|Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952).|
Shirley Booth played the titular domestic on the TV sitcom Hazel for just five years, 1961 through 1966, but it so defined her that it obscured everything she had done before – twenty-five years of starring roles on Broadway and a handful of movies that included her Oscar-winning performance in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952. It was that film that brought her to Hollywood, to recreate the role she’d played on stage two years earlier (which had won her the second of her three Tony Awards). Booth broke through in 1935 in George Abbott and John Cecil Holm’s comedy Three Men on a Horse; her stage work, varied and prolific, included The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotton and Van Heflin (she played the hard-boiled photographer Liz Imbrie), My Sister Eileen,Goodbye, My Fancy, The Time of the Cuckoo and Desk Set, as well as a trio of musicals: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, By the Beautiful Sea and Juno, Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. (When Hollywood optioned them, Hepburn took over the Booth parts in The Time of the Cuckoo – renamed Summertime – and Desk Set.) She had a long career – about half a century, though much of it remains inaccessible to us except through photographs.
It was her talent for playing hard-boiled, wisecracking characters, sane and straight-dealing, that first got her noticed, and those qualities won the hearts of TV viewers when she starred in Hazel. You can hear them on the cast albums of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (where, as Aunt Cissy, she sings “Love Is the Reason” and “He Had Refinement”) and By the Beautiful Sea and, mixed with other, downbeat tones, in Juno, where she’s Juno Boyle, a long-suffering Dublin housewife living in a slum tenement during the Irish Troubles. You can hear them in her 1962 recordings of Dorothy Parker’s “Lady with a Lamp,” “Cousin Larry” and especially “The Waltz,” which conveys the inner monologue of a woman saddled with a hopeless klutz of a dance partner. And you can hear and see them in her performance in the 1958 film version of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, the genesis of Hello, Dolly! Booth is Dolly Gallagher Levi, the widowed matchmaker who’s set her own cap for her wealthiest client, storekeeper Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford). The movie, directed by Joseph Anthony, is very stagy; the actors (Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse among them) even address the camera. But once you get used to the idea that you’re really watching a play on a soundstage, it’s possible to luxuriate in this quite dazzling display of Booth’s technique. She purses her lips while glancing around with mock coyness, batting her eyes, smiling secretly, raising one eyebrow so that her face becomes elastic, sashaying down the street as she swings her bag oh-so-gently. Yes, these are stage tricks, but her command of them is prodigious, and her line readings are always surprising. The pauses she takes in her sentences are never the ones you expect, and the color she lends to a line like “He breaks hearts like hazelnuts” turns it into a major laugh. In one scene, she reads aloud a letter to Horace from a made-up heiress that she wrote herself. It contains effusive compliments for Dolly, and she blushes as she reads them.
The Matchmaker was the last of her four movie appearances (not counting her cameo in Main Street to Broadway, where she plays herself), and it was her only comedy. In the others – Come Back, Little Sheba, About Miss Leslie and Hot Spell – she plays lonely women whom life has passed by. Sheba is William Inge’s drama about the marriage of Doc Delaney, a recovering alcoholic chiropractor (Burt Lancaster, miscast) and Lola, a childlike, gone-to-seed woman in a small Midwestern town. He courted her when she was a pretty, popular teenager, got her pregnant and had to drop out of med school to wed her, and then the child died. Like one of Tennessee Williams’ iconic female characters, Lola can’t let go of her vanished youth, while Doc is working like hell to repress his – to forget the amorous young man who made love to his adolescent girl friend and threw his life away. He’s absorbed the AA credo about living one day at a time, but not the part about owning up to your past. (This is the first movie to include a scene at an AA meeting.) So reminders of it, which come to him through the romance he observes between the Delaneys’ college-student boarder (Terry Moore) and her jock boy friend (Richard Jaeckel), cause him to fall off the wagon. The title is an allusion to Lola’s beloved dog, who ran off some time ago but for whom she hasn’t stopped looking and calling. The dog is a bald symbol of her youth; only at the end, after Doc has returned from a few days drying out at City Hospital, does Lola determine to stop waiting for her to return. The play’s dramaturgy is banal but undeniably effective, as it is in Inge’s other plays, Picnic and Bus Stop, and in his screenplays for Splendor in the Grass and The Stripper, and here, as in those others, he makes you care about the characters. You care especially about Lola, who is devoted to Doc but lonesome at home, where she’s left to her own devices. There’s a nakedness to Booth’s portrait of this woman: she has no guards, no protection – she’s as open as a little girl. Every emotion, dark or light, cuts across her face like a shadow. The hopeful look she gets when a visitor appears at her door, even if it’s only the mailman (and without a letter for her), is devastating. Booth walks heavily in Lola’s overweight frame, especially when she comes downstairs in the morning, her face doughy and weary, but when she begs Doc to recite the AA prayer for her, or when she does the Charleston to a song on the radio, or when Marie sprays her with a little of her perfume, her sleepy eyes grow bright and she seems transformed – some part of her, at least – into the girl she used to be, the girl she still dreams about being.
|Paul Ford, Shirley Booth and Shirley MacLaine in The Matchmaker (1958)|
It’s authentically one of the great American performances, and its highlight, I think, is Lola’s brief phone conversation with her (unseen, unheard) mother, whom she calls after Doc gets bitterly, violently drunk, leaving her wayward and confused. She begs her mother to let her come home for a while – just until she can figure out her next step. But her father has never forgiven her for the scandal of her pregnancy; it’s clear that he no longer speaks to her. When, at the end of the call, she asks her mother to tell him hello for her, we know that she won’t, and that it wouldn’t do any good if she did. Hot Spell contains a painful phone call, too: Booth’s Alma, whose husband (Anthony Quinn) is out with another woman, asks her friend (Eileen Heckhart) if she might consider coming over to keep her company – and to share his birthday cake, left uneaten because of a terrible family quarrel. Hot Spell isn’t very good; you can spot the sources (Tennessee Williams and Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful and, inevitably, Come Back, Little Sheba), and it keeps veering into melodrama. But Booth throws herself into the role, and she has some wonderful scenes. It’s better than About Mrs. Leslie, in which Booth plays a woman who carries on a romance (entirely platonic, from what we can see) with a married millionaire, played by Robert Ryan. The casting of these two brilliant actors sounds promising but it doesn’t amount to much. Still, the scene where Booth’s Vivie finds out about her beau’s family has some heft to it.
The last major performance Booth gave was in a role she was born to take on, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. She played it on TV in 1966, and I saw it as a teenager and was knocked out by it. I’ve wanted to see it again for many years, but the tape was lost and only recently recovered, and Turner Classic Movies ran it at the end of the year. Actresses who try for Amanda almost always struggle; I’ve seen only a couple succeed. Booth, who gives her an affecting woeful quality, is extraordinary, and she suggests what, based on reports, Laurette Taylor might have been like when she played her on Broadway in 1945. Booth gets Amanda’s garrulous style and the ineffable power of nostalgia for her – her memories of her pampered southern girlhood, before she married a telephone man who “fell in love with long distance” and abandoned her and their children. As with Lola, the potent sweetness of those memories is in constant tension with her workaday weariness, which she carries around her eyes and in her forehead and in the muscles of her sagging face. When she begs Tom (Hal Holbrook) to bring a nice young man home from the warehouse for his sister Laura (played by Elia Kazan’s wife Barbara Loden), her Amanda sounds almost a little crazy, so desperate to save her hopelessly shy daughter from a life of dependency that she’s on the verge of hysteria. She’s fighting her own fear that it’s too late for Laura, leaping toward hope over the gap of reality. We finally see some joy in her when, a little later on, she finds that Tom has indeed invited a friend home for supper; her excitement as she makes plans, anticipating the possibility that the gentleman caller might be a genuine romantic prospect for Laura, is infectious, even though we know better than to think that anything will come of it. I love the lilt Booth gives to the phrase “happiness and a little good fortune,” her starry wish for her children, pinning all her hopes on this one evening. When, inevitably, it’s a disappointment – the visitor, Jim (Pat Hingle), turns out to be engaged to another woman, Booth’s face tenses up and then falls like a failed cake. Gracious southern hostess though she is, she can barely make it through the few minutes before he leaves, and when he kneels to say goodbye to Laura, she looks down at her daughter with a mixture of pity and heartache that shatters you. The production, directed by Michael Elliott, is mediocre; all three of the other actors are too old for their roles. But Booth’s performance makes it essential viewing for anyone who cares about acting.
The other astonishing depiction of a figure bereft in Booth’s repertoire is her reading of the last of the four Dorothy Parker monologues, “A Telephone Call,” about a woman waiting for the man she loves to call her – and pleading with God not to let her call him, to allow her at least a little pride. This short, indelible piece is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s monodrama The Human Voice and especially of Anna Magnani’s performance in the 1948 Roberto Rossellini movie version. Like Magnani’s, Booth’s emotional commitment to the man is an almost lunatic existential leap of faith. He called her “darling” twice the last time he spoke to her, she recalls: “That’s mine, that’s mine even if I never see him again.” At the end she makes a bargain with herself: she’ll count to 500 by fives, slowly, and if he hasn’t called by the time she’s finished, she’ll break down and pick up the phone. She’s starting to count as the monologue fades away. It obliterates you. Only these fragments of Booth’s long career remain to us, but they’re enough, surely, to confirm that she was one of the greatest of all American actresses.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.