- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

Writing is one thing, acting another. No playwright is good enough to create lines that will affect us on stage without the interpretation of the actor; even Shakespeare can be butchered, and is. Regularly.
Happily, the reverse is also true. Even the worst, most sentimental and hackneyed script can be saved, even transformed, by the actor.
It's all enough to make one understand why Plato called acting not an art at all, but a kind of divine fit. Ask anyone who has interviewed an actor after a magnificent performance and found him to be a total jerk offstage — full of human foibles, conventional notions and more than the usual pomposities.
Surely only some kind of magical metamorphosis can explain this change from ordinary slob into great artist, larva into butterfly.
The news of Kim Stanley's death left a pang. The same pang moviegoers carried away from "The Goddess," an ordinary black-and-white melodrama that she transformed into a comment on the human condition, a cry for forgiveness, a plea for understanding not only others but our self, which so often disappoints us.
The summary of "The Goddess" in a standard movie guide sounded very much like the predictable movie script itself — before Kim Stanley's alchemy turned all its dross into gold:
The Goddess (1958): Sordid story of a girl who rises to fame as a celluloid star making her body available to anyone who can help her career. When the spotlight dims, she keeps going with drugs and alcohol to a bitter end.
Who would want to see that? And yet Kim Stanley took her lines, and even her silences, and turned them into something moving, universal, a reminder of how cheap we sell ourselves, and how unique, how irreplaceable, yet universal we are, truly worth God's ransom.
Lonely as a child, the daughter of divorced parents, she had a gift for portraying the loneliness of adulthood. No, she was not a star. She was something better: an actress.
"The Goddess" was mentioned as a kind of afterthought in the obituary of Miss Stanley that I read. Most of the story was devoted to her career on the stage, which she preferred to the jagged business of making movies. In essence, said the obit, Kim Stanley was a Broadway actress who made some movies. Did she ever.
She came to the Broadway critics' attention with her portrayal of Cherie, the worldly wise, been-around, slightly down-at-the-spangles chantoosie who captivates the cowboy in William Inge's "Bus Stop." She played much the same character in Mr. Inge's "Picnic."
It was as if Kim Stanley had been born to play endless varieties of Dorothy Parker's Big Blonde, the kind of woman who goes through a succession of men who don't appreciate her or anything else.
She was a large woman, or at least left that impression. Yet she appeared vulnerable from the moment she stepped out of the wings. How did she do that? Maybe it was the eyes, the way she had of looking about furtively, as if she deserved to be found out.
Hiding something is wearing, and Kim Stanley had a talent for portraying weariness — poorly disguised weariness. Maybe it was her body language. It made you want to reach out and massage the back of her neck, where you knew the muscles must be knotted. Her shoulders would seem to grow hunched during a performance, her voice desperate yet controlled, barely controlled.
It was as if Clifford Odets, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Paddy Chayevsky … all had been writing with her in mind. Or maybe it was she who created their pathos.
"To keep it fresh," she once explained, "I try to begin all over again in each performance." That halting, searching, exploring quality made each of her performances almost a different play.
Writers say that God gives them the first line, and they have to work out all the rest. Actors don't get even the first line free and must work for every one. Yet when perfected, an entire performance, even the silences, can seem wholly inspired, a gift, an act of grace — like Kim Stanley's.
Somehow she managed to be transparent without being melodramatic — which is a fine line to tread — and could break your heart without a word being spoken.
If great acting is not so much an art as a fit, Kim Stanley seemed on the verge of one up there on the stage or before the camera. She was not so much pretty as affecting. Which is better. Ideas of beauty change, the memory of a great talent may grow only stronger with age.
Kim Stanley had more than her talent; she had a devotion to it, and a reluctance, even refusal, to compromise it. She even knew when to quit and go home to New Mexico, disappearing for years at a time until her spirit was refreshed.
And when she came back, you couldn't watch her without realizing that she was teaching us some things about what it is to be human. That we did not learn them as well as we would have liked, that we forget to respect what she taught us about our lonely selves, should not make us any less grateful for the lady, the actress and that divine seizure she shared.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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