Brando on Kim Stanley: Dangerously Exposed
There is a great deal of Kim Stanley in Follies of God, and I have left the material covered in those pages untouched here. I have decided, instead, to let Marlon Brando speak of this gifted actress, unedited, free, from a phone call in July of 1990.
I would imagine that I am asked about Kim Stanley more than any other actress. The questions come from my peers and from students, all of whom are curious about her talent, her personality, her myth, really, because so few people actually saw her work, given the enormous respect and interest shown to her. The myth, I think, is larger than the body of people who would like to talk--and should talk--about what she gave to a part, what she took from herself to make the work the best it could be. I think that is the discussion to have--not the discussion about her problems, all of which, I need to add, I have faced myself.
Both of us were horrible stewards of the talent we were given--not to mention the fragile receptacles in which it was placed. I do not know what Kim's demons are, and I don't care: No one really should care. The work is what should be studied, not the patient who crafted it.
I liked and respected Kim, but we were not friends, although we had a closeness each time we were together. She had no problem asking my advice or offering hers, and what we told each other was similar: We both believed that the other was committed to inferior work, elevating what might not deserve our attention and our commitment. Kim also criticized me for not returning to the stage, even as she conceded that there was nothing that should compel me to go back. She wanted me for The Three Sisters, but I was not about to enter that den. There was corruption in that palace.
The regret among so many of the friends I shared with Kim--and I'm thinking mostly of Vivian Nathan, an actress Kim called the best unknown actress in America--was that she declined so many challenges from so many gifted directors. Tyrone Guthrie, Elia Kazan, Tony Richardson, John Dexter all offered her opportunities that would have allowed her great gifts to shine, but she found comfort, I guess, in mediocre plays in which she burned with brilliance, surrounded by cast members who disappeared in her light.
What was so remarkable about Kim? When she was truly focused and properly challenged, she had the ability to transmit the reality of human agitation, anguish, elation, concentration better than anyone else. There was a sense of embarrassment in watching Kim when everything worked, because you felt you were violating the confidences of a vulnerable woman, reading the pages of a diary carelessly left open for other eyes. In a play like Picnic, which is sloppy and sentimental, she was very real as an awkward, unfulfilled teenager. How old was she? Thirty? Almost thirty? She seemed to be fourteen, rubbed raw, unable to stand straight, adjusting the body she hated and from which she could derive no pleasure. She was brilliant.
The Freud play [A Far Country] was not a good play, but it was a good vehicle for her: She blazed through the part, and she literally shone; her emotions were dangerously exposed, almost close enough to transmit energy, dangerous energy.
She had the effect--on me, at any rate--of peeling layer after layer apart, from her soul outward, and this must have been exhausting: It was exhausting for audiences when her energy or her ardor were waning: She was brilliant in moments of The Three Sisters when I first saw it, and then a mess when I returned. She apologized for the performance when I saw her after, but she was unable to harness her talents, her energy, her thoughts--both onstage and off. It is a terrible condition, and I share it, but one is cosseted somewhat on film sets, while Kim, on a stage, had nothing to shield herself or her audiences from her failures, her stumbling.
She is a brilliant actress who was tragically denied a long career--a career deserving of her talent. Her film work will save her reputation, I think: Nothing like the honesty and intense emotional gambling in which she engages in The Goddess and Seance [on a Wet Afternoon] had been attempted before: It was dangerous acting, and she was remarkable. Any deficiencies I confidently bestow upon her directors, neither of whom knew how to handle her or appreciate her or amplify her. She called me about both scripts, and I don't know if she was shooting, or merely at home studying the scripts, but she was very concerned about veracity and detail. She emphatically did not want to exploit her own emotional history or baggage, but was willing to use it to clarify her characters. She did not want or take the easy way out in creating a character, in sharing herself, but she often worked with people who did not respect or understand her commitment, and their laziness undercuts her work. You see this most clearly in The Goddess, where a genius, a new Duse, is surrounded by hacks and journeymen.
I would do Kim a dishonor, I think, if I pitied her. I am always asked if I feel bad about what happened to her. I can empathize with her life and her choices, because I recognize so much of myself in her. I cannot pity her over her career or her roles, because so much of that is chance, luck, idiotic last-minute revisions. The past is gone, yes, but the past is full of Kim's brilliance, and I think we--I think you--need to remind people of what they didn't see and can't understand. When people ask about Kim, I talk about things that no longer exist, in my opinion: passion, genius, truth, danger, fearless exploration. Maybe someone like Kim wasn't meant to last long on the stage--it may be too much for most to handle. She was beyond virtually everyone she met, worked with, loved, endured.
Many an actor walks--lamely, I might add--in lanes she hacked free, cleared, paved, and then left, and they have not been suitably tended since.
Authors Note: I was able to share these thoughts with Kim in 1992, first by mail and then in person, in Los Angeles. Her response will be in a future post.