Kim Hunter returns to the stage as Mlle. Gabrielle in The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Kim Hunter had a major role in one of the most legendary theatrical productions of the 20th century: Elia Kazan's original, 1947 Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Karl Malden as Mitch, and Hunter as Stella--or, if you prefer, "S-T-E-L-L-A-A-A-A-H!!!" The last three named actors repeated their roles in the definitive 1951 film version of Williams' masterpiece, but Tandy was replaced by the more box-office friendly (and equally brilliant) Vivien Leigh.
Though Hunter won an Oscar for Stella, her film career after Streetcar was dampened by the hateful blacklisting of the McCarthy era; but she made a terrific, if unlikely, comeback as the simian Dr. Zira in the original Planet of the Apes (the one with Charlton Heston) and several of its sequels. Most recently seen on Broadway as Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband, her other Main Stem credits include Darkness at Noon, The Tender Trap, Write Me a Murder, and revivals of The Women and The Children's Hour. Now, she's back on stage in New York as Mlle. Gabrielle in the Colleagues Theatre Company production of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. The title role, a.k.a. Countess Aurelia, is being played by Anne Jackson, which is just fine with Hunter. (Jackson, by the way, replaced Eileen Brennan--the originally announced Aurelia--before rehearsals began.)
I spoke with Hunter a few weeks ago as she faced her return to the stage with mixed emotions.
THEATERMANIA: It's great to have you back on the boards.
KIM HUNTER: I'm curious and I'm excited and I'm nervous. I fractured my hip about a year ago, and I'm not still not walking all that well.
TM: An Ideal Husband was your latest Broadway show. Was that your last time on stage anywhere?
KH: Not quite; I did several things after. I did On Golden Pond at the New Jersey Rep with my husband, Bob Emmett. We had a wonderful time, but he got ill several months after that and he died in April 2000. It took me a while to get myself back together again.
TM: How long were you married?
KH: About 50 years.
TM: The wedding must have been around the time of the Streetcar film.
KH: Yes. We filmed it in 1950 or '51, I can't remember exactly. I know it was released in '51, but I think we made it in '50.
TM: I saw a screening of Streetcar at the Lincoln Center Library where you spoke and answered questions. There was a wonderfully funny moment when a young actor who was playing Stanley in some college production asked you a very specific question about how you and Brando decided to play a very specific moment of the script. You listened very attentively and then said, "Oh, sweetie, I don't remember!" I wonder, in general, what kind of level of recall you have of something that's truly an artistic landmark.
KH: I don't know. Certain things I remember very clearly and certain things, after a bit of time, they all sort of mush together. Streetcar was my Broadway debut and it was the first time I'd worked with Kazan. He was absolutely marvelous; I do think he was the best director I've worked with. It was a glorious experience because it was such a good play, thanks to Tennessee.
TM: Your film career hit a fallow period later in the '50s. I assume that's because you were affected by the blacklists.
KH: Oh, yeah. There were very few people who weren't affected by it.
TM: I've just finished Arthur Laurents' book, and it's interesting to read about how he struggled to justify his continued working relationships with people like Kazan and Jerome Robbins, who cooperated with HUAC.
KH: It was a vicious time. Lives were lost; several people did commit suicide. It was so painful and there was no way you could get around it. But, whatever anybody did, I didn't criticize one way or another. I certainly did not agree with those who protested when Kazan won his Oscar [for lifetime achievement]. That Oscar wasn't for anything other than his work, and his work certainly deserved it.
TM: So, you have no problem making that separation in your mind?
KH: No problem.
TM: Reams have been written about the film of Streetcar, but I want to ask you what it was like to play a script like that eight times a week on Broadway. Was it draining?
KH: Well, we played it damn near two years--two full seasons. It's always difficult with any play, no matter how good it is and how much you love it, to keep it fresh and alive from the first performance to the last. But that's the actor's job. It's not easy, by a long shot, but it doesn't make you want to stop doing theater.
TM: Nowadays, a two-year contract would be highly unusual if not totally unheard of. But it was the norm in those days, wasn't it?
KH: I guess so. Streetcar was my first show, so I don't know what the norm was. That was my contract.
TM: There was a considerable break between the end of the production on stage and the start of the film.
KH: Oh, yes, thank God--some space to be able to come back to it with a fresh mind and heart.
TM: And you had a new Blanche. Did that have a major effect on your performance?
KH: No, I don't think so. Jessie was my sister, but the film was different. It was really one of the best film experiences I've ever had because we were able to shoot in continuity; one rarely has that opportunity, due to budgets and what have you. But we had two basic sets that stayed up throughout the entire filming, so we could shoot in continuity--which made it much more pleasant from an actor's point of view, I must say. Also, we rehearsed all the way through: We had an area taped out on one of the stages for rehearsal. While the technical people were doing their jobs, we were doing ours. Vivien was a joy to work with, very dear. Of course, we all understood why she was brought over from London to play Blanche; she had played the part on stage in London. Everyone thought that the film would have no problem being an artistic success, but they sure wanted a financial success, as well. Vivien was well known to film audiences and Jessica wasn't; she hadn't done that much film work.
TM: I don't know if you're aware of this, but there exists a 1955 television clip from the Omnibus series of Tandy and her husband [Hume Cronyn] doing the end of the second act of Streetcar, where Blanche tells that incredible story...
KH: About her young man.
TM: Yes. It's pretty extraordinary.
KH: That scene as written was not allowed in the film. At the time, you couldn't even suggest the concept of homosexuality. Unfortunately, if you didn't know what the problem was and why the guy committed suicide, you didn't really understand Blanche's deep sense of guilt.
TM: It must have killed Kazan and Vivien Leigh not to be able to film the scene as written.
KH: Oh, you bet. It hurt all of us.
TM: If you'll allow me to switch gears, I must ask if you've seen the new Planet of the Apes.
KH: Oh yes, I saw the preview--I guess that's what they call it--here in town. There's some fascinating stuff in it, but I just didn't fall in love with it, you know? I'm sorry, I probably have no objectivity. I'm a bad person to ask about it.
KH: I knew the title; that was very familiar. But I'd never seen a performance, nor had I even read it until it was brought up to me to join the company. And it's a large company, indeed. It's great fun. I'm glad that Anne [Jackson] is playing the lead; Catherine Wolf and I are playing the secondary madwomen. We're only in the second act.
TM: A lot of us were intrigued at the thought of seeing Eileen Brennan as Aurelia. I'm not sure what happened there.