There’s miscasting and then there’s miscasting, and I cannot think of a greater example of this than Kate Burton attempting to be legendary stage actress Katharine Cornell in A.R. Gurney’s THE GRAND MANNER, now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The play is a lightweight but diverting bauble, not all that dissimilar from the kind of S.N. Behrman/Philip Barry/Rachel Crothers/John Van Druten drawing room comedies which sparkled so in Cornell’s 1930s-40s heyday. Gurney reimagines a backstage visit with Cornell in 1948, when he was a young student pup and she was starring in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, taking an innocuous starstruck fan encounter and transforming it into a much more intimate brush with fame. The young Gurney, here called Pete (Bobby Steggart), also meets Cornell’s husband, eminent director Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines), and her redoubtable manager, Gertrude Macy (Brenda Whele). These two dragons at the celebrity gate also both happen to be gay, with Macy doing double duty as Cornell’s lover. In the course of the play, Gurney has them both spilling
this information to Pete, which is excusable dramatic license, if completely unbelievable in terms of this past era’s utter discretion in terms of personal and sexual matters, especially when dealing with a callow young stranger. Gurney wraps things up neatly with the metaphorical ribboned bow requisite to this genre by having Pete sent home with a newly burning commitment to become a playwright, and, incidentally, one of those obsessive “theater creeps” the entire cast has affectionately denigrated throughout the evening.
The good news is that Gaines manages to capture something of the foppish brilliance that McClintic, a personality in his own right, must have possessed in life. He presents a flamboyant, bespoke, Mid-Atlantic Noel Coward, with more than a pinch of Addison DeWitt and Waldo Lydecker, wholly devoted to preserving the cherished sanctity of his wife’s stardom, yet not unaware of comely young males who can both give him pleasure and fill the necessary ranks of stage extras. (Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando were just three of his early discoveries.) Wehle is also good, if a bit stereotypically the efficiently brusque dyke (think Jane Hathaway of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES), and, with her lean figure, not at all the hefty presence for which Macy was famously known. Steggart is mighty pretty but a little too callow. One doesn’t sense any real spark of the nascent artist in him, nor the tenacity which propelled Gurney to an incredibly prolific, decades-long career that is, of course, still flourishing.
All of this might have taken theatrical flight and been quite a tasty feast for theater lovers with the right actress in the central role of Cornell, fondly known as Kit. Universally known as the First Lady of the American Stage, Helen Hayes and Lynn Fontanne notwithstanding, she possessed, above all, the one quality that was de riguer for actresses of her time that has now become almost comnpletely obsolete: glamour. The enduring dominance of Method acting, with its emphasis on emotional realism and accompanying plays dealing in more nitty gritty matters, has effectively done away with the gossamer, gorgeously gowned affect of such as Cornell and Fontaine and their contemporaries Tallulah Bankhead, Ina Claire, Gertrude Lawrence, Judith Anderson, et al. These women, who were rarely seen on or off the stage less than impeccably groomed and caparisoned, were replaced by the more down-to-earth Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton, who, on the street, could sometimes be mistaken for bag ladies.
Cornell’s entrancing, definitive biography, written by Tad Mosel and Gertrude Macy, is rife with references to Cornell’s glamour, and her extraordinary looks played a huge part in this. With her exotic coloring of pale face and dark hair, huge, heavy-lidded eyes, lush mouth and swooping cheekbones, she was the stage equivalent of Garbo, and no one described her better than George Bernard Shaw, who wrote this to her:
“I don’t think I was ever so astonished by a picture as I was by your photograph. Your success as Candida, and something blonde and expansive about your name, had created an ideal suburban British Candida in my imagination.
Fancy my feelings on seeing in your photograph a gorgeous dark lady from the cradle of the human race–wherever that was–Ceylon, Sumatra, Hilo, or the southernmost corner of the Garden of Eden!”
Despite her eminence, the actual greatness of Cornell’s acting eminence was, however, sometimes called into question by contemporary witnesses. As early as 1928, Cecil Beaton, while extolling the pictorial loveliness of her bustle-clad appearance in Edith Wharton’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, commented on her jarringly flat American accent (something Gurney touches upon in his play with his canny references to Cornell’s trademark, hard “r’s”) and critic Eric Bentley recalled her for me as anything but great – more of a compendium of audience-pleasing grande dame mannerisms. This “ladylike” aspect of her performance is also referenced by Gurney in a key passage that has McClintic excising a particularly bawdy Shakespearean passage from ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA as being unsuited for Cornell’s ultra-civilized feminine fan base. (McClintic’s canniness as a stage director came through most clearly for me with Ruth Gordon’s reminiscence of his direction of an after-dinner love scene for her and Raymond Massey in ETHAN FROME. He told them to wash the dishes and as a sinkful of dirty dishes does nothing for a romantic scene,)
An actual example of Cornell’s editing of a line to better suit her stage persona occurred during THE GREEN HAT, the sensational 1925 adaptation of Michael Arlen’s scandalous best-seller, the VALLEY OF THE DOLLS of its day (which Garbo made into the film A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS, which contains her greatest silent screen performance). At one point, she had to sexily respond to her lover’s query of what she wanted with “You, baby!” Although playing the ultimate wild-living Jazz Age flapper, this didn’t sound right coming from her fulsome lips, so Cornell merely removed the comma, to make it the far more suggestive and less obvious declarative “You baby!”
After this play came the great roles: Maugham’s THE LETTER, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, ROMEO AND JULIET, SAINT JOAN, NO TIME FOR COMEDY, CANDIDA, THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA, ANTIGONE, THE THREE SISTERS (with a cast including Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, Edmund Gwenn, Alexander Knox, Dennis King and Kirk Douglas), and her greatest success and signature role, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. This actress, who even never made a real movie, completely entered into American public consciousness, with TIME magazine covers and mentions in popular song, as in Cole Porter’s “Farming” (“Farming, that’s the fashion/Farming, that’s the passion/Of our great celebrities of today/Kit Cornell is shellin’ peas”).
During WWII, Cornell conducted a well-documented, sensationally successul tour of the play to the complete awe-struck delight of overseas troupes, and it’s a testament to both her charisma and the tenor of a more exalted time that soldiers were enthralled by this retelling of the love between two nineteenth century poets, a far cry from, say, Joey Heatherton doing a scantily-clad frug during the Vietnam War or Kathy Griffin’s recent stand-up engagements in the Middle East.
As Cornell in THE GRAND MANNER, Kate Burton, utterly lacking in glamour, plays her more like a grand society hostess, full of condescension and “aristocratic” airs. It reminded me of the way Margaret Welsh played the great, fascinating opera singer, Mary Garden, in Gurney’s play BIG BILL in 2004: a facile Margaret Dumont turn, an infuriating, utter stereotype of a pretentious hammy diva. Although the Times’ Ben Brantley went apeshit for Burton’s HEDDA GABLER in 2001, I couldn’t help feeling then that she would have been better cast as the maid. After that and Maugham’s THE CONSTANT WIFE (a Cornell role she boringly essayed a few years ago), Burton has said that she finally knows how to do glamour. After seeing THE GRAND MANNER, in which she displays not a whit of charisma, sensuality or physical/ aural fluidity to make you believe in Cornell’s ineffable allure, I beg to differ most strenuously.
What actress on the stage today possesses glamour enough to play someone like Cornell? Some movie transplants to Broadway, like Catherine Zeta Jones and Scarlett Johanssen have it to a certain facile degree (in Julia Roberts; case, however, that quality completely evaporated onstage), as glamour is something that film inevitably requires of its actresses, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on any of them to really hold the stage on their own the way Cornell and her contemporaries could. Throughout THE GRAND MANNER, Gurney mentions pioneering TV producer Pat Weaver, who brought live theater productions to the networks, and I couldn’t help wondering what his daughter, Sigourney (who appeared effectively in Gurney’s MRS. FARNSWORTH), would have been like in the role. Weaver’s old rival/classmate from Yale, Meryl Streep, of course, might have had a positive triumph in it, making a succulently hammy meal with it that would have hit more right notes than all of Burton’s mundane exertions.
Thinking about Burton, I recalled something George Cukor said about Olivia DeHavilland, after refusing to make the film of Daphne DuMaurier’s MY COUSIN RACHEL with her, after initially envisioning Garbo or Vivien Leigh in the role: “She has no secret.”
“Waiting in the wings for my big scene, my only real scene. I am tense, but controlled. Ready. Standing there watching the play unfold. Katherine Cornell out there on that stage, bathed in magical theatre lighting, unlike any other illumination on earth. Miss Cornell reclines on a kind of divan, a low couch, sculpted to look like a seashell. Slaves with peacock feathers on long fronds gently agitate the air around her. She lies there with her companions Iris and Charmian. My sympathies for Lenore Ulric, our Charmian, have worn thin. It’s not merely her line readings, so flowery, somehow too elongated on the breath, which some might be tempted to think of as Great Acting, but which to me is merely vamping slowly until she can remember the next arrangement of vowels and consonants. Her memory recall is faulty, fatal in acting. At these moments, when I want her to sing out the line, she hesitates, gulps air, ponders, and suddenly resembles a raffish old bag ill at ease in the spotlight, and vaguely unfamiliar with her surroundings. Fatal. Maureen as Iris is of course a rock, with that low vibrating sound she emits, somehow totally in character, and in the scene. What is she thinking, I wonder, at moments like this? And then of course there is Cornell herself, the reigning queen of the New York Stage, now almost an icon, legendary. Ulric may remind me that somewhere back in her history David Belasco is pulling her strings. Kiki, Miss Lulu Betts, Etc. Was her kind of acting the style back then? If so, we have a palimpsest on view down there in Stage Egypt. Three acting styles in the same scene on the same stage: Cornell the Great, the “Star”. Authoritative. In command. Maureen, the newcomer. The future. And Ulric, the throwback to a glamorous past, now dusty, antique. Somehow it all works.
Why aren’t these other actors, my contemporaries, Alan Shayne, Ted Marcuse, Ollie Cliff, Charlton Heston, why aren’t they in the wings watching, listening, learning? Am I the only one who is like a kid in a candy shop, enthralled? Or is this some kind of idiot response, maybe even a fraud, on my part? I know they think I‘m a complete stage-struck twit, if they think of me at all, which I doubt. But there it is. Still, there’s something about hearing those glorious lines while wearing a Roman Soldier’s garb, my face covered in grease paint, from high up in the flies awaiting my cue.”
as an antidote to what was witnessed on the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse, here’s a Cornell gallery. To my mind, there’s nothng more gratifying to look at than pictures of her in her heyday. You can also go to the room named after her and Guthrie McClintic at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts to see more images, and also look at their personal papers.