Got my mailing from the Stage & Screen Book Club, offering me a tantalizing number of selections. What most caught my eye was a book by John DiLeo called 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don't. The ad copy states, "Did Barbara Stanwyck give her peak performance in Double Indemnity -- or was she even better still in the small masterwork, Remember the Night?...This eye-opening book takes us beyond the obvious, revealing neglected or overlooked performances as great or greater than more highly applauded ones from the same stars. So no Scarlett O'Hara, Michael Corleone, or Margo Channing here."
Of course that started me thinking about the stage performances I've witnessed that nobody seems to mention anymore. At least movie fans can, for the most part, catch up with a lesser-known performance by renting or buying a video or DVD. But stage performances that weren't captured on film or video are, of course, impossible to resuscitate.
I'm going to try to make a list based on 42 straight years of intense theatergoing, though I'm not going to come anywhere near 100 (which may be a relief to many of you). I won't choose anyone who won or was nominated for a Tony Award; anyone can open the book of Tony winners and find that, for example, Maya Angelou is listed as Best Featured Play Actress for Look Away, a one-performance flop in 1973.
That said, I will break my rule in one instance. Unless you saw Zoe Caldwell in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie -- still, 35 years later, the best performance I've seen an actress give in a play -- you have no idea how astonishing she was. Please do not judge the character by Maggie Smith's pretentious, mannered, and thoroughly phony performance in the film. Yes, Smith won an Oscar, but as William Goldman said in The Season, "Any actress who plays this role is guaranteed to get screams by the final curtain." This megalomaniacal schoolteacher is a mesmerizing and maddening character, but Caldwell was in a league by herself in making Jean Brodie charming, as well.
Search through the Tony nominees and you won't find acknowledgment of Kay Medford's hilarious turn as Albert Peterson's mother in Bye Bye Birdie. We all know Medford as Fanny Brice's mother on stage and screen, and while she was wonderful there, believe me when I tell you that her droll, deadpan, buzzsaw voice was used to much better advantage as Albert's martyr-mama. It's also sad that Medford didn't get even a second on the cast album because her character had no song. This was also true of Thomas Mitchell in Hazel Flagg, who actually won a Tony, and Doug Henning in The Magic Show and Robert Morse in Say, Darling, both of whom were nominated. (Actually, Morse did record a few snippets of dialogue but RCA Victor couldn't or wouldn't fit them on the album.) One other performer who, more's the pity, didn't make the cast recording: Paul Ford in Whoop-Up. (Not the pianist we now know and love but the comic actor of yore.)
The year 1970 had three now-forgotten performances. First, Lewis J. Stadlen wasn't recognized for his Groucho Marx in Minnie's Boys, which caused so much commotion that the cast took out an ad in Variety to protest the decision. I could be wrong, but I've always believed that the Tony committee was too heavily influenced by Clive Barnes -- then the town's most important critic, for he was the reviewing for the New York Times. "Stadlen is remarkably good," Barnes said, before adding: "Whether he has any skills other than playing Groucho Marx, I hesitate to say." That, I suspect, put the idea in people's heads that Stadlen might be limited. Anyway, I'm happy that the actor's subsequent roles in The Sunshine Boys, Candide, and plenty more productions have proved otherwise. Right now, he's awfully good in the national tour of The Producers.
The same year, Shirley Booth didn't get nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for portraying a strong yet vulnerable, kind but demanding Mother Superior in Look to the Lilies. This was a real slap in the face because the Tony committee only nominated three performers in the category (Dilys Watling in Georgy, Katharine Hepburn in Coco, and eventual winner Lauren Bacall in Applause). When four performers are nominated and you're not in the bunch, you can at least convince yourself that there was a furious discussion in the nominating room and that you missed by an eyelash. But when only three are tabbed and you're left off, you can't get around the fact that the committee just didn't think you were good enough. Booth certainly was, and we don't even have a cast album to prove it. (Shame on you, Warner Brothers Records, for not recording the score as you originally said you would.)
Meanwhile, both Blythe Danner and Eileen Heckart were nominated for supporting actress Tonys for Butterflies Are Free. Danner won, but Heckart must have been assuaged two years later when she won an Oscar for repeating her stage role. Yet what of the play's leading man, Keir Dullea? He wasn't recognized and he had the really tough assignment, playing a blind young man who hadn't an ounce of self-pity about his affliction. He was so tender and adorable, no wonder that Danner's character fell in love with him and that Heckart, playing his mother, wanted to protect him from the world. What's more, it can't be easy to walk around a stage pretending to be blind and staring straight ahead all night long.
No one has a program that says, "Liza Minnelli in Chicago." No one has a picture of a marquee that says that, either. For when Bob Fosse asked Minnelli to take over Roxie Hart for six weeks until an ailing Gwen Verdon was herself again, Minnelli decided she wouldn't seek any publicity. Given that she started rehearsals on Tuesday, August 5, 1975 and began performances on Friday, August 8, 1975 -- and I saw her on Saturday, August 9, 1975 -- it's still, pro-rated, the best performance I've ever seen an actress give in a musical. Just think about Minnelli's voice, when it was in its prime, tackling the phrase "He loves me so" in "Funny Honey," and you'll be able to imagine what I mean. (By the way, you should have heard the audience get awfully quiet in the "Roxie" song when Minnelli talked about "not getting enough love in our childhood -- and that's show biz." It was too real a moment.)
I fondly remember Kate McGregor-Stewart in Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy (1982), playing the accusatory shrink who makes a mistake with a word and then, when she's questioned about it, immediately says, "I didn't mean that" -- somehow making it seem as if the other person made the mistake in not immediately knowing what she meant. While this performance in a short-lived show could easily have been forgotten, the good news is that the actress recently reprised it on the Fynsworth Alley audio recording. The back cover says she's now only known as Kate McGregor; I'm sorry that the marriage didn't work out but not at all sorry to find that, after more than two decades, she hasn't lost a whit of her edge.
There are, of course, many others. Diana Davila in Two Gentlemen of Verona. (Just the way she sang "Frankly, I don't even care for people" was world-weariness at its best.) Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives. (He was John Aubrey, a 17th century writer who talked non-stop, even when he sauntered off-stage to urinate in a pot. Then he re-entered, talking and talking as he walked to the other side of the stage, unaware that he was sloshing some of the urine out of the pot and onto the floor. Then he opened the door and cavalierly tossed out the pot's contents as he continued talking.) Patricia Drylie, as the best friend of Bea Asher (Dorothy Loudon) in Ballroom. (She showed concern and love of a deep, abiding sort that I can only wish your own best friends have for you.) Elizabeth Wilson in Morning's at Seven. (Her character lived with her sister and brother-in-law for years while loving the guy all the while.) And there was Nathan Lane in Love! Valour! Compassion! If rumors are to be believed -- and I'm not saying you should buy them, I'm just telling you what I've heard -- Lane decided not to do the film version because he didn't want to be typecast as a gay man. His loss, and ours.
What is the single most forgotten performance in modern theater history? I daresay it's the original Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple. Virtually every American can tell you that Jack Lemmon was F.U. in the movie and that Tony Randall essayed the part in the long-running TV series; but the first Felix was Art Carney, who played the fastidious fellow wonderfully well. How ironic that Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols wanted for their neatnik an actor who made his reputation as a character who worked in a sewer.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]