A Romance with the Screen: Theater Legend Adrienne Kennedy Looks Back

A Romance with the Screen: Theater Legend Adrienne Kennedy Looks Back

Years ago I took a seminar on movie stars led by the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, a glittering episode that closed out a rather colorless stint in graduate school. The syllabus was replete with inspired double bills⁠—Deleuze on Leibniz + Lana Turner in Madame X one week, Totem and Taboo + Trog another⁠. Glamour, the course made clear, invites obsession, exegetical and otherwise. It was there that I first encountered the work of playwright Adrienne Kennedy, as visionary a figure as the American theater has ever produced. Her one-act A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White was a key point in the semester’s constellation. Here was a play where old Hollywood iconography commingled with experimental form: the main character’s life is articulated through the screen idols of her youth, featuring actors playing Bette Davis, Montgomery Clift, et al. As elsewhere in Kennedy’s dramas, the self is ever-shifting, an identity dispersed across multiple personages, who emerge out of the past onto the scene of the present. Naturalism is eschewed, yet the mechanics of psychic life are rendered with a powerful accuracy (one thinks of Cocteau’s own description of Blood of a Poet: “a realistic documentary of unreal events”).

When Jay Sanders and Hilton Als invited me and Ed Halter to organize a program in conjunction with the Kennedy retrospective they were curating for Artists Space, I was thrilled. We decided to arrange a suite of screenings that would highlight the many ways cinema had shaped her sensibility, bringing together, among other selections, a Dorothy Dandridge soundie, the Lon Chaney Wolf Man, a reel of Katherine Dunham choreography, Cukor’s Gaslight, some Astaire-Rogers toe-tapping, wartime propaganda, and, of course, a Bette Davis picture. Unfortunately the series was slated to run the very week the city began to close down in response to COVID-19, and is now postponed until it’s once again safe to host events. In the meantime, however, I had the chance to email with Kennedy about her lifelong cinephilia, and am looking forward to her latest collection of plays, which will be published this summer.

Perhaps we should begin from the beginning: How did your life as a moviegoer start? Are there certain early experiences at the cinema that have endured in your imagination?

I was born in 1931. I know that when my mother was pregnant with me she went to the movies once a week. My parents lived in Pittsburgh, where my father worked for something called Boys Club. He was a social worker. Although my mother had taught school in Florida, she did not teach now. She always said she was enraptured by movies and decided to name me, if a girl, after Adrienne Ames. Important that in the Georgia town where she grew up, and in Atlanta, where she went to school, blacks sat in a segregated section, but not in Pittsburgh. It was exhilarating for her not to sit in segregated seats.

Since everyone always asked me why I had such a funny name, I knew my name had import. As I got older I said I was named after a movie star, Adrienne Ames. They would always look puzzled. I was a tiny, pale child, very plain.

In ’35 my parents moved to Cleveland. My mother went to movies on Tuesday night, and took me. My father stayed at home with my little brother. We lived in a section of Cleveland called Mount Pleasant, then mostly Italian, black, and Polish. We walked to the movie theater called the Imperial on Kinsman Avenue. It was an old vaudeville house. I could sense this was important to her. We hurried . . .

And what was so astonishing to me is that she cried. She cried a lot. At the end sometimes she would say, “That was a good movie.” To see her crying was hypnotic to me. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Why did that screen make her cry? What I remember is her saying she liked Back Street.

Days after a movie, my mother talked to me as an equal. She asked my opinion about actors’ clothes, their possessions, their choices. Kitty Foyle was to come. “I would like to have a suit like that,” she would say, and weeks later she would go to the May Co. and search until she found a suit like that. Those Tuesday nights were adventures. By the time I was seven I was allowed to go to the movies with the older girls next door. We went to the nearer Waldorf, Tuesdays and Saturdays. 

I wanted to live in Paris and marry Fred Astaire. Forever I asked my mother, “Why couldn’t we live in Paris?” She said Paris was in Europe, and you had to go on a ship. I asked, “Could we get a ship from Lake Erie?” She explained you had to go to New York, get a ship, and go to Europe. “Could we do that?” I asked. She said “Adrienne, that is what rich people do. We are not rich. No. Your father makes a few thousand dollars a year at the YMCA.” 

I still did not understand, and daydreamed a lot about the scenes, the staircases. To her credit, my mother never laughed at my questions. I knew in my heart I would dance with Fred Astaire. One day I would have dresses like that. But it was Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner who became my friend. My imaginary friend. I really wanted to run away to Hollywood. I wrote a letter to him, and mailed it to Hollywood. I had seen Judy Garland writing to Clark Gable, so I knew it was possible.

The day I saw The Wizard of Oz is vivid. A friend of my mother’s, Virginia, took me downtown to the magnificent Loew’s State. Afterward we had a chocolate soda. I asked her many, many questions about Oz. All I remember was she smiled at me and said, “Adrienne, you are a funny child.” I was so baffled as to where Oz was. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.

I was dazzled by Tyrone Power, Black Swan; Rita Hayworth, dancing; Bette Davis, The Letter. But nothing captured as much as when, at eleven, I saw Now, Voyager. On a ship, transformed. I was haunted by ships crossing the ocean, and being transformed. So powerful is that theme that when I finally did cross the Atlantic, on the Queen Mary in 1960, I was determined I would be transformed.

Orson Welles follows, at age twelve when I saw Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre had been in my mind since I read the novel at ten or eleven. But this was the first time in my life that I had seen characters so important to me, a place so important—Thornfield—in a movie. Seeing Jane Eyre on the screen after being so attached to an old tattered library copy is a foremost experience. Edward Rochester was Orson Welles, and I would from then on be in love with Orson Welles.

There are too many others to name. The Red Shoes was to come. Lena Horne with a flower, Hedy Lamarr—people too beautiful. Although it was only one movie [Abbott and Costello’s Ride ’em Cowboy], Ella Fitzgerald singing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” made me very happy.

The Waldorf Theater, Cleveland, Ohio. Active from around 1930 until 1950.

Do you feel that your cinephilia has evolved over time—the way you see films, for instance, or the kinds of films that you’re drawn to?

I do not measure myself against the heroines, as I did in childhood and adolescent films. Elizabeth Taylor, in A Place in the Sun, was possibly the last heroine I measured myself against. I despaired over my lack of beauty compared to hers and, at age twenty, seemed to close this way of looking at heroines. A certain wistfulness passed. I was a college student, was soon to be engaged, and thought I was headed for a splendid life.

The movies then became mad clusters of intoxication—the Brando fixation, which included Kazan, the discovery of Sidney Poitier, Montgomery Clift. Living in New York, 1955, I was lost in foreign films for years: Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni. I was then trying hard to write stories. I remember studying Orpheus, Wild Strawberries, La dolce vita, The Leopard, trying to understand the statements they were making about the world.

I definitely felt a distance. It was not like the closeness of Mrs. Miniver or Gaslight, but it was a passion new to me. I wanted to be like the filmmakers. I wanted to create like L’avventura. I was now studying the images of La strada. I felt I was studying the world. I felt I was studying a society, something impossible in Notorious, Suspicion, The Lady Vanishes; the society was there, but I saw only the stories. No more buying spectator pumps because Bette Davis wore them in Now, Voyager. No more trying to do my hair like Paula in Gaslight. I wanted to know what Visconti thought of nineteenth-century Italy, what Rossellini thought of postwar Italy.

I watch some movies again and again. Even though I cannot define it I know those movies are healing me. I know when I see Wild Strawberries I am learning how to compose my disparate memories.

Speaking of A Place in the Sun, it was one of the films—along with Now, Voyager and Viva Zapata!—that you incorporated so memorably into A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White. What drew you to those three titles in particular? I’m also curious about the origins of that project. How did it first take root in your mind?

For many years I wanted to put a movie star in my work, many. I experimented with paragraphs, brief ideas, but it fell flat. I had given up. Cannot tell you why I chose those movies, except I thought about certain scenes from those movies all the time. I realized I leaned on these movies for support when I was sad. When I was sad I would drift off into a movie, to escape. I realized I did that a lot.

I had always been disturbed that my marriage failed. I just wanted to see if I could lay out what had happened. Clara went on a voyage. She had once been very in love—that Zapata scene is a favorite. She failed, and drowned. These scenes from those three movies captured all that I felt.

I know exactly what you mean, to lean on a film. I also find it remarkable when I rewatch a favorite movie and discover it to be so different from what I remembered. Have you ever had that experience with a film? Where something you thought was familiar suddenly takes on a new shape?

Grey Gardens. Years ago I knew Al and Gillian Maysles. I remember his talking about these two women who were Jackie Kennedy relatives. I saw the movie back then and thought how eccentric and very strange they were.

I saw the movie last week, at eighty-eight. Was stunned at how differently I saw the mother and daughter, Big and Little Edie. I cried, like Big Edie. They have a disarrayed house, once a place of glory. I had a pretty apartment, on the gorgeous 89th in Manhattan, for thirty years, my place of glory.

Now I spend a lot of time in my son’s house, looking at old pictures, and sometimes in old, fancy clothes. No longer do the Grey Gardens residents seem strange. They lost control of their glory, and I understand that.

There is of course a film that takes the subject of seeing something beloved yet now somehow different as a primary theme: Vertigo, a movie you mention in People Who Led to My Plays. What significance does that film hold for you?

Scottie is as innocent as Hamlet, and he’s James Stewart, my childhood friend. The discovery of how Scottie has been betrayed. His innocence, the innocence of childhood. His vertigo, already damaged. He sets out on this horrible journey into a realm of deception unlike any he has ever known. I love him, but cannot help him because I too do not know the depth of the deception he is in.

He believes in a world of compassion and goodness. All the while he is headed toward murder, hatred, and madness. His descent is a terrible thing. His final emergence as he stands on the ledge of the mission makes me breathless at his struggle. I am filled with happiness for him.

Thomas, I have been to San Juan Bautista three separate times. I was teaching at Berkeley. I so yearned to be in it.

One of the things I love about People Who Led to My Plays is how you write about stars the way people usually talk about directors. Your description of Leave Her to Heaven gives the impression of a Gene Tierney picture, for instance, rather than a John Stahl melodrama. We often think of the best filmmakers as having a signature style that can be traced across their filmographies, offering a through-line, but actors bring another, rather indisputable kind of continuity from movie to movie: their faces. Even if we suspend our disbelief, on some level their other performances are still there with them, bleeding into the film we’re watching. Like you said, Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo is your childhood friend from Shop Around the Corner.

Our emotional attachment to stars is such a complex phenomenon. There’s a part early on in People Who Led to My Plays, about your childhood, where you list “people in the movies who were not white,” and it’s rather brief. How would you describe that experience, of being a young black moviegoer at a time when Hollywood casts were overwhelmingly white?

Love what you said about movies bleeding into one another. That is a power, isn’t it? A great power. Bette Davis: a lot of bleeding there . . .

My mother, born 1907, had a wealthy white father and a young black mother who worked in his peach orchards. It was a Georgia town. Although she was very beautiful, and went to Atlanta University, she always recalled how people called her bastard. She would often say, “I was in plays when I was in school.” Her scrapbook, 1928, is film-like, my most influential book. When we saw these movies at the Imperial I believe she cried over a multitude of events. Her mother died. Her grandmother disliked her. Her father sent her away to boarding school. When she talked of the troubles Stella Dallas had, she passed on to me the closeness and salvation people on film can give. 

My father’s last job in Cleveland, in City Hall, was assistant head of race relations. My mother taught fifth-grade science for thirty years, always in mainly black schools in Cleveland. We talked of race all the time. The immigrant kids I went to elementary school with, and Jewish kids whom I went to high school with, all loved the movies. They were a strong bond. The movies were a source of pleasure.

Although our family read Crisis, Pittsburgh Courier, went to see visiting famous blacks (Paul Robeson), saw blacks at the Palace (Nat Cole, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton), we never segregated ourselves from movies. The movies were the movies. We knew people were white but those were the movies we knew existed. These movies were a world that belonged to all of us, for five cents on a Saturday. It was something we all did. Cleveland in the ’30s and ’40s was still mostly European immigrants, with Negroes making their way, the Great Migration. It was a period I was in. I had only one black teacher my entire life. At the time we read what was taught, what was in the library. When I went to the school library, I did not view The Secret Garden as a white book. It was a period.

On occasion, we might say oh, there is Stepin Fetchit, but he wasn’t a movie star. We loved movie stars who were there on Saturday. The most prominent black movie star was Hattie McDaniel, but she wasn’t Bette Davis. The Negroes I knew embraced movies, just as in Cleveland we had embraced the Cleveland Indians. When a black player, Larry Doby, moved onto our street years later, we were excited, but we had embraced the Indians long before. When Sidney Poitier emerged, we knew he was a revolution, and we were extremely happy. This is years later. He was a great hero to us, but that didn’t keep us from going to see Steve McQueen, Brando, Paul Newman. Black people have always loved movies.

I asked because I think the process of identification with a star is fascinating. The experience can be a very porous one, flowing past the boundaries, elsewhere so rigid, of race and class and gender. Consider the myriad gay men, for instance, who, like you, have had an intense affinity with Bette Davis. They embraced her movies, made deep psychic investments in them, yet at the same time their own lives were completely invisible in those films. Watching a movie one can be present and absent at once.

Profound, and made me laugh: present and absent at the same time. Pop culture, movies—that overrides so much sociology. For example, the girls in my dorm were always kind of aloof. In 1949, my roommate and I were the only Negroes in the corridor. One spring afternoon as I entered, this girl who has never said more than an obligatory hello since September rushed toward me. She was clutching a large photograph. She screamed, “Adrienne, would you like to see my picture of Montgomery Clift?” I love him so much. I gazed at the picture. She said, “Come and see, I have more.” Montgomery Clift pictures were all over her wall, and she was in heaven. Same thing happened with Brando after Streetcar. There is great beauty in this.

I also wonder about approaches to acting. Has screen acting in any way informed the performance styles you’d hope to see in productions of your plays?

My first major production was Funnyhouse of a Negro, directed by Michael Kahn, produced by Albee, 1964. Actors’ styles never occurred to me, never, but Michael and I were both crazy about movies. I am positive this passion seeped into that production especially. Never been aware of actors’ influence, but I did want the heroine to be beautiful, did get that from movies.

Since you’re a playwright who’s passionate about films, what do you think are some particularly successful examples of a stage work translated to the screen? Have you ever thought about the possibility of films being made from your own work?

Only a couple come to mind, play-to-movie: Gaslight, Dial M for Murder, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Orson Welles’s Othello, Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire. I have yearned for my plays to reach film. Only now there’s a slight chance—in the talking stage.

Also, I suppose that since our chat is occurring during an epochal changeover, we should probably address it. How are you faring during the pandemic? What’s been on your mind?

Agitated, quite—stomach aches, headaches, cannot sleep. New York. New York and its state are always on my mind. I watch Andrew Cuomo. I love New York so much, lived there more than fifty years. I am worried about it.

You mentioned the cinemas, like the Imperial, that you went to growing up in Ohio. Which cinemas did you frequent in New York? Are there any impressions of them that have you stayed with you—their architecture, their audiences, the films they showed?

I wrote of them in Diary of Lights. My husband was a grad student at Columbia. We haunted Thalia, Symphony, New Yorker. One of the first films we saw at the Thalia: Buñuel, Los olvidados, a night I will never forget. And the interior . . . never been in a movie theater that small. Saw Vertigo at the Symphony, remember walking out to Broadway feeling intoxicated, drunken from those images. I always loved that name, the Symphony. The New Yorker—saw so many movies there, from the ’50s until they tore it down. I was heartbroken, and to make it worse, I then lived on 89th Street, and was forced to watch. The New Yorker was my introduction to film festivals. I was totally enchanted. As I approached the marquees of those theaters—Symphony, Thalia, New Yorker—I was happy.


Photo at top of post: Jack Robinson, Portrait of Adrienne Kennedy, 1969. Courtesy Getty Images.