Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ladies on Stage

Once upon a time, you went to a Broadway play to see Broadway stars: not to see scenery, a Disney story, or a Name vaguely associated with a half-forgotten TV series or last year's "reality" show.

More than that, being a Broadway star was, in some existential way, being a Real Star (the last gasp of this fleeting situation is seen, of course, in All About Eve), one that could land you, say, on the cover of Time.

And in such good company.

The first of these three formidable profiles was at the time the greatest star and is today perhaps the least remembered. In her devotion to the stage, Katharine Cornell made only one film, as Herself, as if being Katharine Cornell were in itself such an all-consuming experience that it could be subsumed into character only on stage.

She was the quintessential Great Lady of the Boards, the ultimate expert at Entrances, Exits, Gracious Acknowledgement of the Audience, the Doubting Pause, and other necessities of her trade.

The lady in the middle is Dame Judith Anderson, so indelible as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca that her decades of triumph on stage are rather overshadowed. A little girl from Adelaide who made her way halfway 'round the world to New York and stardom in classical and modern drama, Anderson dabbled with more variety in films serious (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and less so (Lady Scarface).

As this superb portrait demonstrates, she had full command of all the trappings of Great Lady status, from beauty-marking to fur-wrangling. Where has such deft handling of Glamour gone?

Last but hardly least, and looking uncharacteristically swank in this portrait by Beaton, we have Miss Ruth Gordon, avocationally Mrs. Garson Kanin, who parlayed her years on stage into a late in life run as Beloved Oldster in films like Harold and Maude. Many of her coevals felt she rather overdid her Gleeful Granny shtick, but she clearly had a marvelous time, so what's the harm? She'd worked hard for it.

Oh, and why are these three amazons gracing the cover of Mr. Luce's little magazine? They were not only on Broadway - the were on Broadway together, in Chekhov.

Which makes the latest Mamet revivals seem a little bland, no?


  1. cheers! Wonderful post. I agree wholeheartedly. How DO you know so much?

    I am going to the comedie francais to watch a moliere piece...in french...gasp! I don't speak it, but I should be able to follow and concentrate on the acting and staging since I won't have to bother with the words. I am extremely excited...and guess what? Katy Holmes, or Reba McIntyre won't be in it to ruin the production.

    Oh, and by the way...I can rock a beauty mark and a fur stole...so it is still possible. Don't give up hope.

  2. Dame Judith Anderson's profile in the Time picture bears a strong resemblance to Cate Blanchett's...
    I bet the three of them together on stage was a far sight more powerful than the other set of three ladies together in "The Whales of August" !

  3. Oh, now - don't go dissing on Miss Gish! Those gals were old when they made that movie, and at least thank God they avoided most of Gordon's "being old is fun!" business in making it...

  4. My God! What a show that must have been!