I once asked Tennessee directly what he thought the theme of the play was, and he told me, 'Well, it's basically a plea for an understanding of the delicate people.' He was writing about Blanche." The play went into rehearsal at the New Amsterdam Roof in the fall of '47. "That was the exciting part, the scary part," says Hunter. "Kazan was an absolutely marvelous director. The best. Ever. He would get to know each of his performers so personally and well that he would know what button to push to get what he needed for the role. He was ruthless in grabbing that out of you, but also he was very considerate in that it was always private, never in front of the rest of the company."
Not unexpectedly, of all the theatres she has played, Hunter has her favorite: "My heart belongs to the Barrymore, because it was the first." Last stop for the Streetcar she boarded there was the Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress of 1951). Now, at the Barrymore, the Oscar engaging her is a Wildely witty one.
-- By Harry Haun