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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson — Part III - Follow Kellow

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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson — Part III

BK: Maybe Elia Kazan didn’t cast you in Splendor in the Grass, as we discussed a few weeks earlier. But you had quite a lot of movie activity in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

EW: I did.

BK: You played Kim Stanley’s “overseer” at the end of The Goddess (1958).

EW: Yes. I’m not sure that’s a good movie. I think I was a lesbian in that. Kim Stanley was such a wonderful actress. Unique. She was so good in Picnic onstage.

BK: What in your opinion made Kim Stanley so overwhelming?

EW: Well, as we used to say when I studied with my blessed Sanford Meisner, Kim was truly in the moment. You never knew what was going to happen. You knew there was something going on in her heart, in her soul, always brewing away. So much steam coming out of her. It all seemed to be for the first time. She had that ability to make it seem so, even to those of us [rehearsing with her]. So many of the gifted people I knew had that ability; they surprised you all the time. You were holding your breath.

I’ll give you an example. We filmed The Goddess in Baltimore. And there’s a scene in the cemetery where we bury her mother. The grave is open, and I can’t remember the man who played Kim’s husband—but she pulled us both into the grave! I was screaming. She wanted to be with her mother. We had to film it again, of course, because she had pulled her husband and her caretaker into the grave, on top of the casket. She couldn’t help it.

BK: It was not written that way.

EW: No. No way. John Cromwell directed The Goddess. He was a man I adored. He was treated very badly on it. I forget who the producers were, but they kind of took over at the end.

I never really knew Kim socially. I was interviewed by the man who wrote her biography.

BK: The Female Brando?

EW: Yes. I hate that title.

I think acting saved Kim’s life. Her children had little problems with her, and the daughter lived with Maureen Stapleton. She was a tortured soul. It was also true of Maureen, who was a very unusual, sweet, funny, dear girl. I did only one play with her, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild. It was silly, and it wasn’t a success. But she was brilliant. One night—I am not making this up—I swear there was a light around her. A light around her head and shoulders. A kind of iridescence and intensity. She blew me away, too. Maureen and I spent a lot of time with Colleen Dewhurst. I was at the house in South Salem with Colleen when George and I were doing Uncle Vanya. And he had this huge crush on Julie Christie, and she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And suddenly, one night, George’s car come in and skid—he was drunk. The kitchen had a sideboard, and he pushed all the dishes off the top of it, and they all crashed onto the floor. He had to show off his strength. My God, he was strong. He started skidding around the kitchen, and Colleen and I got out to the kitchen and went into the other room. We were scared. And he came into the room and started choking me! It was so bizarre. And Colleen said, “GEORGE—THAT’S ELIZABETH!” And he said, “Oh …” And then he let go.

BK: Ted Mann [founder of Circle in the Square] said that George C. Scott was one of the most generous actors he ever knew—that Scott, despite being a huge star in the 1970s, kept coming back to work for the company for only $1,000 a week—that he was loyal and generous, financially, too.

EW: All true. He was all of those. Maybe he was misunderstood by a lot of of people, but he was so bright and caring. A remarkable soul.

BK: The other day, A Child is Waiting (1962) was on TV. We were watching at home and Scott called out, “There’s Liz!” Such a sense of intimacy John Cassavettes gets from the actors in that film. You and Judy Garland played teachers in a school for mentally challenged children.

EW: I worshipped Judy Garland. Talk about a warm, giving, loving personality. Magic onscreen and magic in life. So funny and smart. She was having lots of problems. She would film for four days and then be off for four days. We were filming a scene one day, and Burt Lancaster was so rude to her, because he wanted to get the thing over with and get on with his life. And Judy said to me, “He really is impossible. Fuck him. Just fuck him!”

We worked with real retarded children. We would bus them in, and I would work with the same group of children every day. I loved them so. And we had the premiere at the White House, because of Rosemary Kennedy. There was another woman in the cast, too. I got to know her.

BK: Barbara Pepper. She was wonderful. She was supposed to be Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, but Desi Arnaz wouldn’t use her because she had a bad drinking problem, and that was already an issue with William Frawley. Arnaz didn’t want two people with drinking problems on such a fast-paced series.

In 1963, you had a nice supporting part for Hitchcock, in The Birds, as the waitress in the lengthy, crucial cafe sequence, in which everything goes up in flames. How long did that take to film? It’s very complicated.

EW: Hitchcock had seen the rushes of A Child is Waiting, and hired me for The Birds. We worked on that cafe sequence for about two weeks. Good group of people. It was always “Mr. Hitchcock.” He was very nice to me. Every day, he invited another actress in that sequence, Ethel Griffies, and me, to his trailer for tea.

I remember one Sunday—I was staying at the Montecito in Hollywood—and I had been working about two weeks on the film. I was walking up the hill with the Sunday Times under my arm, and I looked up and this bird flew around and flew around and around and just plunged into my back. Just crazy. So the next day, Monday, I went to work, and told Mr. Hitchcock what had happened, and he said to me, “I’m not a-tall surprised”!


You can watch A Child is Waiting by following this link:

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  1. Well, as if these conversations couldn’t get any better — a story about Judy Garland!

  2. I’m not sure whose got the better stories — Elizabeth Wilson or YOU! In any case, the combination of the two is magic. Do keep them coming.

    Judy Rice
    New York City

  3. She is an inexhaustible fount of great stories! The one about George C. Scott is terrifying. I don’t care how sweet and generous he could be; he was clearly one mean, violent drunk. I can’t imagine how any of he women in his life could put up with him for long.

    • In a publishing era less parched than the one we’re living in, Liz’ oral history would have made a terrific book. In fact, that was the idea. You could say the same, I’m sure, for Barbara Barrie, Barnard Hughes, Fritz Weaver, and countless other great stage actors.

  4. Brian, your Liz Wilson stories are thrilling me to no end!
    Please tell me there is a Chapter 4 and 5 on the way!
    Then, I will sleep easier tonight!

    • Well, you are probably awake by now, but yes, there’s a Part Four on the way. So happy that people are loving these so much.

  5. Utterly delightful. It’s wonderful reading the reminiscences of such a formidable
    performer and the people with whom she was associated. Always a pleasure to receive your blogs , Brian.

    • Thanks, Russ! Knowing Liz and benefiting from her point of view about so many things has definitely been a highlight for me.

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