When an actress with that something extra appears, something happens to your senses. You know that their instinct is guiding them and you’re aware of unexpected nuances. This gift is referenced in both All About Eve (1950) and A Star is Born (1954). There are some actors who have this gift, but the following women all have that something extra, because they are born natural actresses.
Kim Stanley (1925-2001)
Regarded as the “female Brando,” many who knew her have elevated her to theatrical sainthood. Her stage performances in A Far Country, Three Sisters, Bus Stop and The Traveling Lady are still revered, but her remarkable performance as Rita Shawn, the fragile movie star in The Goddess, is simply one of the greatest film performances of all time.
The Actress Takes New York
Stanley was born Patricia Reid in New Mexico, but moved to New York in the late 1940s, where she studied with Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and Vivian Nathan at the Actor’s Studio. She was almost immediately cited by the critics and won the Theater World Award in 1952 for her performance in Horton Foote’s The Chase. She starred in the original productions of two William Inge plays: Picnic and Bus Stop. She created the role of Sara Melody in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, and the role of Maggie in the original London cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Kim Stanley was one of the first performers to realize the importance of television, and IMDb lists more than 50 credits, including a renowned adaptation of Three Sisters, co starring Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis, produced by the Actors Studio. She received an Emmy for her performance as Big Mama in the 1984 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Her final acting appearance).
Stanley’s work in film is limited, but it always leaves an impression. In The Goddess (1955) Stanley plays Rita Shawn, a character modeled after Marilyn Monroe. In spite of fame and fortune, she can’t overcome the difficulties of her childhood. No one can ever forget the incredible scene at her mother’s funeral. Surprisingly, this extraordinary portrayal wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
She narrates To Kill a Mockingbird, and she’s scary-good as the sinister medium in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Sadly, when Joshua Logan made Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe played Stanley’s role and Kim Novak replaced her in Logan’s film of Picnic. (At the time, it was determined that Stanley was too old for the roles she’d created onstage).
The Actor Becomes the Teacher
Kim Stanley spent much her later life in the classroom, teaching acting in New York, Los Angeles and finally in Santa Fe. Her role as Frances Farmer’s fanatical mother opposite Jessica Lange in Frances brought her an Oscar nomination. The viewers’ eyes are on Stanley’s turn as pioneering aviatrix Pancho Barnes, later owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, so popular with pilots in The Right Stuff.
Kim Stanley was married 4 times and she had three children. She passed away from uterine cancer at the age of 76, and 11 years later was inducted into the New Mexico Entertainment Hall of Fame.
My first awareness of Elizabeth Ashley was from a Hirschfeld drawing in a Best Plays Yearbook. It was from Barefoot in the Park, and I was immediately drawn to her eyes. The Florida-born (1939), Louisiana-raised actress came to New York in the 1950s, studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and won her first Tony for her performance in Take Her, She’s Mine, a role based on a young Nora Ephron (played by Sandra Dee on film).
A year later, Ashley created the role of newlywed Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. Her co stars were Robert Redford, Mildred Natwick, Kurt Kasner and Herb Edelman and the show became Neil Simon’s first in a long string of smash hits.
Ashley radiates such energy, that it adds a positive and refreshing charge to her screen performances. In Ship of Fools, for example, where she plays George Segal’s lover, she outshines such co-stars as Vivien Leigh, Oskar Werner, Jose Ferrer, Michael Dunn, Lee Marvin and Simone Signoret!
Following a first marriage to James Farentino, Ashley met her second husband, George Peppard on the set of The Carpetbaggers. The Harold Robbins novel was based loosely on the life of Howard Hughes, with Ashley’s role a composite of three women in his life: Gene Tierney, Jane Russell and Jean Peters. Following their marriage, Ashley retired from acting for several years to devote herself to her husband and her son, Christian.
Return to Broadway
She was lured back onstage by the role of Maggie in a successful 1974 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She followed this with roles in Agnes of God, two revivals of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, as well as Enchanted April, August: Osage County, Dividing the Estate and most recently a revival of You Can’t Take It with You. She was also a featured regular on Burt Reynolds’ TV series, Evening Shade.
As of this writing, Elizabeth Ashley can be seen on screen in Oceans 8. If you can find her autobiography (evidently out of print), Actress: Postcards from the Road, it’s a hilarious joyride.
Nothing has held Shirley Knight back. She’s equally at home on stage, screen or TV. Like Stanley, Knight is a member of the Actors Studio. She and co-star Al Freeman, Jr., made an impression when they appeared off-Broadway in LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)’s controversial first play, Dutchman. As the unbalanced, talkative Lula, Knight was singled out.
She won a Tony Award for her performance in Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children. Other Broadway appearances were in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body and Come Back, Come Back Wherever You Are by Arthur Laurents.
Both a natural actor and a natural beauty, Shirley Knight was nominated for the Oscar twice, both for film versions of plays: Inge’s Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. She plays the adulterous Polly in the film of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, alongside Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Jessica Walter and Elizabeth Hartman. Other film works include Endless Love, As Good as It Gets, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and a hilarious turn in Grandma’s Boy.
Knight has countless television credits, but perhaps her most memorable performance is that of Maria Mandel, a top-ranking Nazi Official at Auschwitz in Playing for Time. Written by Arthur Miller, and featuring Vanessa Redgrave as Fania Fenelon, Jane Alexander and Melanie Mayron, it is the story of Fenelon, a singer and pianist whose participation in the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz prolonged the lives of these women.
A subplot of the story is that of Mandel, who takes a little boy, planning to raise him for her own, only to find that, unbeknownst to her, he’s vanished and is presumed dead. Playing for Time is filled with unforgettable performances, but Knights is among the best.
Shirley Knight was married twice, first to actor and producer Gene Persson and then to John Hopkins. One of her daughters is an actress and the other is a teacher.
I’m always recommending movies to people because they offer great acting lessons. With The Goddess, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Frances, The Right Stuff, The Carpetbaggers, Ship of Fools, Sweet Bird of Youth, Grandma’s Boy and Playing for Time, it’s not difficult to see the fine work of Kim Stanley, Elizabeth Ashley and Shirley Knight, three women whose talents surpass those overrated, but lesser talented performers who think they are actors these days.