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The light and the darkness

Charles McNulty is The Times' theater critic.

MENTION the name Kim Stanley (particularly to anyone not collecting Social Security) and you’re likely to hear, “Wasn’t she the one who played the sister in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’?”

After pointing out that Kim Hunter played Stella, you explain that Stanley was one of the most highly regarded actors of the 20th century, a figure comparable to Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando in the eyes of the theater cognoscenti. Well, if she was so great, why do people have such trouble placing her?

That nagging question is the subject of Jon Krampner’s “Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley.” This overdue book -- the first biography of the actress considered to be the finest practitioner of the “Method,” not just by Actors Studio peers but by their Freudian ringleader, Lee Strasberg -- is cause for celebration and despair.

For actors getting their start in the 1950s, Stanley represented, along with Brando, the pinnacle of the new psychological realism that was revolutionizing American acting by exploiting personal suffering to get at a character’s inner truth.

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A brief excerpt (all that remains, alas) of her performance in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” the role in which she triumphed on Broadway and that was later studiously copied by Marilyn Monroe in the movie version, reveals why she was the consummate actor’s actor.

What’s most striking in Stanley’s portrayal of Cherie is the way she captures the slightly bedraggled essence of a woman who has spent too much time inside seedy taverns to feign innocence, yet who hasn’t completely lost sight of the romantic yearning that set her on the road to showbiz, albeit as a tawdry “chanteuse.”

Stanley locates the humor in “Bus Stop” by revealing, moment to moment, her character’s human imprint. The result isn’t always flattering -- vulgarity occupies a large section of her palette -- but it’s incontestably accurate, almost documentary-like in the way the residue of stale bus air seems to hang on her skin with the same heaviness as her worn-out hopes. This is comedy not as broad caricature but as an encounter with a fellow sloppy soul whose irrepressible candor is the main source of our amusement.

Stanley’s art -- a naturalism shot with interpretive lightning -- influenced a generation through her Broadway work, live television drama and occasional movie roles, beginning in 1958 with “The Goddess” and petering out after “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” in 1964, for which she received a best actress Oscar nomination. (Though she could be glamorous, she was a little too raw for Hollywood tastes, which, to her credit and detriment, she had no desire to please.) Krampner’s book is valuable for the way it outlines her unorthodox career and for its insights into what made her such a hypnotic force.

The mystery surrounding Stanley’s personal life makes it difficult to pin down facts. A native of New Mexico, she sometimes claimed she grew up in Texas, fibbed about where she went to college and played fast and loose with other incidentals. A more rigorous biographer would no doubt have had more success. (Helen Sheehy, for example, manages to be more definitive in her recent account of the life of Eleonora Duse -- with greater research obstacles in her path.)

It’s not Krampner’s fault that he never saw Stanley perform onstage. No one much under the age of 60 would have had the opportunity. By 1965, Stanley had given up the theater, devoting herself to teaching as she struggled with alcoholism. Virtually none of her theater work has been preserved (this was before the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts videotaped Broadway shows). But Krampner’s thin discussion of her stage triumphs doesn’t do her legacy justice. Stanley flowered not only during what’s now called “the Golden Age of Broadway” but also in the brief heyday of live television drama, which is how Krampner, who wrote an earlier biography on the television producer Fred Coe, became interested in her. Much of what she did in this now-defunct medium is available. (Krampner includes a useful resource on where you can see her work, mostly at the Museum of Television and Radio and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.) An ideal starting point would be the 1958 TV version of Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady,” in which Stanley reprised the Broadway role that got her billing above the title as a reward for her ecstatic reviews, although it was the 1953 adaptation of Foote’s “A Young Lady of Property” that she, a harsh perfectionist, was most proud of.

Fortunately, a crucial stage performance was remounted and filmed for posterity in 1964 by Paul Bogart -- the Actors Studio production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” Critics aren’t known for intimate confessions, but I’ll admit to having rewound the scenes with Stanley’s galvanic Masha more times than should be considered proper. The pathos of her portrayal is like a confirmation of one’s most private reckonings. Strasberg’s direction is unsteady, but Stanley is sublime, matching Chekhov’s tragicomic wisdom with her own.

How could she have retired after such a feat of acting? The answer is complicated. The theater was always a torment for her -- she suffered from debilitating stage fright, not least because of what it cost her emotionally to achieve her desired level of intensity. What’s more, her drinking had escalated, she had begun putting on weight, and her fourth marriage wasn’t any more blissful than the previous three.

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But she was profoundly disappointed with Strasberg’s stewardship of the “Three Sisters” production, which made a disastrous appearance in England, where the Method actors were unceremoniously booed off the stage. (Vanessa Redgrave told me in a 2005 interview about the outrage she and her then-husband, Tony Richardson, felt at this provincial treatment of what was to her one of the great Chekhovian moments in the English theater.) Despite garnering praise in New York and the respect of those she respected, Stanley was devastated by the way in which this dream of an Actors Studio producing wing had been so manhandled by her mentor Strasberg, who to her mind, placed product and profit over all he stood for as a teacher.

This is where despair comes into play. Krampner sketches the degeneration of Stanley’s life, the nervous breakdowns that led to her eventual move home to New Mexico, followed by returns to New York and later Los Angeles, where she supported herself sporadically through private acting classes. Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard brought her out of retirement for such projects as the role of the mother in the 1982 film “Frances” (which earned Stanley her second Academy Award nomination), a colorful cameo in 1983’s “The Right Stuff” and Big Mama in the 1985 TV production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which won her a second Emmy.

The tale is one of deep psychological imbalance, professional self-sabotage and low-grade tragedy, and Krampner tells it with increasing impatience. He seems ultimately frustrated by his unredemptive narrative, the story of the most talented actress of her generation run aground by her “demons” -- a word that crops up far too often for a serious biography.

The reader, in turn, may begin to feel frustrated with Krampner. His investigation is incomplete -- access is denied him, leads go unpursued, and an air of uncertainty hovers over every step. Worse, his vision is too tentative to synthesize what he does manage to uncover. After reading “Female Brando,” one is tempted to conclude that Stanley suffered from some major psychiatric illness. Lacking evidence, the author stops short of such a conclusion, but he could have more fully connected the danger in her psychic life with the dangerous reality she created onstage.

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The obvious point is only glancingly addressed: Stanley, who died in 2001, was not only one of the most luminous exemplars of the Method but, in her blurring of private pain and public performance, she also may have been one of its casualties.


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