Book Reviews

Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley
by Jon Krampner

Book Review by George Reddick

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

Female Brando: The Legend of Kim StanleyKim Stanley was often called the greatest actress of her generation, though today relatively few people know who she was. Like the theatre itself, Stanley is an ephemeral figure. She appeared in only a handful of films, frequently departed plays in which she had appeared to great acclaim after only a few weeks or months, had a proclivity for invention and inconsistency with regards to her own biography, and finally disappeared almost totally from the public eye, retreating into a life of alcoholism and reclusiveness. Though she died only five years ago, she had not appeared on a stage in over thirty-five years and the last of her infrequent film and television appearances had been over fifteen years earlier.

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. Stanley's 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 eagerly anticipated book, Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley illustrates. That label, "The Female Brando," may seem like a commercial attempt to compare Stanley to a more widely known name, but, as Krampner reveals, the comparison of Stanley to Brando was a recurrent one throughout her career. Both were Actor's Studio "Method" actors, considered by many actors and critics to be at the top of their profession.

Bus Stop
Kim Stanley as Cherie
in Bus Stop

Zinn Arthur photo/Billy Rose Theatre Collection, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Still, Stanley was a performer unlike any other, and unlike Brando, who abandoned the stage for Hollywood, she never liked the movies and made very few. It's probably not a coincidence that Stanley's greatest era on Broadway coincided with what is now generally considered to be a Golden Age in the American Theatre. She was given opportunities to play numerous, varied roles year after year on Broadway - a privilege today's Broadway actors do not enjoy. It's also probably not a coincidence that the mediums in which Stanley felt most comfortable are those which have been lost to posterity and live only in the memories of the few who saw them. But in the small number of surviving examples of her work in film and television, Stanley still has the power to astound.

Krampner's biography of Stanley, the first to shed much light on its subject, will likely prove a must-read for anyone interested in actors and the Golden Age of American Theatre. It is well researched, combining many personal interviews and written accounts of Stanley's life and work. It includes extensive and detailed notes, and is generally fascinating. Krampner, who has written on entertainment in such publications as The New York and Los Angeles Times, Playboy, and Modern Maturity, has a somewhat informal style, and at times his voice becomes gossipy, particularly when uncovering some of Stanley's more sordid personal affairs and backstage antics. One chapter, which encompasses Stanley's work on several major projects, including her debut film role as the star of The Goddess and her acclaimed appearance on Broadway in A Touch of the Poet, is titled "A Slap of the Poet," in reference to Stanley's complaint that actor Eric Portman slapped her too hard repeatedly in one scene, one of the bases she used to withdraw from the production. Highlighting the more gossipy element of this chapter in Stanley's life is endemic of an attitude that can sometimes feel reductive of its subject. Also, the author's readings of some of Stanley's performances on film or television are sometimes irreverent and usually less interesting than those of other critics, who are quoted in detail.

Krampner also makes some questionable statements about Broadway, as when he suggests 1959's Chéri, one of Stanley's Broadway flops, may have failed due to competition with The Sound of Music, which opened two weeks before Chéri, and My Fair Lady. He suggests that Stanley's serious vehicle would have seemed unappealing when "theatre-club women could envision themselves learning the social graces from Rex Harrison or escaping the Nazis by hiking over the Alps, yodeling show tunes as they went ... " Harrison was long gone, of course, but more to the point, perhaps The Miracle Worker, which opened a week after Chéri (and starred Patty Duke, who had made her film debut playing the young Stanley in The Goddess the year before), might have made a more apt comparison.

Despite these complaints, however, Krampner's grasp of his subject is admirable, especially considering Stanley's constant attempts to live away from public scrutiny. Following her promising early regional and Off-Broadway work, Stanley eventually appeared in eleven plays on Broadway between 1951 and 1964 by writers such as William Inge, Horton Foote, Arthur Laurents, and Eugene O'Neill. It was not long before she graduated from the supporting role in one Inge play, Picnic, to starring in another, probably her best known role, Cherie in Bus Stop. As Krampner discusses, Marilyn Monroe, who played the role in the film, studied at the Actor's Studio to prepare, while Kim was known as the "First Lady of the Studio" and many believe Monroe's performance was actually based on Kim's. Stanley would continue to garner 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.

Probably forgotten or never known by many, but revealed here by Krampner, is that Stanley was possibly most at home not on stage, but in live television. Live television drama was all but extinct by the sixties, but in the fifties, it was an extremely popular form of entertainment. Between 1949 and 1960, Stanley appeared in over forty live dramas, only a handful of which have survived in kinescopes. Some of her appearances included re-creations of her Broadway roles, such as Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady which she performed twice on television. (Stanley was a great admirer of Foote's and appeared in a number of his works.) One of Krampner's extremely valuable contributions is a complete list of Stanley's television credits, as well as details on where the few existing copies of some of these can be seen. These archives include the New York and Beverly Hills locations of the Museum of Television and Radio, The UCLA Film and Television Archive, and The Library of Congress, among others. Krampner also details those few film and television appearances of Stanley's that are commercially available, though he includes The Goddess, which as of this writing, appears to be available only in used VHS copies.

Stanley's personal life is more shrouded in mystery than her professional life, but Krampner, through many personal interviews with friends and colleagues (some of whom, he says in his preface, would speak to him one day and refuse the next) and exhaustive research, has uncovered as much about her life as possible, revealing a history of a little girl from New Mexico who was not unlike the Marilyn-Monroe-esque character she played in The Goddess. Stanley was married a number of times and actually bore the child of one man while still married to another - a fact she only revealed later in life. Krampner believes much of her life was spent either in rebellion or in an attempt to win the approval of her father, Jesse Taylor "J.T" Reid (her birth name was Patricia Beth Reid), but Stanley's relationship with family members appears to have often been rocky.

The Three Sisters
Geraldine page, Kim Stanley and Shirley Knight in The Three Sisters
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
What no one can completely explain is how and why Stanley descended almost completely into seclusion and reclusiveness. Throughout her career in the '50s and '60s, Stanley fought instability and alcoholism, possibly explaining why live television, which did not require her to appear night after night, was perhaps her strongest performing medium, though many who saw her live claim that nothing compared to Stanley's stage performances. But in 1965, the acclaimed Actors Studio production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, which had played Broadway the year before and been taped for television (and was later shown in movie theatres and released on video), was invited to participate in the World Theatre Festival at the Aldwych Theatre in London for two weeks, with Stanley repeating her role of Masha. The results in London, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, were disastrous. The production was practically booed off the stage, and took a critical drubbing. Stanley never appeared on stage again. Perhaps it was at least in part a result of the rejection of that performance, though Stanley had been slowly spiraling out of control for some time.

The last third of the book is devoted to the later years of Stanley's life, during which she taught sporadically and made infrequent television appearances, with a brief comeback in film roles in the early 1980s, notably playing Jessica Lange's mother in Frances, for which she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. But, despite numerous rumors and discussions of upcoming projects, Stanley's acting career was completely finished more than fifteen years before her death.

In Broadway: The Golden Age, actress Elizabeth Ashley said a talent like Stanley's was too intense to last forever and Krampner's account illuminates a life lived hard and a talent for bringing her personal demons dangerously, and thrillingly, to life in her work. In A Far Country, Stanley played a woman who was physically paralyzed and undergoing psychiatric treatment by Sigmund Freud. At the end of the act, Freud confronts her with the possibility that her paralysis is psychosomatic - a result of her guilt for having refused to bring medicine upstairs to her ailing father, because she really didn't want him to live. Krampner quotes acting coach Larry Moss's memory of that final moment:

Sitting in the front row of the theatre, I watched Kim Stanley's cheeks turn bright red; then suddenly, tears shot out of her eyes so fast and in such torrents that I clutched the edge of my chair. At that moment, the curtain started coming down as Ms. Stanley screamed with everything in her, "No, it's a lie!" And when the curtain hit the stage floor, she continued screaming in the darkness.

Thirty seconds later they brought the houselights up, and the theatre went mad. People started talking to each other, grabbing at each other, for they had just witnessed a great actress give a performance that didn't seem to be a performance at all but a trauma in a real person's life that we shouldn't be allowed to watch.

Though she may survive today only in the shadows of film, Kim Stanley will live forever in the memories of those who saw her on stage and, thanks to Jon Krampner, those of us who didn't see her are a little closer to knowing what it was like.

Photos from Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley by Jon Krampner.  Published by Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of VNU Business Media.  Reprinted by permission of the publisher.  Available where books are sold.

Female Brando: The Legend of Kim StanleyFemale Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley
By Jon Krampner
Hardcover. 245 pages
Back Stage Books
Publishing date: June 2006
List Price: $24.95
ISBN: # 0823088472