(Warning: contains spoilers for A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.)
She stands proud and defiant, glass in hand. The tiara on her head sparkling, eyes burning with feverish gaiety. The stage lights blind her but that's the price you pay to dazzle. Though she can't see them, she feels the audience holding on to her every word, her every breath: the kind of communion you'd damn your soul for. She plays them like an instrument, modulating her performance on their response. It's like swimming every night on a constantly changing sea that will take you to safe shores if it doesn't drown you first.
One sip from the glass. The apple juice the stage manager used earlier in the run has long been replaced by something else, something burning and empowering, something that breathes fire to the faces of her co-stars. All in the name of authenticity and survival.
"How about taking a swim? A moonlight swim…"
From The New Yorker (excerpt)
With the possible exception of Jessica Tandy who originated the role (and whose performance can only be judged by this reviewer from the 1947 radio version) most actresses playing Blanche DuBois have attacked the part with a barely contained frenzy befitting an asylum escapee. Even Vivien Leigh in her Oscar-winning performance played the madness bubbling under from the first scene on, making you wonder why Stanley and Stella didn't get a doctor right away. (The answer being of course that if they had, there would be neither play nor film.)
Not so with Elizabeth Parker, who is making a comeback of sorts in the latest revival of the Tennessee Williams classic, directed by Derek Stein at the Shubert. Her Blanche is so self-possessed she draws us into her madness rather than giving in to it. So self-possessed in fact that the scene where a drunken Blanche addresses a party of imaginary admirers comes off initially as bizarre, making us question not just the sanity of the character but that of the performer – and her director's for that matter. Yet such bold choices eventually work as we end up feeling almost foolish for not seeing what Blanche sees – as if her paper moon shone brighter on her "Barnum and Bailey" world than the one we make do with.
And here is where author, character and performer come triumphant together. When Blanche, finally cornered, shouts as a last defense: "I don't tell the truth: I tell what ought to be the truth!", we hear the poet and playwright through the voice of the faded Southern belle. Elizabeth Parker infuses the line with such defiance, devoid of any pathos or tragedy, you feel slightly guilty for not sharing in her madness. Parker makes Blanche the ultimate survivor in the battle between truth and illusion – a war that playwrights and actors wage every night.
Even as she talks about depending on the kindness of strangers, Parker sounds far from defeated. When her Blanche is carted off to the asylum, she makes us feel the real losers are Stanley, Mitch and even Stella, trapped as they are in a drab world from which they can find no escape – and we, the audience, are their fellow prisoners.
In that moment, Parker is less Blanche DuBois than Norma Desmond. This would be problematic only if we forgot that Norma Desmond does get her close-up in the end – through the lens of Billy Wilder if not Mr DeMille's, but who's to say she loses in the bargain?
From Vanity Fair (excerpt)
- You made an auspicious debut as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Now with Blanche in Streetcar, would you say you have come full circle?
- Full circle? Sounds like the closing of something. I would certainly hope that the circle is far from complete.
I try to point out how a couple of decades book-ended by Tennessee Williams' first stage triumph and his second could be called a circle and only succeed in digging myself deeper in.
"A couple of decades," she muses. "Well, bless you for not making it sound longer." Only the briefest flash in her eyes hints that she finds this measure of time not as amusing as she pretends.
"It certainly doesn't feel that long," she continues. "At least not to me. But then I've been quite busy in the interval."
At this stage, it might feel less than delicate to probe. Perhaps sensing this, Miss Parker hastens to fill in the blanks: "I've done quite a lot of stage work in Europe. London, Paris… Some experimental too. I tend to find smaller, experimental productions more interesting. Being on the edge keeps your craft sharp. I think it was Lois Smith who said to me: "You need enough ego to step on a stage and enough humility to fall flat on your face." Both sides of the same coin: a gift to the audience. And giving is the main thing to me. It doesn't matter if it's Broadway or an audience of one."
Some might be tempted to dismiss this as face-saving platitudes but the smile and spark in her eyes are enough to convince you. The lady obviously finds pleasure in holding an audience captive, even an audience of one. Feeling, perhaps hastily, that we're back on safe ground, I ask if she sees any parallels between her debut role and this one.
"A typical journalistic query" she says as I feel myself skating once more on the thin ice of polite disapproval and make a mental note to stop referencing past glories.
But the question has caught her interest and she can't resist pondering it with the genuine passion of someone who studies characters for a living.
"They're polar opposites," she finally says. "Blanche has been dancing all her life and only recently lost her footing. Laura never learned to dance." Then, remembering the moment when Laura does learn to dance in the arms of the Gentleman Caller: "If there is a correlation, I would say that Blanche is not Laura but something Laura aspires to: a dream, bound to be broken."
Warming up to the subject, she adds: "Blanche is Laura's glass unicorn: something unique and beautiful, too delicate for this world and ultimately broken by the clumsy hands of uncaring men."
With hindsight, she could have said what Laura and Blanche had in common with herself: putting their trust in men who did not deserve it. That journalist had tricked her, with his smiles and flattery. She could never resist a well-turned compliment, but which actress can. And this was, after all, Vanity Fair and the biggest write-up she'd had in years.
And so she had lowered her guard and allowed herself a couple of comments which had been blown out of context and proportion. She should have seen it coming when he mentioned the New Yorker review comparing favorably her performance to those who played Blanche's madness from the start.
"It was my choice to downplay it – despite some opposition, I must say." She didn't go as far as to name Derek but everyone would know she was talking about the director and that was bad enough.
"Read the first scenes and you will see that Blanche still has her act together, to a degree. There are cracks for sure, but overall she manages to fool most of her audience, just as she should fool the audience. It makes her trajectory more affecting, I believe. If you play it like she needs an intervention right away, the audience will just wait for the other characters to catch on."
It was a genuine comment on her artistic choice, her take on the character. This kind of opinion would have been perfectly acceptable in any other context, but in print with a headline that read: "Elizabeth Parker on what the other Blanches got wrong"? Now that was sticking a barbecue fork into sacred cows.
Between that headline and the perceived dig at her director, the Vanity Fair piece didn't win her any new friends. But then her career, like many, had been littered with bodies of fallen friends. Had been built on it, in fact. Not that she was a backstabber, though she suspected some of her colleagues called her Eve Harrington behind her back. She couldn't help it if her breakthrough had come by the biggest of cliches: young aspiring actress reads for friend at audition, gets hired instead of friend. Career launched, friendship wrecked.
When she walked into Sardi's on the night of the Glass Menagerie premiere, the whole room stood up in applause. She thought a big star had come in behind her and turned around, applauding – which earned her a big friendly laugh on top. And that was even before the reviews came in: "She moves you without trying," wrote one, "balancing her youthful vulnerability with an understanding of pain far beyond her years" and other hyperboles that were nonetheless too sweet to dismiss completely. Pretty soon she started believing that she "effortlessly conveyed the smoldering inner intensity of someone denied her rightful intimacy".
She hardly knew what that meant but from then on, she strived self-consciously to conjure up whatever had previously been unconscious. As a result, her performances grew more stilted and mannered. Her sophomore turn as Juliet was a disaster (which could partly be blamed on its avant-garde direction), her Saint Joan and Hedda Gabler more traditional but tepidly received. She fared better as Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf possibly because the focus was not on her performance, but the production closed early – as did most of the projects she was subsequently involved in.
As for movies, a couple of attempts made it cruelly plain that the camera just did not love her. She had allure but her beauty was slightly off-beat, though not off-beat enough to be interesting on screen. She claimed it was no great loss, and might even have believed it herself. Stage work was about performing, she said, while film was about waiting and she just didn't have the patience for it.
She did get good notices as Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere's Fan but couldn't help recall bitterly that she had been considered for the title role only a few years before. She was aging out of ingenue parts but wasn't quite ready to play Lady Bracknell.
Susan Strasberg had once warned her: careers shouldn't start the way fairy tales end. It was almost always downhill from there. Streetcar had been her last chance and she had seized it the way Blanche latches on to Mitch.
Her private life had imitated art, at least in trajectory: an initial onslaught of admirers followed by crushing disappointments and dwindling offers. One very public affair with a married leading man led to a private breakdown. After a while she became equally careless in her choice of lovers and projects, knowing that few were likely to last.
Ironically her last serious affair had been with her Streetcar stage beau: Raymond Turner, who played Mitch. Again life had imitated art and again she should have been wary of imitations. This was made clear one afternoon after a matinee when she entered his dressing room to find him in private rehearsal with none other than "their" Stanley aka Bobby Richardson aka Shining New Star aka Mister Equal Opportunities. Ray hastily pulled up his pants. Bobby merely sneered.
"Thank you," she said to Ray, cool as ice. "Up till now I wasn't quite sure how to play that Varsouviana scene."
She had reached the lounging area where the crew was having a beer break when Ray caught up with her. She cut short his fumbling attempts at an explanation. "If I had a gun…" She said loud and clear, "I would give it to you."
She didn't know which of the stage hands let out an admiring whistle. Her only regret was that there hadn't been more of a crowd to witness that last triumph
She locked herself in her dressing room and spent the rest of the afternoon rehearsing with a bottle of Southern Comfort. Now here was something that lived up to its name. Sometimes God took His time showing Himself, but this sure eased the waiting.
By the time of the evening performance, she was warm and confident and never had more fun with the part. She also made sure to breath fumes right into the face of her partners, especially Bobby whose struggles with alcohol had been well documented in the press. He retaliated by dropping his pants during the rape scene, which elicited audible gasps in the audience and proved that at least in one respect, he was Brando's worthy successor.
"And to think that all this time you had been sitting on your talent, darling!" she exclaimed backstage as Derek was fighting apoplexy and Ray sulked with the petulance of a child forced to share his toys.
"Save it for the audience, Tallulah Bankhead," Bobby replied curtly.
After that, few words were exchanged off stage between the principals. She found Southern Comfort superior to Ray's while Derek found comfort in the revitalized box-office, which had been lagging until this particular coup de theatre.
It was nonetheless a surprise when a filmed version for cable was announced, directed by Derek Stein with Bobby Richardson as Stanley – and a legendary country singer making her acting comeback as Blanche. Now I know how Jessica Tandy felt when Vivien signed her contract, she thought.
Publicly she claimed to be delighted for the country star and everyone else, alluding to upcoming projects of her own with European directors as if the defection was her choice. Privately she smoothed over the hurt by telling herself (and a few trusted acquaintances) that she was in better company with Jessica Tandy than in a nest of vipers.
"How about a moonlight swim? If anyone's sober enough to drive, ha ha!" Her voice resonates loud and clear, as does her laugh and if the New Yorker writer thought she was too self-possessed to look drunk, he never had a good bender or a good lay either. Or maybe just couldn't hold his liquor.
When the doorbell rings, she wonders what new trick Bobby is trying now. Stanley is supposed to use his key. It's all right, two can play that game. When it rings again, she empties her glass in one gulp and heads for the door.
It is not Stanley or even Bobby but a young man she's never seen before. Has the theater hired a new understudy? For a moment, neither of them speaks. Then the young man says: "Miss Parker?"
She smiles. "You're not collecting for the Evening Star, are you?"
"The evening star?" he asks, taken aback. "You mean... you?"
How charming. Her laughter rings out loud, reverberating. Embarrassed he looks furtively around the street, thankfully deserted.
Then she notices the flower in his hand: "Is this for me?"
Bashful, he hands her the yellow rose. "I... I'm a great admirer of your work and I… I…" Even though he has rehearsed his speech, he can't help stammering. "I don't mean to disturb you, if you've got company…"
"Not at all," she says, charmed by his bashfulness, and the longish hair he's tried to tame into a ponytail. "Why don't you come in?"
This is the "Open Sesame" he's been hoping for. Still, he repeats as he steps in: "Unless you have company, I wouldn't want to disturb…"
"Company? Oh, no!" Laughing again. "Come in and don't mind the mess. It's the maid's day off."
He follows her through the dark corridor. "It's just that I thought I heard voices…"
"Oh that was me," her face sightly coloring. "Rehearsing."
They have reached the living room now. He looks around hungrily, taking it all in.
"Are you preparing a new show?" he asks curiously.
"Same old Streetcar. But you've got to keep your craft sharp. We're doing a revival with a wonderful director from Europe."
"A Streetcar Named Desire. Haven't you seen the play?"
"No," he admits. "I can't always afford the theater to tell the truth."
"Of course. Young men your age have little to live on but dreams and hopes. Yet you did bring me a rose. How considerate." She places the flower in a vase too big. "Well if you come to New York for the opening, there will be a ticket waiting for you."
"That's very kind of you," he says. This is going even better than he dared hope. He starts to relax. Looking at the tiara: "Are these real diamonds?"
Instinctively her hand goes up, smoothing her hair in the process. "A present from Prince Doria in Rome." The name has come so naturally to her she wonders if she does know a Prince Doria. She smiles: "Would you believe that I used to have such admirers?"
"I'm sure you did," he says.
Not quite the answer she was hoping for but it will have to do. He's not really handsome, with his eyes that won't meet hers and his face a bit too thin, but he is sweet and young and that is better than beauty in some men, experience taught her.
"Would you like a glass of Southern Comfort?" she asks.
He accepts the offer, still glancing around the dusty living room: the make-up table before the mirror framed with yellowed newspaper clippings, the old black-and-white photos, the makeshift stage at the back of the room. So the rumors were true, he thinks, remembering what he overheard at the bar about "the crazy old bird living in seclusion in that big museum of a house."
While she's rummaging in the cupboard for another glass, he approaches the window. The darkening street is empty. Still, he is careful not to show himself as he swiftly closes the curtain.