“Tennessee loved his women,” Rex Reed said of Tennessee Williams who was born 100 years ago today. “He didn’t want to sleep with them, he exalted them in a completely different way.” Legendary actresses who brought Williams’ characters to life held court with Reed in a panel opening the 25th annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. As fans mourn the death of Elizabeth Taylor who played Maggie in Cat in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, actresses Shirley Knight, Carroll Baker and Zoe Caldwell shared their recollections of Williams with Reed in a panel discussion at Le Petit Theatre.
All three actresses told Reed they did not start out wanting to be movie stars, almost unheard of in today’s celebrity-maddened culture. Baker (pictured at left) described walking away from a successful film career in America and moving to Italy with her two children and $8,000 in the bank. She made a life there. Williams visited her once a year telling her every time, “I haven’t seen you in ages!” Starting out in show business as a young magician with a difficult working relationship with her rabbit eventually led to a switch to an acting career. “I did not like that rabbit,” Baker said. Advance publicity posters from Baby Doll raised a holy furor before her movie Giant had came out, and Baker described her first experience with the press: an AP reporter calling to ask for her response to Cardinal Spellman denouncing her role from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Which film?” she asked. Rumors at the time ran rampant, and at one point, “They said I really slept in a crib!” All in all, she would rather have been an anthropologist.
Caldwell spoke of her Tony-winning role in Slapstick Tragedy, one of her many Tony Awards, and of Williams’ habit of sitting in the balcony, laughing through the sad moments in his plays. “All he did was laugh, with a sort of sweet Heh Heh,” she said, adding that he once said the laughter was his protection. Her role in Slapstick Tragedy required that she wear whiteface, and was one of his plays which stymied critics who he sometimes referred to as “the carrion birds” according to Reed, who was both a critic and a friend of Tennessee.
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