Kim Stanley Remembered with Reverence and Awe at Memorial


October 17, 2001

The speakers at the Oct. 12 memorial for actress Kim Stanley evoked the memory of the late actress with a sense of reverence and self-abnegation unusual in an industry known of ego and self-aggrandizement. Nearly every person talked of their given experience working with Stanley, who died Aug. 20, as the best time of their professional lives, and the audience, which listened in quiet awe, seemed to understand and concur with their estimation of Stanley's talent. Estelle Parsons — artistic director of the Actors' Studio, where the event was held — set the tone early on by calling Stanley "the greatest actress of this century."

The speakers at the Oct. 12 memorial for actress Kim Stanley evoked the memory of the late actress with a sense of reverence and self-abnegation unusual in an industry known of ego and self-aggrandizement. Nearly every person talked of their given experience working with Stanley, who died Aug. 20, as the best time of their professional lives, and the audience, which listened in quiet awe, seemed to understand and concur with their estimation of Stanley's talent. Estelle Parsons — artistic director of the Actors' Studio, where the event was held — set the tone early on by calling Stanley "the greatest actress of this century."

Stanley was one of the Actors' Studio's most treasured graduates, a dedicated student of Method acting. During her brief heyday, which spanned the 1950s and ended with her final New York stage appearance in 1964, she was the most highly respected and acclaimed performer on the stage.

Elaine Stritch, who worked with Stanley when the latter was famously playing Cherie in Williams Inge's Bus Stop, said she had "never experienced anything like working with that actress." Critic Rex Reed, who grew up on Stanley performances, said "Kim Stanley was to many of our generation, our most gifted actress." And playwright Henry Denker noted that his play, A Far Country, when produced across Europe, was always dominated by the leading male character. But, when Stanley graced the work on Broadway, critics noted that the drama was undoubtedly the story of the leading female character.

"She informed me of the value of listening," said the usually hard-boiled Stritch, who was often on the verge of tears, "and it was painless. I had about 28 lines in Bus Stop and she had 900. And I never once didn't hear every word she said, every thought. I got notices for my listening on the play."

Musing as to why Stanley abandoned the stage so early in her career, Stritch said, "I think she got too God-damned real." Expressing a similar sentiment, director Sir Peter Hall, who worked with Stanley on the London premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, sent a note saying "the white hot heat of [her] American style" of acting forced "the audience [to] experience unbearable pain."

Actress Vivian Nathan remembered her first encounter with Stanley. "It was my second play in New York. 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!" After a moment, the shaken Nathan realized the intruder was actually Stanley, exhibiting her unnervingly naturalistic take on acting.

As Stanley's fame grew, her every turn on stage became a cause for excitement. Denker told a story about the Los Angeles engagement of A Far Country which aptly illustrated the devotion of her following. The show was scheduled to open in L.A. a mere two days after closing in New York, giving the stagehands little time to ship and rebuild the stage set. The California audience at opening night was chock-full of powerful Hollywood actors and producers, all anxious to see the work of the elusive theatre legend. At 8 PM, however, the curtain did not rise, as work on the set continued noisily backstage. 8:30 PM: still more hammers and angry voices. The minutes passed — 8:45 PM, 9 PM, 9:30 PM. "No one in that auditorium left their seat," remembered Denker. "The all so desperately wanted to see Kim." The curtain finally went up at 9:45 PM.

Denker also observed that Stanley was never diva-ish in her demands. She would never demand new scenes or line changes from the author. But, during a read-through of the play, she would occasionally pause at a word or her expression would cloud during a passage. And, by that silent communication, Denker would know that a change might be required. "But she would never ask you outright to do it."

Notes were sent by Horton Foote, who wrote many of the plays the Stanley acted in on Broadway, and actress Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave's one-time husband Tony Richardson directed Stanley. The two parents were so moved by her work that they gave their daughter Joely, born in 1965, the middle name of Kim.

The memorial was preceded by a short film, created by Timothy Doyle, of Stanley work during the early days of live television. Among the clips were small screen versions of Horton Foote's A Young Lady of Property and The Traveling Lady; A Cardinal Act of Mercy; and, most remarkably, along excerpt of Stanley playing Cherie in Bus Stop. Playwright John Guare was one of the last to speak. As a young boy in Jackson Heights, Queens, he had seen Stanley on television playing St. Joan. After that, he followed the actress slavishly, eventually becoming acquainted with her. When she was acting in A Far Country at New Haven's Shubert Theatre, Guare and a friend went back stage, threading through a throng a waiting fans to get there. When they arrived, they were motioned to keep silent; Stanley, in anguish, sat at her dressing table, her head in her hands. Eventually she got up and went to the door, only to retreat upon seeing the crowd of fans. After another interval, she steeled herself, composed her face, and exclaimed, as if realizing it for the first time, "Jesus Christ! I'm a star!" She then walked out the door, sailed through the crowd and crossed the street to a bar where she spent the rest of the evening celebrating.

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Kim Stanley, the actress who distinguished herself in the 1950s in William Inge's Picnic and Bus Stop on Broadway, and earned two Academy Award nominations, died Aug. 20 in Sante Fe, N.M., after a long illness.

Stanley, who was 76, had not acted on a New York stage in 36 years but made an impression on critics and audience as the shabby nightclub singer Cherie in Inge's 1955 play, Bus Stop, about a band of misfits trapped in a Kansas bus stop during a snow storm. She also played Millie Owens in Inge's Picnic. Her Inge work did not earn her Tony Award nominations, however (and the role of Cherie would be immortalized by Marilyn Monroe in the film version of the story). Her Best Actress Tony noms came in 1959 for A Touch of the Poet and in 1962 for A Far Country. She was Academy Award-nominated for "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" and for playing Frances Farmer's mother in "Frances" (1982). The latter film starred Jessica Lange, who also acted with Stanley in a 1984 TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ms. Stanley won an Emmy Award for playing Big Mama. A quarter century before, in 1958, in London, she had played the Lange role — seething, sultry Maggie the Cat. She would also appear in the film, "The Right Stuff."

Stanley was born Patricia Kimberly Reid in Tularosa, N.M. Her father was a professor of philosophy and her mother was a painter and interior decorator. Her first stage appearance was in Thunder Rock at the University of New Mexico in 1942. She graduated from the University of Texas in 1945 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and also studied and acted at the Pasadena Playhouse and later with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York City. For Strasberg, she would appear in The Three Sisters, in 1964. It was her last New York acting appearance.

Stanley acted in stock productions in New Jersey and Louisville and in what would today be considered Off-Broadway, in him at the Provincetown Playhouse, Yes Is for a Very Young Man at the Cherry Lane Theatre and the title role in St. Joan at Equity Library Theatre. She made her Broadway debut replacing Julie Harris in Montserrat in 1949. Stanley was respected and busy in the 1950s but would pull away from the industry in later years. She was married three times and her three children survive her.

Broadway appearances include Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady (playing Georgette Thomas, a role she repeated for a TV production) in 1954, A Clearing in the Woods in 1957, Cheri (drawn from Collette's works) in 1959 and Natural Affection in 1963. She made her film debut in "The Goddess."

She won the New York Drama Critics Award for playing Cherie in Bus Stop.

Actress Anne Jackson told Playbill On-Line that the American theatre lost someone special. "We were friends a long time ago when we were young women," Jackson said. "We were both married actresses with children, so we had that in common as well as being each other's fans as actors. Kim, unfortunately, kind of grew away from all of her friends and from the theatre. She made herself an alien to us."

Off-stage, Stanley suffered from depression and she dipped too deeply in the Method acting, Jackson said. "She would give more than what was necessary to a role," Jackson said. "It was overly emotional. Acting was a painful job for her. She made it painful for herself. There was no question about her talent and the beauty of her work. When she was on stage, she was a delight."

Jackson said that Stanley could have had a much larger career, but the actress pulled away. Of Stanley's stage work, Jackson said, "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."

In summer 1979, Stanley offered acting classes in New York City and formed a theatre company from her students (which also included students from New Mexico), with the intent of producing a season. Only one play was staged — Tennessee Williams' Two-Character Play. Stanley was known to be a drinker and have erratic off-stage behavior over the years. More productions from the company, which worked out of Theatre on Vandam in Soho, never materialized and Stanley returned to Los Angeles, where she continued to teach.

Students praised her. "I learned a blueprint for attacking a role that my years at NYU didn't teach me," said Chuck Blasius, who took her acting classes in 1979 and later became a playwright. "She was very much anti text in that she wouldn't let you work with the text until you reached a certain level of emotional truth. When you worked on a scene, you would improvize with nonsense words. You would improvize around the scene not using the text. Not using sentences. She would want you to communicate what the scene was about — to communicate the emotional circumstances."

—By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones