Anita Gillette: Vicious Intersections

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

There is something that must be understood, and once you come to understand this, you will look upon those who work in the arts--particularly in our theatre--in an entirely different way. I would like to think that you will have a greater sense of kindness.

I was once of the mind that people crafted their careers, if only by being talented, by training, and by behaving in a professional manner. By showing up and doing the right things, if you will.

I was terribly wrong about this.

You are terribly wrong about this.

Don't say of a particular actor or actress: They should have had a particular career, or they should have only played certain roles.

The actor has no control at all over the trajectory of their career, other than to relinquish it entirely.

There are intersections in the arts: The intersection of ability and desire; the intersection of luck and light; the intersection of taste and timing.

These are vicious intersections.

When I was putting together the one-act plays that ultimately comprised Slapstick Tragedy, I made it clear--or so I thought--to Chuck Bowden [one of the play's producers] that I wanted two things: Alan Schneider to direct, as he had had great success with the plays of Edward's [Albee] and he had been wise enough to cast Buster Keaton in some works by [Samuel] Beckett. I felt he might understand the black insanity, the gruesome karma of the plays I had written.

I wanted talented women with a flair for comedy, who could then be devastated by what life and my prose was doing to them within the confines of these two plays. I wanted laughs and I wanted shock: I wanted to really rattle the audience, as I had rattled the women who populated these plays.

I was talking about Carol Burnett and Martha Raye and Anita Gillette, and Alan Schneider--trim and cute and snide, in his little baseball cap--looked at me as though I were quite mad: Madder than I happened to be in that time.

I tried to make clear that these were talented women, and I wished to place them at an intersection that was new to them: The intersection of comedy and tragedy, which I felt they could maneuver brilliantly.

I was decidedly ignored.

I adore Zoe Caldwell, Kate Reid, and Margaret Leighton: These are the brilliant actresses who were ultimately cast in the play, and, I hasten to add, poorly served by me and by Alan Schneider. I didn't fight enough, and Alan fought all the wrong battles. I think Zoe threatened to quit every other day; Kate walked off to drink; Maggie dreamed and hummed and smiled her lovely smile, all the while making other plans.

The play was a failure, even as I admire what those women did.

But...if only I had gotten the cast I had wanted.

I began admiring Anita Gillette very early in her career. Joshua Logan asked me to see her in one of his musicals. Josh was very confused and frightened at this point in his life and career--something I now understand--and he needed to be affirmed and comforted. I told him the truth: The shows were puerile but the girl was good. Others were good, as well, but they were what I would call competent, whereas Miss Gillette had a portent about her.

When she took over the role in Carnival, she played the part with little of the bravado one normally finds in such roles: She played the truth, and when she walked on that stage with a little piece of paper, littered with directions, she appeared utterly lost and utterly real, adrift. She was musically ideal, but she also happened to be real, so the musical meant a great deal more to me than it had when there was merely a performance at the center of it.

As Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

You see Anita Gillette came into my consciousness in the 1960s, a dark time for me, but there is nothing dark about her—at least insofar as her stage persona is concerned: She is very bright, very sharp, very detailed. She was very funny,  in a stylishly distressed fashion, for Woody Allen, and she was a funnel of truth burrowing her way through some very odd, disconcertingly bad musicals through which I was asked—begged—to sit for the mental comforts of Josh Logan.

We do things for friends and we are rewarded, for I feel that Anita Gillette is a reward.

I became aware of just how good an actress she is when I saw her in John’s [Guare] play Rich and Famous. Now I’ve told you how much I love John—his magpie brain and his maddeningly devious way with characters—and I went there to support him, and I happily did, but I was most moved by the sincerity and the passion of Miss Gillette. Why had there been no such parts for her in the past? What does the theatre profit by allocating to particular talents particular parts, routes of expression?

That is another discussion.

She is a fine actress. She would understand Slapstick Tragedy, my sad little failure of a play in which I continue to believe. 

Amanda, as you know—from me—did have those beaux, she did bewilder and charm those men on many lakes on many nights, and now she curdles and sighs in that St. Louis tenement. I wonder at what Miss Gillette might do—with some age and some weight—with Amanda.

The brightest girls are capable, as I’m sure you know, of taking us down the darkest boulevards.


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