Barbara Bel Geddes: Too Far Within

Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie the Cat (1955).

Barbara Bel Geddes was the single most difficult actress to interview for Follies of God. Bel Geddes was so resistant to being interviewed or talking about her past that she felt compelled to spend hours talking on the phone explaining to me why she hated to comply with writers, and why she hated to discuss acting. When, after months of these phone calls, I told her that we had, in fact, been conducting a rather in-depth interview, she laughed and said "I know. I do this to myself all the time. I analyze and over-explain until I have done precisely what I said I wouldn't do."

Bel Geddes was always polite and funny, and she had no reservations about discussing her painting or her cooking or her dreams of writing more books (she was the author of two books geared toward young adults). She adored her family, particularly her father, designer Norman Bel Geddes,  and her tight circle of friends. Ultimately, she admitted, she trusted me because of the samples of writing I had sent her and because we shared the same birthday, October 31st.

She hated to talk about the theatre or films, and she insisted that if I ever included any of her quotes, they should be just typed out and presented as she said them, without the inclusion of my thoughts or opinions, or any corrections or responses from anyone else.

"That," she said, "I could live with."

And here are some of them.

Bel Geddes photographed by Carl Van Vechten (1955)

I was always determined; stubborn. I grew up in what some would call high circumstances: we lived on the East Side, and my parents had money, but I was rebellious and bored with it all. I loved it when my father designed plays, because I was fascinated by actors and directors and all theatre people, but so-called New York society bored me to death. I decided to become an actress very early, and I told my parents. There was some conviction in my family that I should go to 'good' schools and marry a nice guy, but I asked for, and received, my emancipation, and by the time I turned eighteen, I was on Broadway. 

"I'm difficult to deal with.

"I did everything. Everyone should do everything. Stock companies, touring companies, regional theatres (of which there were very few in the early forties), Broadway, radio. Television came into being during that time, and I did that, too. You have to learn and you have to do bad things, I think. You also have to find out if you're one of the bad things. A lot of bad actors with whom I've worked thought they were just swell, and you wonder about perception. You start to look for honest teachers and peers who will tell you when you're rotten or misguided.

"I got lucky when I was cast by [Elia] Kazan in Deep Are the Roots, the first play, to my knowledge, to acknowledge the deep racism in the hearts and minds of so-called 'good' American, Christian people. It was 1945 and the war was coming to an end and lovely Gordon Heath played a black, American soldier who returns from war a hero, but in his native South, where his mother was a cleaning lady for a fine, old Southern family, he's just a nigger. I played a young girl, torn between the traditions of her upbringing and her desire and admiration for this noble, beautiful young man. It wasn't a great play, but it had great timing, and Kazan directed it beautifully.

"I want to be clear about something: Kazan drove me insane. I don't mean that he abused me, although at times it might have looked that way. He drove me so deep within myself to make a part and a play real and relevant that I sometimes left rehearsals--and performances--in tears and exhausted. Only Kazan led me to realize how powerful the theatre could be, and how potent and--forgive my dependence on this word--noble the art of acting can be.

"He made me address my own racism, which I could not believe resided in the heart of a well-raised girl with smart, so-called liberal parents, but it was there. I analyzed and scrutinized my character so deeply that I knew her better than I knew myself, and I crafted for her a biography that was quite extensive. I was good in that play; I earned the right to call myself an actress. Why? Elia Kazan. He taught me how to act.

"Kazan was really brutal to me during Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof]. I don't think anyone saw me as Maggie the Cat. Certainly, Roger Stevens didn't: he always looked at me as if I were a rash that just wouldn't clear up quickly enough. Everyone saw Maggie as beautiful and slinky and seductive, and I'm a bit of dumpling, well-meaning, the girl you marry but begrudgingly fuck. I get it. That's me. I can live with that--and have. Kazan, however, told me I was attractive, maternal, and he could see why Brick, a homosexual who marries only to quiet the family, would find me amenable. Kazan also knew that I had been a very fat child and fought my weight at all times. Kazan told me that he had known many former fat girls who had grown into beauties, and no matter how they looked in photographs and no matter how many beaux they gained, they still thought of themselves as fat and ungainly and unloved. 'Use that,' he told me, and again, I was a mess, because not only was I the fat girl, but I was the woman who was married to a gay man who hated her; who was fighting an avaricious and brilliantly manipulative family; who was determined never to be poor again; who was really fighting for her life. Kazan made me really live inside this woman's pathological fear, and it drove me crazy, but it also drove me to a good performance. 

"[Cat] is really a grand opera, I think. All the characters have their arias, and the notes are all very high and extreme. It's also exhausting, in the best sense of the word. You get fully used up in a play like that, with a director like that.

"Tennessee was always very dear to me: He insisted that he could see me as Maggie, and he always told me that he thought I was a good actress.  I know that Tennessee told everyone this, but I needed the compliment, and I took it, and I treasured it."

"I was in the presence, I think, of two great directors: Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock. Those men not only knew their craft, but they could convey it to everyone working with them so that we all became artists, crafts people of the highest caliber. Both men were very intelligent and intuitive and abrupt: They told you how to do it in a few words and made sure you were protected as you did it. And they were never wrong. The Hitchcock things I did [Vertigo and Lamb to the Slaughter, a Roald Dahl story adapted for his television program] and Cat and now Dallas, will be the things for which I'm remembered, but the work I did for Kazan and Hitchcock were when I was good, when I mattered.

"I loved the work of an actress, but I hated a lot of the life of an actress. The incessant publicizing, talking of oneself! You ask an actress how she's doing, and you want to hear about her family, what she's reading, and all you get is a rundown of her auditions, what she's doing next. The constant talk of casting, of whom one should know. I hated it all. I had a good mind and I wanted to read books and see films and opera and travel and take care of family and friends. I was apparently quite alone in this. I took great comfort in people like Joanne Woodward and Geraldine Page, who loved their families and kept their careers and their private lives separate and sacred. They handled it better than I did, obviously, because I just came across as impossible, difficult. A real bitch, I guess.

"Fame is nice, I suppose. It brings money and money brings freedom. I never thought I'd be a big star, and I wasn't, but I had enough seriousness about me that I always worked. When I got an Oscar nomination [for I Remember Mama, released in 1948] I was told I would never worry for work again, and I didn't, but it doesn't mean the work is always good, or that you're happy, or that you're treated well. The responsibility for our happiness and our worth come from within all of us, not from our work or what the business thinks of you, or what is happening in the trade papers. Maybe I went too far within myself, but I'm happy. I made the choice that was right for me, and I did alright.

  Ben Gazzara and Bel Geddes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

"I fell madly in love with Ben Gazzara in Cat. The work was so intense in the development of my character, my need was so strong for him, that I just lost it. Ben became my oxygen, my food, my sole reason for being. I don't think he thought I was crazy or really interested in loving him fully, but it gave our performances a brilliant, manic reality. I loved that time in  that play, with that company. I was very lucky. Ben was so fully alive. We had a nightly celebration that we were in such a great play having such a great time.

"At other times you develop a sort of gallows humor when you're in a play that simply doesn't work. That happened with Everything in the Garden, one of [Edward] Albee's misguided adaptations. What a mess that was! We were all so excited; well, I was excited. I had loved Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I was honored to be in one of his plays. Sad to discover that he cast me and Barry Nelson, actors who had starred in fluffy plays, simply to confuse the audiences. Albee is a terrific snob, and he and his producers wanted everyone to think they were coming to see a nice, suburban comedy, and then things became dark. The play was not well-written--it was a series of bitchy vignettes and attitudes. There was talk of Bette Davis playing a supporting part, but it went to divine, lovely Beatrice Straight. Beatrice, Barry,  Robert Moore, and I spent every night quizzical and beleaguered.  It didn't last long, thank God, and then I was off the stage for five years. Who knows? The world is so stupid now--they'll revive it and it will be called a masterpiece. Hitchcock used to say that the goal is to live so long that no one can argue with you. You fail and you don't matter and then you get your bearings again and do something brilliant, and suddenly things turn around for you. If I had the energy, maybe I'd work again, and I'm so old and sick now, have made so many mistakes and so many comebacks, they'd think I was Duse. I'll let you know when I'm ready for my close-up!


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