Polly Holliday: A Perilous Actress

The Hirschfeld caricature of Polly Holliday as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1990).

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

The playwright writes a play, and you have words and characters and situations, but it might very well be a paperweight or some other inanimate object that sits on my desk. Something—some people—have to possess it and bring it forward. My play—any play—is a door of sorts, and I fumble for the keys to open it, and a primary key is, of course, the director, but the most effective keys are actors, if only because there are more of them fiddling with the lock and because they alter their methods over the time a play is rehearsed and performed. A good actor brings forth so many wonders by means of relinquishing their biographies to a part, and when this gift is given, you can literally see the expansion of your characters and your play. This expansion forces you to revise and recalibrate, and this is my favorite process in production—the sharing and the growing. I don’t know if I will know this process again, but I cannot face the blank page, waiting for my characters, my biography, without replicating in some way this experience. I watch films and I watch television. I sometimes go to the theatre. I do what I can. You see this television set placed so close to my pad of  paper and my consciousness. I need stimulation. I need to have my door opened, if you will. There are actors in all sorts of situations who are opening doors and shedding light on characters and scripts, and I find them. Well, I search for them, and we know what the Bible tells us about seeking and finding. 

Polly Holliday as Flo, the iconic character she portrayed on the series Alice (1976-1980) and her own series Flo (1980-81).

There is an extraordinary actress always on the television: Polly Holliday. She is even named as if she were destined to be a character in one of my plays. I should have thought to have a Polly Holliday in one of my plays—the name is a celebration, a cup of spiked punch. I don’t know how else to say this, but she carries with her at all times a large club of honesty, so that even when she is asked to convey a ludicrous situation, she brings the club and shatters the badness: She lets in light with the force of her truth in character. Did you see her in the [Tad] Mosel thing? A Death All the Way Home, Bill Inge used to call it. No, not the original: It was done on television not long ago. Live, I think. It seemed live, or taped live. I say that because there was the emptiness and the dread of live performance when one actor fails to fill the space, cleave the air, with any honesty. This was not true of Miss Holliday: She carried her club and delivered one of the lines in that play that always worked for me: Something about faith and how the widowed mother will now need it as she only assumed she might. Something very Southern and rigid, but based in the honesty and the sense of right that women of that vintage believed. Honesty in all things, I believe, has anger as its base. This is certainly true, I think, in art; it is certainly true in my work. But I think it is true in all human interactions. Honesty is a light, a club, a means by which a thing or things that fail to work or to engage or to comply is forced to reveal something or someone in a way that can make some sense of a situation or a play or a life. The best actresses have a base of anger, and I don’t mean to imply that they are mad or unbalanced: They simply understand the human condition, the cat’s cradle of motivations and intentions and imbalances that make up the fellow human, and which infuse our lives. Maureen [Stapleton] certainly works from this base. So does Gerry [Page]. So, too, I think, does Polly. Life and art need to be grabbed by the neck and sorted out, straightened out, arranged in a way that invites understanding. The door does need to be opened, and the key to that door is a sensitivity to people, to the very rhythm of life and drama, and the key rests with a handful of actors. You could just knock down the door, I suppose. True, you get in the room or the play, but you’ve done damage, and the damned door is always open, exposing everything to things unknown. You can also approach the door and knock gingerly or demandingly, but in such an inept manner that no one opens it. You could approach it and polish it until it gleams, but if you’re not in the room, you’re not in the character, and you’re not in the play. I’m taking this analogy to doors and keys too far, I can see, but I need to make my point: The good actor is not a problem, is not inviting struggle or abuse or disrespect when he or she looks at your best intentions and wonders where the truth is. Let the actor find it. You have your truth; they have their truth. The two should meet. Let them play with the words and ask questions. Let them bring the club into the house and smash a few things. Let their light be cast into a few corners. This is perilous talent in the best sense of the word. Invite peril. Despite the happy name, Polly Holliday is a perilous actress.

Curtain call for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Holliday, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Kathleen Turner, Charles Durning, and Mary Jo Rupp. A dream realized by Holliday and for Tennessee.

© 2013 James Grissom


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