The name Kim Stanley might not mean anything to most people under fifty, but anyone who saw her on stage during her ten-year Broadway heyday (from William Inge’s Picnic in 1953 to Inge’s Natural Affection in 1963) still raves about her frayed immediacy and her predilection for unearthing the most painful emotions. Stanley was the queen of the Actor’s Studio and a prized pupil of Lee Strasberg. She went as far as she could with his most dangerous acting technique, affective memory, the substitution of an actor’s real life emotions for the feelings of the character they are playing. Stanley was a Jeanne Eagels for the Freudian fifties, and she seems to have viewed her profession as some kind of adjunct to psychotherapy. An acquaintance noticed something in her “like a high C held too long.”
Such intensity exacted a high price, and Stanley seems to have paid it willingly, even gloatingly. In Jon Krampner’s extremely valuable new biography of the actress, Female Brando, he answers a lot of questions about what went wrong with her career and her life. After a disastrous London production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Stanley retreated from the stage permanently, and there was little word about what had happened to her, other than that she’d had a nervous breakdown. Krampner digs to the bottom of her mystery and what he reveals is as upsetting and suggestive as the tales of the remaining few who remember her work on stage.
Stanley was born in New Mexico. She was one of those people who spun tall tales about their past, and she usually insisted that she was from Texas. With her tiny eyes, large nose and heavy jaw, she was far from pretty, but she turned this into an asset, even emphasizing her physical flaws in her search for raw truth. She did a lot of live television along with her plays, focusing particularly on the work of Horton Foote and Inge, who gave her her biggest theatrical hit, Bus Stop. According to Krampner, Stanley received nothing but raves from the critics for everything she did on stage. Her personal life was messy and she liked it that way—it seems clear that she created pain and chaos in order to channel it into her performances. In a revealing quote, Anne Jackson says, “Unless she went into a frenzy of emotion, she didn’t think she was giving it her all.”
Because of the nerve-scraping way she worked, Stanley missed many performances and she could only tolerate short runs, leaving successful plays when the strain got to be too much for her. She did an unusually long run in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, where she shared the stage with an abusive Eric Portman and an above-it-all Helen Hayes. After Stanley’s departure, old pro Hayes reflected, “Kim would have tried the patience of a saint with her striving for an opening-night level of performance—even on rainy Thursdays.” In 1961, when she played a patient of Freud himself in A Far Country, Stanley was flaming out pretty spectacularly. In order to do a primal scream at the end of Act II, she used her brother’s death for a while to get the effect she wanted. Several firsthand witnesses testify in the book to this moment’s unnerving power—whether it seemed specific to the character she was playing is another matter. What isn’t up for debate is that such Strasberg methods began to destroy Stanley, and that her drinking, which was always heavy, began to take over her life.
By the time of Strasberg’s production of Three Sisters, Stanley had put on considerable weight, and this reflected her plunge into complete indulgence. In a tape of the production, Stanley gives a nightmarishly pre-occupied performance, playing Masha as if she were a lunatic. Unmoved by the great playwright’s words, she often improvised some of her own. Kevin McCarthy, who played Vershinin, picked up Stanley’s script one day and saw that for every one of his lines, she had struck out “Vershinin” and written “Father.” This substitution makes no sense for the character, but it made perfect sense for Stanley, who spent a lifetime in loathing resentment of her daddy, a man who paid no attention to her. Opening under poor circumstances in London, Stanley and the Actor’s Studio company were brutally booed. This was a sort of last straw, and Stanley disappeared.
Krampner details Stanley’s lost years as thoroughly as he can. Though there are gaps, what he reveals is queasy, dark, and, needless to say, dramatic. Diving into the kind of alcoholic binges that last for weeks, she virtually stopped working. When she got a chance to come back for Tony Richardson’s 1973 film of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, at the first read-through Stanley did a wild improvisation on the text of the play, crawling around the floor, crying, “expressing her emotions, her flesh, her bulk,” Richardson reported. He said it was “almost obscene,” but that it had “the ugliness, the truth, the understanding of great art.” The film’s lead, Katharine Hepburn, another old pro, was not at all amused by Stanley’s exhibition, and she had her fired.
Flat broke, Stanley was forced to seek work as an acting teacher in New Mexico, and was reduced to directing her biggest stage triumph, Bus Stop, for students. Later she moved to New York for a time and gave legendary acting classes that started at 7pm and sometimes lasted until dawn. Such marathon sessions would alternate with weeks of dedicated boozing. One day, two students saw her struggling with groceries on the street and ran to help her. She didn’t recognize them, but turned to one and said mysteriously, “You—I kill. And I don’t kill many.” Then she went upstairs to drink, a once important actress playing out an extended psychodrama to the four walls of her filthy, bare apartment in Soho. With one student, she played imaginary poker. For hours.
Krampner is funny and insightful about Stanley’s idiosyncrasies, and he never excuses her bad behavior, but stops short of naming a reason for her downfall, even though the reason seems obvious. Many of her friends report that Stanley couldn’t tell the difference, finally, between off stage and on. Anyone who has utilized substitutions and affective memory knows that they can have a devastating effect on a performer, especially if they’re using traumas on stage night after night, as Stanley did. Most acting coaches advise their students to only use substitutions as a last resort, and then but carefully and briefly. Stanley made a whole career out of them and they ruined her life. If you want to put a name to the “demons” Krampner constantly refers to, why not call a spade a spade and say that Stanley’s chief demon was named Lee Strasberg? He did her more harm in the end than her father or any other scapegoat at hand.
The really fascinating thing to be learned about Stanley from Krampner’s book is that she continued to exercise her art after her Three Sisters breakdown, but in isolation. In the late seventies, she told an inquisitive reporter that she was still “working quietly—from within.” Though Stanley is often compared to Brando, the real point of comparison would seem to be Charles Laughton, another tormented actor who viewed acting as an art much like writing or painting. It’s hard not to think that Stanley continued to perform, even if her performance was generally “great actress fallen on hard times,” and that she didn’t feel she needed an audience. If those walls in Soho could talk, we might have an actresses’ equivalent of Finnegan’s Wake.
It should be said here that I’m taking the idea of Stanley’s artistry on trust, for she left few filmed performances behind and those I’ve seen are extremely problematic. She only starred in two features, The Goddess (1958) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). To her credit, Stanley was unhappy with her performance in The Goddess, where she’s very self-consciously aware of the camera and forced to do too many crying jags. As Seance’s crazy medium, she’s so lost in her own fantasy world that she doesn’t share any of it with the audience, and her seances play like inward, cut-off Strasberg private moment exercises.
In the early eighties, she re-surfaced for three films: a cameo as Happy Bottom Riding Club proprietor Pancho Barnes in The Right Stuff (1983); as Big Mama in a made-for-cable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1984), and in Frances (1982), where she’s excellent as a touchy, disappointed and finally vengeful mother (pictured above) to Jessica Lange’s embattled movie star. In all three of her major film performances, Stanley plays miserable neurotics who long for fame. The real woman rejected fame and went on a quixotic search for truth by herself. She gave some more acting classes in the mid-eighties, but after about 1988 she became a recluse who never left her home. She died in 2001.
Unlike Laurette Taylor, another great (and alcoholic) star of the theater, Stanley never emerged for one more hurrah, as Taylor did in The Glass Menagerie. But her retreat seems to have been an elaborate, modernist and stinging gesture of defiance from a woman who had had enough of the world and who had the guts to continue practicing her art in squalid, Beckett-like isolation. Krampner lays out her life as a scary cautionary tale, but the book also serves as a tribute to an unusual, intriguing and essential theater figure, a candle in a darkened room that now shines a bit brighter.
Dan Callahan is a New York-based critic whose work has appeared in Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Senses of Cinema. This is his first article for The House Next Door.