The last time I saw Arthur Laurents, he sat in the row in front of me during an opening at The George Street Playhouse — a theater where he felt very much at home. He was with several people who were at least six decades his juniors. Arthur had them in stitches; he told them one story after another and they hung on every word and then exploded in laughter.
Arthur died yesterday at the age of 93, and I’m glad my last memory of him is the animated man with the sharp-edged wit holding the attention of yet another generation.
I got to know Arthur through numerous encounters at George Street, whose impresario, David Saint, was his colleague and close friend. Arthur, a writer and director, introduced a couple of his more recent plays at George Street, and he was sometimes there just as a member of the audience.
Arthur was blunt, and some folks didn’t like him on that account, but in a world in which obfuscation is the norm, some of us found that refreshing – especially when his bluntness was directed at hypocrisy or intolerance of any sort.
As a friend and I were reminding each other this morning, Arthur had a knack for making every conversation seem personal — a quality not always found in people of his stature.
Arthur was blackballed during the McCarthy era, and he remained angry at his peers who had cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee — not the least of them being Elia Kazan, who had “named names.” But Arthur picked his spots. I bumped into him at George Street one day in 2003, and I mentioned that Kazan had died not long before. “Yes,” Arthur said. “He was a great director.”
September 5, 2010
Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.
I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.
Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge. This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.
I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The Vinegar Tree.”
She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.
I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.
“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”
And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”
Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.
August 28, 2010
We watched “Summertime,” a 1955 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossanno Brazzi, inspired — if I remember right — by the fact that it was shot entirely on location in Venice. In that respect, it was no disappointment. The photography took full advantage of the city.
The premise of the movie is that Jane Hudson (Hepburn), an executive secretary from Akron, Ohio, is vacationing in Venice. It is clear from the beginning that Jane leads a life devoid of excitement and that she came to Venice with the vague hope — accompanied by a vague fear — that something extraordinary will happen to her. The “something,” which anyone would have deduced from the opening credits, is Renato de Rossi (Brazzi), a Venetian shopkeeper with a complicated domestic life.
After what seems like an interminable buildup, during which Jane’s discomfort as a solo act in Venice is excruciatingly developed, she and Renato have a couple of chance meetings in which Jane’s skittish reaction to him is difficult to understand. At last their acquaintance flourishes until it is consummated in something that couldn’t be shown on the screen in 1955 but was ably represented by fireworks exploding over Venice while one of Jane’s new red shoes lies forsaken on the balcony of Renato’s apartment.
I won’t be a spoiler, but let’s just say there won’t be an opening for a secretary in Akron.
We found this film worth watching, but it’s got its flaws. One is that the transitions in Jane’s moods from one scene to the next are rather abrupt in a couple of cases. That might be a function of a larger problem, which is that this movie is largely about Jane’s interior life, but we don’t get much of a look at that. We don’t know why this woman, whom Renato finds irresistible, was incapable of finding romance without coming to Venice.
This film was based on “The Time of the Cuckoo,” which is a play by Arthur Laurents, who — among other things — wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” I haven’t seen that play, but it ran on Broadway in 1952-53 and won a best-actress Tony award for Shirley Booth, who played the character originally named Leona Samish.
I do know Arthur, though, and I have seen several plays he has written more recently. His work displays a great deal of insight into the human psyche — maybe I should say the human soul — particularly where love is concerned. I suspect Jane is more understandable in the play.
I have read that the makers of this film didn’t like Arthur’s screenplay and hired another writer to monkey with it. If so, I don’t think they did the audience any favors.
“There is only one pure state of acting … that you don’t know what you’re going to say.” — Shirley Knight
October 6, 2009
This story is based on an interview I had with Shirley Knight for the Home News Tribune and the Asbury Park Press.
NEW BRUNSWICK: Shirley Knight is in the cast of Arthur Laurents’ new play, but she will not give a single performance.
The actress — a Tony and Emmy winner and an Oscar nominee — will appear at George Street Playhouse in Laurents’ drama “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are.”
She will create the role of Marion, a psychological therapist who — along with the other four characters in the play — is trying to cope with the implications of the death of her charismatic son, Paolo.
The others are Sara, a professional singer — played by Alison Fraser — who was married to Paolo for 27 years; Richard — played by John Carter — who was Paolo’s father; Michelle — played by Leslie Lyles — Paolo’s disaffected sister; and Dougal — played by Jim Bracchitta — who competes with Paolo’s lingering influence as he courts Sara.
Laurents, 92, who will direct this production, has woven into the play both the kind of introspective and unblinking discourse that has characterized most of his works and an underlying conviction that love is the most important factor in a human life.
The playwright, who has recently directed the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the book, has introduced several plays and dozens of new characters on the George Street stage.
As Shirley Knight gives life to one of his newest characters, she said, she will approach the opportunity with a mindset that is necessary if Marion is to be spontaneous and, therefore, credible.
“I never give a performance,” the 73-year-old actress said. “Each night, I have another rehearsal. And that is essential because if you just do a rerun of what you did the night before or the week before or on opening night, it would be unbelievably boring.”
When she appears onstage at any time during the run of this play, Knight said, she won’t be acting Marion so much as she will be Marion. And that will mean that she won’t anticipate what will occur, no matter how many times she has heard it.
“There really is only one pure state of acting,” she said, “and that’s that you don’t know what you’re going to say, you don’t know what you’re going to do. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do. You don’t know where the play is going. You have to do a play as if you haven’t read the play.
“Now, of course, you have read the play — but you cannot be in that state of knowing. You have to be in the state of going absolutely from moment to moment.”
The actress has honed this approach in 35 stage plays over the past five decades. She has also appeared in 49 films, 162 television productions, and a dozen radio dramas.
While she was engaged in this busy career, Knight — who holds a doctorate in fine arts — also managed to have a family life. Her husband, John R. Hopkins, was a prominent film and television writer. She has two daughters — actress-singer Kaitlin and TV-stage writer Sophie.
“Kaitlin at the moment is doing something different,” Knight said. “She just finished a year’s tour of “Dirty Dancing,’ and she has taken over the theater department at Texas State University. My youngest daughter (Sophie) is writing plays and teaching school in Los Angeles. She has her master’s from Columbia in English and fiction writing, and now she wants to teach.”
From her own prolific and varied career, Knight can mention several high points, though she seems to have a special place in her heart and memory for “Dutchman,” a 1967 film she produced, an adaption of a play by Amiri Baraka about the explosive relationship between a coarse, racially biased young white woman and a mild black man.
The play won Knight the Volpi Cup as best actress at that year’s Venice Film Festival, and “Dutchman” was named best film of the year at Cannes.
“We shot it in five days,” she recalled. “It was on a shoestring. In the year 2000 when the Whitney Museum did “Great Art of the 20th Century,’ the only film they showed about civil rights was “Dutchman.’ That made me very happy.”
September 23, 2009
I know what I want to be when I grow up — Arthur Laurents. I bumped into Arthur today at the George Street Playhouse where his latest play, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” will have its premiere next month. I was at the playhouse to interview Shirley Knight, who is rehearsing for this production.
I told Arthur I just finished reading his recent book “Mainly on Directing,” and he said, “I’m just starting to write a new book. It’s called ‘The Rest of the Story,’ and the first line is: ‘You have to know who is telling the story.’ ” The title is a reference to the book he published in 2001, “Original Story.” The first line, I’m sure, is a reference to the fact that Arthur Laurents regards himself as a work in progress, a person always evolving, always acquiring new insights, new ways to look at the theater, at life, and especially at love.
The thing is, Arthur is 92 years old. He just directed the Broadway Revival of “West Side Story” — for which he wrote the book — he has had a new play at George Street for at least the last three years in a row, he is writing a new book when the ink isn’t dry on the old one. And he’s 92 years old.
That’s what I want to be when I grow up.
When I’m 92. Still working, still learning, still thinking — as Pablo Casals said in his 90s — that “I’m making progress.”
April 23, 2009
I learned the other night that Arthur Laurents, who wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” is a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. That’s one more notch in the belt of a school that has been serving students in Brooklyn since 1786. I learned of it while reading the playbill at the George Street Playhouse, where Arthur’s latest work, “New Year’s Eve,” is having its world premiere. Arthur is 91, which may say something about the good old Brooklyn stock.
Erasmus Hall first came to my attention in the 1960s when my childhood friend Joe Cantalupo was enrolled there. He was in the same class as Barbra Streisand, and when she first became a public figure, Joe showed me her picture in the Erasmus Hall yearbook. Streisand’s latest project is a musical program scheduled for Saturday night on CBS.
Erasmus Hall has an impressive roster of graduates. To name a few: performers Beverly Sills, Susan Hayward, Jeff Chandler, Lainie Kazan, Bernie Kopell, Stephanie Mills, Donny Most, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Talmadge, Eli Wallach, Shirley Booth and Mae West; playwright Betty Comden; former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio; Yankees pitcher Waite Hoyt; comedian Marty Ingels; sportswriter Roger Kahn; and authors Bernard Malamud and Mickey Spillane.
Among those who just passed through were singer Neil Diamond, actor Gabe Kaplan, quirky chess champion Bobby Fischer, and Moe Howard, one of the Three Stooges.
Besides the remarkable legacy of this high school, its roster of alumni speaks to the contributions Brooklyn has made to American culture. There’s something palpably inspiring about the place, something you can feel if you get a chance to hang out there or are fortunate enough to live there.