Sally Kirkland: An Exemplary Extremist


Shelley Winters judged herself as an actress by the column inches she inspired, by the awards on her mantel, by the laughs she got on Johnny Carson, by the lovers she entertained, and the carbohydrates she consumed. She judged herself as a person by the comments of coaches and analysts and trance channelers. “I don’t know what my feelings mean,” she confessed to me. “I think I’m very emotional and quick to feel and to judge, and if I don’t have these filters--Tenn calls them support systems or myths, but I think of them as filters--then I honestly don’t know how I should feel or proceed or behave. Someone smarter than I am will have to determine what that says about me, but all I can tell you is that the way I’ve been living and feeling and thinking about things has worked for me. Am I perfect? Hell, no. But I’ve done a great deal of what I set out to do.”

One of the wisest things Winters ever did, in Tenn's estimation, was to adopt, as both a spiritual daughter and an acting student, the young actress Sally Kirkland. 

   Winters adored and sheltered and cosseted Sally Kirkland, the daughter of a Main Line Philadelphia businessman and Sally Kirkland, Sr., the fashion editor of, among other publications, Life and Vogue magazines. Raised in comfort and armed with a sense of entitlement that impressed Tenn, Kirkland began studying at the Actors’ Studio while still in her late teens, pushed into its environs by Shelley Winters, who vouched for her. Kirkland worked in repertory companies, lofts, and workshops; camped out in the Village
and spent time with Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol and his entourage; burned herself out and found herself on the ledge of a building in 1966, ready to leap to her death. Due to an injury that had affected her hearing and her sense of balance, Tenn believed, on first seeing her in a class at the Actors’ Studio, that she was drunk or stoned. When Tenn inquired about the young girl, pretty and nervous, Lee Strasberg told him that she was “wonderful,” like a “kitten that has been kicked almost to death, its limbs hanging by threads, and yet she keeps coming when called.” Watch, he exhorted Tenn, and then called out Sally’s name. She came to Strasberg, Tenn said, and kissed his hand.

   “There is about these raw girls,” Tenn told me, “a need to belong, to submit. Give them a lesson plan, a reason to get up in the morning, goals, and they will meet them. They will come to you at the end of the day and seek your approval. They need to be allowed to grow as artists, not to be stunted as servants.”

   Tenn was impressed by Kirkland’s work, even in plays and films he deplored, even as Kirkland appeared, fully nude, atop a pig, and became a star, of sorts, of both off-Broadway and of skin magazines, where her image appeared for years. “My mother,” Kirkland liked to boast, “told everyone what to put on their bodies, and I took everything off of the body.” There was in her work, even in meretricious material, an honesty and a purity that Tenn admired. Dictating to me notes for a profile piece he hoped to write about what Sally Kirkland titled  “Extremity,” Tenn said "The artist lives--or should live--in a perpetual state of extremity. This is harsh and frightening territory, but it is where art and magic and wonder exist, so we continually head for it if we are brave and generous and
curious and dissatisfied with the answers we've been given to the big questions. My life, and the lives of others, doesn't mean anything to me if I can't throw them in a sort of artistic relief, at which point I can see the outlines, the shadows, the curve or the arc of a life, a moment, a memory. My life is defined by the sounds and smells and images that existed at particular moments in my life, moments of emotional extremity, and I can only make sense of them if an artist, a creative extremist, can remind me of my mother--how she smelled, how she sounded, what was on her radio when she died--and allow me to gain a necessary objectivity to write about my life. All of our lives need this definition. It is why we need and crave the many manifestations of art, which is to say extremity.

     “Sally Kirkland is an exemplary extremist. She is openly and fearlessly questioning her life, her place, her meaning. She is searching for her relief images on the wall that is provided by a text or a screen or a stage, saying 'Here I am. Make of this life, this interpretation, what you will,' and we bring our histories and our fears up to her--her altar, I suppose, of offerings--and we can begin to understand. We need the extremists, and you need to be extreme, and you need to be strong, and the road awaits you."

  



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