Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Julie Newmar: "I want to see good acting!" We went to see SHIRLEY KNIGHT

Whem going to Broadway shows with Julie, the most important thing wasn't the spectacle, or being seen at the "hottest ticket in town." It didn't matter if it was a play or a musical, a comedy or a drama.

Julie knew her line, and I had it memorized:

"I want to see good acting!"

So it was, that we sometimes went off-Broadway rather than the Great White Way itself. We walked out at intermission on a play starring a TV legend, with Julie hoping that we could latch onto the second half of something better. We ended up at a revival of an Oscar Wilde production that didn't have a famous name in the cast. What it had, however, was good acting.

Shirley Knight was a good actress. Like Julie, she sought out the masters who could teach her how to be superb at her craft. Knight's mentors included three of the best in the business: Jeff Corey, Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen. She trained at the Actors Studio, and after "We Have Always Lived in a Castle," she won a Tony for her Marilyn Monroe-influenced turn in "Kennedy's Children."

Julie of course, followed "Lil Abner" with her Tony-award winning part in "Marriage-Go-Round."

"I want to see good acting..." led us to to the Goodman Theatre one night. Horton Foote's "The Young Man from Atlanta" was on the boards, and it featured Rip Torn (who passed on last year) and Shirley Knight, who left us only days ago.

Julie is right; sometimes the most exciting and memorable thing about a play is the acting. You might not remember a line of dialogue, or recall the twist ending that literally brought down the curtain and triggered applause. Instead, you leave with the emotional satisfaction of seeing a great performance.

I don't remember much about Horton Foote's play, but I do remember that Shirley Knight and Rip Torn were brilliant. Afterwards, Julie said, "Let's go backstage." It wasn't out of show-biz friendship. I don't think she'd ever even met Rip Torn before. She said, "it's what you do," if you're also a thespian, and you want to give the highest compliment possible. It's sort of like "my compliments to the chef," but instead of to the waiter, you go back and tell the chef. Shirley was nominated for a Tony for "The Young Man from the South." After seeing Shirley Knight in a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," Tennessee Williams wrote a play just for her: "A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur."

While many performers find their greatest satisfaction on the stage, and the bond between the performer and the viewer is strongest that way, some of their finest work at least remains preserved via film. Shirley Knight was twice nominated for an Oscar, for "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and "Sweet Bird of Youth," and was critically acclaimed for "Dutchman," and "The Rain People" (Francis Ford Coppola wrote it envisioning Shirley). She also won Emmy awards for television work, and was called upon for everything from "The Outer Limits" to "NYPD Blue" and "Desperate Housewives."

Shirley Knight was not the most famous actress, but she didn't care much about fame itself. She said, "Many people who are very famous are ridiculous. I mean, look at the Kardashians. There are people walking around who don't know who The Beatles were. If you think your food is you want to be famous, you're going to starve to death. Your food has to be that you want to do good work and you want to become better at what you do.

She was better at what she did than quite a lot of more famous TV and movie stars. Some people want to go to a show to see somebody famous, like a TV star with limited live acting experience. Others, like Julie Newmar, say "I want to see good acting." Good acting: SHIRLEY KNIGHT.


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