Geraldine Fitzgerald: Beautiful and Economical

Tennessee Williams
Interview with James Grissom
New Orleans

I was at the movies all the time for a number of years. I owe any ability I may have at creating a narrative to all those movies, all those air-driven calendar pages flipping by, all those wipes, all those Miklos Rozsa crescendos alerting an audience to an emotional shift. 

I'm a movie man.

There was such a richness of character in those movies--all those fascinating character actors. I fell in love with Geraldine Fitzgerald in Dark Victory and Wuthering Heights. So much intelligence in every move, and so much detail. Her acting is like a knife in that it is so sharp and gleaming and capable of cutting all that is extraneous. I can't think of a time in those films--and in all the work I've seen her do since--when there was even an ounce of superfluous detail: She sticks that knife--that dagger--of talent right into the heart of whatever part she's playing. And then she's done.

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939).

It is so perfect that she should be cast as the voice, the carriage, the eyes of reason in Dark Victory. Bette [Davis] is without reason--all energy and impulse and artifice, until the shade falls eternally over her life, and she mounts those stairs. Throughout that film--so silly and so sublime--Geraldine was the rock upon which Bette could flail so beautifully. You need a Bette Davis--I would hate a world that had not invented her--but you also need the rock that keeps her from falling away from her own poor intentions, and Geraldine was that rock.

I think Geraldine has everyone's number, including mine. She is immune to flattery, for instance, and waves me away when I wish to praise her. She shares this trait--among other things--with Carrie Nye. I think--I know--that it is terribly difficult to be talented and intelligent and keep trying to work in films and the theatre. And if you don't think what you just wrote down isn't the saddest thing you've ever heard, then I don't know what to do with you.

Think about it.

And then proceed.

Geraldine did something quite astounding when she was Mary Tyrone [in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, in 1971]: She applied not one jot of sentimentality to the characterization. She played it straight out, utterly true, truth be told. No one in my experience has ever felt bold enough to do this. Most actresses feel compelled to humanize or sweeten that character: They beg for forgiveness for her sins before they've even been categorized or confessed. Not Geraldine. She walked out--naked and blunt--and presented the woman as is. It was shattering.

You know how I told you that O'Neill and I broke the hymen on twentieth-century drama and Stephen Sondheim broke the hymen on twentieth-century musicals? Well, Geraldine Fitzgerald broke the hymen on Mary Tyrone, and I think it's probably grown back over by now, because the Marys are getting sweeter and sweeter and sadder and sadder. Geraldine's was true.

If you meet her, don't call her Gerry. She's too big for that diminutive.

She was on television a couple of years back. She was dying, and she wanted to die, but her son wouldn't allow it, and kept promising nostrums and elixirs, and she only wanted to get back to her garden and her memories and the photographs on the wall. It was a good program, but all that mattered was the final scene, in which Geraldine rested in bed and her gaze looked over the room and the photographs, and you saw a serenity soften that beautiful, intelligent face. She grew marsescent before your eyes. Beautiful and economical. [The program was Lou Grant, and Fitzgerald's episode was entitled Dying.]

In the 1944 film Wilson.
© 2014 James Grissom

Coming Soon: Tenn on Geraldine Fitzgerald as Amanda Wingfield.


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