Saturday, April 25, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt eight)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Kazan’s other great contribution was to the play’s casting. His prowess secured Newman’s commitment to the production. For the bravura role of Princess Kosmonopolis, Kazan opted boldly “for the inner qualities” of Geraldine Page, an actress he “greatly admired” but who was no protection at the box office. As Alma Winemiller in José Quintero’s 1952 Circle in the Square revival of Summer and Smoke, Page had turned in an uncanny performance that had made the name of the star, the director, and the play. “Miss Page is not the kind of actress who waits to give a performance on opening night,” Quintero wrote in his memoir, If You Don’t Dance They Beat You. “She plunges into her role at the very first reading. It’s almost as if she wanted to forget herself as Miss Page and utilize everything that she owns to become the character that she is playing.” Casting her was a brilliant decision, one that Williams had questioned. “I think it may demand more power and technique than a young actress like Geraldine could give it,” he worried to Crawford, who agreed at first. “The Princess is a pretty cosmopolitan character and I would still be better satisfied with Page if I first heard Margaret Leighton, Vivien Leigh, Eileen Herlie and Edwige Feuillère and maybe even Siobhán McKenna,” Williams wrote to Wood, adding, “It’s a virtuoso part, demanding great stature, stage presence, power, vocal richness and variety, and so forth, but Gadg, we have to remember, has a genius for casting, second to no one’s.”

Kazan maintained that “consanquinity”—by which he meant being American—was a very important factor in casting the role. Still, Page struggled at first to locate the ravaged emotional geography of Princess Kosmonopolis’s character. In preparation Kazan gave her a collection of photographs of silent-film stars and asked her to consider which one her Princess might have been. Page discounted Greta Garbo as too remote, with a coolness that was not indigenous to the Princess’s combustible nature. She discarded Mary Pickford, and her trajectory from sweetheart to diva, as a lazy choice. She was tempted by the steaminess of Theda Bara and the sassiness of Clara Bow. But in the end, she chose the complexity of Norma Talmadge, who seemed to have “an air of great vulnerability, as of someone who would greet everything and everyone with a spontaneous open-heartedness, and I was very touched by it,” she explained. “I felt the shocks and hurts that would fall full force on a heart like that could turn someone into a complicated, volatile phenomenon like the Princess.”

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