Shirley Knight: A Thing of Beauty

  Tenn on Shirley Knight

Tennessee thought of Shirley Knight as if she were an adopted daughter, but she was not a ward he took on out of kindness or because she was lost or dependent on his beneficence:  Tenn took Knight to his side because he wanted to bask in the reflection of her talent, her beauty, and her incandescent anger, which he believed was earned and utilized in cauterizing meretricious work (and workers) and achieving the highest standards in whatever she pursued.

"I would not begin to imply that Shirley is incapable of making mistakes--this would be an admission that she was no longer human, no longer in the messy arena, taking her chances and seeing how the cards landed and how she fell to earth and coped. I am amazed by the manner in which she takes her mistakes and transforms them into a particular piece of work or action or attitude that is revealed in a later, better work--there are trails of her history that have been alchemized in the creation of art that stands as testament to the fact that she cannot be destroyed or altered or underestimated.

"She fights for the rights of her talent in a manner that is both feral and regal: She will not be abused any longer; she is no longer the little girl from the tiny schoolhouse in the dry flats of the Plains. I admire her tremendously, and I pity anyone who seeks to be anything but honest and honorable in her presence.

"Bill Inge loved her--he thought she looked precisely like the little girl he wished he could have been. On those long-ago mornings when he dressed up with his mother--the dread Miss Maude--he saw himself as the smart, fearless, pretty girl: Shirley Knight! When Shirley met him, there was a rapprochement with fantasy that gave Bill a rare and fulsome happiness. I have loved Shirley for that gift--that passive gift--she gave to him, but my greatest love is for her active gift--a violent, truthful acting talent that is only now beginning to find fruitage. "

 Paul Newman and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).

"I love to watch her make discoveries within the text: She surprises always, and she has that rare gift of examining her character, and the play in which it resides, each and every time she performs, finding new secrets, virtues, dark corners. She was particularly extraordinary in Kennedy's Children [by Robert Patrick, a playwright Tenn loved]. I was amazed when I saw her performance, but my admiration grew when I saw an especially bad production of the play several years later, and I could see what another actress was not doing, was not exploring, not sharing. There is no greater test of the greatness of an artist until you see a non-artist, a barnacle on the boat of the theatre, trying to accomplish something grave and beautiful. It is not a thing of beauty. Shirley Knight is a thing of beauty--of flesh, of spirit, of soul, of harsh, cleansing light.

"I think she is fearless--or, rather, I think she fears only the weak and the dishonest and the lazy. I think she lives in fear of her mind and her talent and her heart not being used fully, and she husbands her talent ferociously. I wish I had her sense of survival; I wish I had her sense of familial warmth; I wish I could have walked through the halls of silliness that connect the experiences of a Hollywood career and emerged as tough and as wise as she appears to be.

"Give her what she wants, needs, demands: There are no roles too big for her, no challenges at which she won't laugh and wrestle and finish stronger, wiser, funnier. I wish for her Alma, her Amanda, her Princess, her Serafina. I wish for her a Gertrude, a Lady Macbeth, a Lady Wishfort, a Millament, a Martha in Edward's play [Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] I wish for her a new play by bold, secure playwrights who will let her tell them what she knows, what she can do, what she can improve.

"I wish for her everything, but I wish most that I am there, at her side, for the ride to come. I think I'm ready for it."



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