The girl nervously talks about sewing. The statuesque blonde is brashly bragging, but her date, who’s piloting his convertible through the night, isn’t interested. Not in sewing, nor in her short soliloquy about her acting accomplishments in the school play. He hardly looks at Emily Ann as she fidgets with her clothes and angles for his attention, full of false cheer that doesn’t hide her desperation — for love, affection, or the validation that would come with having a boy want to go steady with her. She wears her bottomless emotional need like an open wound.
You can’t take your eyes off her. That’s Kim Stanley in her first feature film, The Goddess, made in 1958. You probably don’t know her name or, if you do, it’s lost its electricity with the passing of time and other great performances. But Stanley was one of the greats for a while. A star on Broadway, she was nominated twice for a Tony. And in films, there were only four roles over her lifetime, but she was nominated for Oscars twice and won an Emmy.
She was born in New Mexico and died in New Mexico. In between, there was turmoil and triumphs and bad endings. She was a great actor with a gene for self-destruction.
Demons in focus
Stanley was born Patricia Reid in 1925 in Tularosa, New Mexico. Her mother, Rubyann, was an interior decorator who’d once longed for the stage. Her father, J.T., was an educational administrator. When he took a position at the University of New Mexico in 1928, he moved the family to Albuquerque. She left the Land of Enchantment in the 1940s and returned twice in her later years — first in the 1970s, when she taught at the College of Santa Fe, and then in the 1990s. For reasons of her own, she usually told people she was from Texas. Her biographer, Jon Krampner, who published The Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley, in 2006, says, “She thought Albuquerque was this dismal, bourgeois place, whereas Texas was this large, mythic place. She was very imaginative, and when reality didn’t conform to her wishes, she just set about reconfiguring reality. She was known for inventing her back story, her front story, and her middle story.”
Krampner emphasizes Stanley’s troubled relationship with her “love denying” father throughout Female Brando, writing that Reid didn’t have much use for a daughter, and that Kim was always jealous of the camping and fishing excursions he took with her three brothers. He quotes the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel, at whose home Stanley was a house guest in the 1960s and again in the early ’70s. He said that the secret to Stanley’s acting talent — and to her anger and disappointment as a person — was J.T. Reid: “When you explore it, I think you’re going to find that she could never please her father, that more than anything she wanted to be her father. This was the power that hung over her and made her demons all focus and go wild and come out.”
And perhaps sometimes was useful. Jack Klugman worked with Stanley off-Broadway in a 1949 performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Krampner recalls that Klugman was blown away by her concentration onstage. “It was so intense that she would pull him into the reality of the scene that she was creating.” Krampner adds that “She did a lot of research. JP Miller, who wrote Days of Wine and Roses, talked about how she appeared in a live television drama that he wrote, playing a housewife in Queens. She went to Queens and observed some of these women. Miller said she got the mannerisms right, the accent right. When she appeared in A Far Country, a play about Freud’s early years, her character had become paralyzed in part over guilt feelings over wishing her father would die. When Freud confronts her with this, on stage, tears shot out of Kim’s eyes and she started shrieking.” Speaking to Krampner years later, an audience member who saw the performance as a teenager told him that as the lights came up, people were so overcome by what they had seen that they were clutching each other.
But Stanley was notoriously difficult to work with, Krampner says, and was known for leaving the runs of plays early. Even her New York Times obituary in 2001 brings this up, relating an anecdote from Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, in 1958, in which she appeared with the legendary Helen Hayes and the British actor Eric Portman. “After opening night Ms. Stanley missed a number of performances. It was no secret by then that she and Portman were not on speaking terms, and it was no great surprise when Ms. Stanley abruptly left the play, blaming Portman for slapping her in one scene with what she said was excessive enthusiasm,” Robert Berkvist wrote. Stanley suffered a nervous breakdown in the mid-1960s and never acted on Broadway again.
Despite her reputation, and even after she withdrew from the public eye, people still sent her scripts and wanted to work with her. “She was an extraordinary actress,” Krampner says. He recalls an anecdote from Female Brando. Gregory Peck visited Stanley when she was at CSF. “The chair of the performing arts department, John Weckesser, was praising Peck as an actor. Peck gestured across the room at Kim and said, ‘I’m not the actor. There’s the actor.’ ”
A few semesters at the Greer Garson Theatre
Regina McBride was 18 when she met her new college professor in the fall of 1975. Stanley appears in McBride’s 2016 memoir, Ghost Songs. In 1974, McBride’s father and then her mother died by suicide, just five months apart. Stanley’s presence in Ghost Songs conveys just how crucial she was in McBride’s life during those tumultuous years, when she was left alone to care for her younger siblings. Shortly after they met, Stanley told McBride that she was a gifted actress and took her under her wing.
“I told Kim about my parents’ suicides the first time I went to her office,” the 63-year-old recalls. “In the first weeks in her class, she gave me great support and recognition. She also called me frequently, and we talked. We became friends. Her recognition at that time in my life meant a lot. On my 19th birthday, she bought me a long blue dress and wrote me a beautiful card. But not long into the semester, she started drinking. She would come to class drunk, or she just wouldn’t show up.”
Despite McBride’s dwindling trust in her teacher, she still hoped for her approval and ran errands for her when Stanley needed her help over the next few semesters. In 1977, she asked McBride to find her some very specific luggage. The student had recently seen a revival screening of The Goddess at a local movie theater and lauded Stanley’s performance.
“She told me that it was a very badly edited film. She was agitated and angry, wanting badly to leave Santa Fe. She wanted a travel bag for her capes and dresses. I searched all over town and could not find something satisfactory. She was angry with me for not finding anything and so we did not have a nice farewell,” McBride says.
Stanley went to New York in the middle of the semester, McBride recalls, leaving only a wisp of her complicated legacy behind at the Greer Garson Theatre. Despite their uneasy parting, they met in New York City in 1979, after McBride graduated. But McBride struggled with the erratic Stanley and the two eventually lost touch.
More than 40 years later, McBride still hesitates to talk about it. “Now and then, she’d call me and say something cruel. She told me she felt I didn’t feel anything about my parents’ suicides, that I was dead inside.”
Stanley’s short tenure at CSF was marked by intense, sometimes emotionally devastating teacher-student relationships, although not everyone had the same experience with her.
Katharine Lee, 72, was in her 30s when she studied with Stanley at the college. “I learned about the work from watching her give feedback to other students,” she says, still effusive about having been able to learn from her. “There was one scene I remember, with a student who was working on a historical character. Kim said to him, ‘Let me suggest that you might have an easier time finding the character if you take off your wristwatch since those didn’t exist in the days of your character.’ ”
Lee studied with Stanley in New York City as well, and they reconnected after Stanley returned to Santa Fe in the 1990s. “I knew that Kim suffered from alcoholism, like many brilliantly gifted people,” she says. “Because of my experience with other alcoholics, I knew to cut her a lot of slack when it was clear she’d been drinking heavily. She was never unkind to me.”
‘She was a pistol’
After Stanley left New York City late in the 1970s, she landed once again in Los Angeles. In her last handful of roles, she was nominated for an Oscar for playing Frances Farmer’s domineering mother in 1982’s Frances, starring Jessica Lange. She won an Emmy for playing Big Mama in a 1984 television production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In 1995, she moved back to Santa Fe.
Santa Fe actress Debrianna Mansini met Stanley in the late 1990s through a boyfriend who’d known her at CSF. A longtime fan of Stanley’s, Mansini was at first awestruck in her presence, but the two quickly became friends. Mansini, who was in her 30s at the time, often visited with Stanley at her home, and Stanley would go see her perform at local theaters.
“We talked a lot about the work and how to approach the work,” she says. “She told a lot of stories. I would go get prescriptions for her, bring her cookies, have tea. But I wonder something. I know that she was an alcoholic. I know she had troubled relationships with her children. Maybe she could be caustic. She was a pistol right up until her dying moment, very direct. But she wasn’t drinking by then. I never saw her drunk, as far as I know.
“What I wonder is, now that we know what we know about people like Harvey Weinstein and how women have been abused and silenced throughout the industry for so long, well — what was it like for someone like Kim, trying to be in the business in the 1950s?”
It seems a valid question, given that the title of Stanley’s biography honors her legacy by referring to her as the female version of a brilliant man; as if she were merely a reflection of a man’s abilities. And her biographer attributes most of her major dissatisfaction in life to a lack of paternal affection from a man who preferred sons to daughters — a sort of built-in patriarchal construct she could never escape.
“What were those pressures, and what might she have gone through? Kim had a powerful, strong personality,” Mansini continues. “I can’t imagine what it was like for women with that drive and talent. Aside from whatever might have gone on in her past, just being a powerful person in a female body must have been hard.”
Asked about how Stanley might have fared in Hollywood and on Broadway given the hindsight of the #MeToo era, Krampner says, “By the time she made The Goddess in 1958, she was already Kim Stanley, famous Broadway actress. She didn’t suffer the indignities of the casting couch.” As far as what happened during A Touch of the Poet, he says, “Kim was very difficult on that play. At one point, Helen Hayes chewed her out and told her to knock this nonsense off. One thing Kim would do is she was constantly improvising within the run of the play, and it would throw the other actors off. It’s possible that [Portman] slapped her too hard, and it’s possible that’s part of why he did it.”
Stanley died on Aug. 20, 2001, at age 76. The cause of death was uterine cancer. Because it was obvious that the end was coming soon, Mansini visited her friend at St. Vincent Hospital before she went to work that day. Stanley was no longer able to speak, but the nurses said that she could hear, so Mansini had been reading to her from Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel, Like Water for Chocolate. She held her hand and stayed for as long as she could. Breathing through a few old tears, Mansini remembers the rest of the morning.
“I was walking from the parking lot to the shop where I worked. This big monarch butterfly followed me all the way up the street. And I knew that Kim had died.” ◀