Annette O'Toole and Barbara Feldon: The Starling and The Egret
"I'm off always hoping to fake the fog again, and I find myself sitting in movie theatres again, sometimes all day. When I was very young, I was in those palaces all the time, as I told you. Well, they are no longer palaces, I can assure you--they are boxy, dark rooms that smell of disinfectant, sweat, and cheap chocolate, but the screen is where these things happen, and the screen is where I look.
"I have abused the patience of Maria [St. Just] and Jane [Smith], who were not amused when I sat through films three times in one day. Why are you shocked? I get a voice, a gesture, and I think my next woman is appearing, teasing, setting me up for the next grand adventure.
"We search for jewels anywhere we can. Let's be wise in this.
"Have you seen the film Smile? I knew nothing of it; read nothing of it; simply saw it at the theatre and went in.
"I sat through it twice, happily, greedily. I think I found a starling and a glorious egret in that film, and I have some notes I would like to share with you.
"There is a young girl named Annette O'Toole in it. Do you know her? She was in that giddily awful Cat People remake--voodoo and chicory and a rampantly dumb foreign woman narcotizing the bayou; John Heard's beautiful forearms, so like Bill Inge's--and, of course, Annette O'Toole, jumping up and down to keep her head above the brackish waters.
"Think nothing of that. I hate that you know her from that. You'll think me mad. When I saw her in Smile, I immediately began making notes for a character, because she is such a dizzying combination of rare gifts and virtues. She has a radiant beauty, but one that does not appear to have crippled or calcified her--it is not a burden to her talent. There is a great humor and a great dignity to her acting, even when the material is risible. A great indicator of a talent is its ability to elevate meretricious material: we've discussed this. Well, Miss O'Toole catapults the meretricious.
"I think she is marvelous.
"She could grow into a Maggie; she could play Alma, and finally reveal that character as one who is stunted by sex by virtue of what sex is and what sex can do--not because she is too plain to obtain or enjoy it; she could give us a Laura who understands that she is crippled because she has lashed herself to Tom, a queer who is himself crippled, and to a mother who is limping toward an old age of destitution and delusion.
"I think she is capable of charming and scaring the hell out of us, and I want to write for her. I am writing for her.
"Tough and talented and beautiful and glazed with a palpable Southern courtesy. I see lovely things.
"Annette O'Toole is my starling--the egret of Smile was Barbara Feldon. Miss Feldon has long captivated me with her beauty and her lucid intelligence--a lapidary manner of speaking and moving and making her mark. I had only known her for the silliness of television, but she had a venal glamour and an athletic cruelty of movement in this film, and I saw her growing into a beautiful Gorgon of mine. Time will allow her the opportunity to become a Mrs. Venable, perhaps, or I can see myself pulling together another character. Feldon is astringent, precise.
"I saw her on stage--the ultimate test. She conquered that awful space [at Circle-in-the-Square], and she deftly maneuvered the inert Laurence Luckinbill--two tests passed before she slipped stealthily into her character. I can't tell you a thing about that play [Past Tense], but I can hand you a series of adjectives about her effect on me.
"I want to write something for her. I am going to write something for her.
"There is something I don't think you understand--that I don't think many people understand: There is a lack of control over one's artistic destiny that is pernicious and perilous. All of us enter the arts unaware if our timing has been wise, and all of us wonder who will meet us and husband us and support us. Timing is everything, as is tact. Luck is everything, not only in your arrival time, the allocation of talent among writers and directors and actors, but in what you were given at birth and how you chose to nurture, highlight, minimize, burnish it. Every moment of life matters--how you use the limited time given; how you recuperate from what it does to you; what you learn from the wear.
"I am angered when people criticize careers as if they were moves on an athletic field. What on earth were they thinking when they wrote that? What on earth is she doing with her career? These are questions that reveal the ignorance of the questioner. None of us has any control over the uses or neglect of our talents. We can control our time and we can hope to control our temperament when we are improperly used, trained, understood. Writers have a tiny advantage: we go to our desks and our pale judgment when we choose, but we then submit our work to people we hope are intelligent, curious, adventurous, somewhat kind, and momentarily flush with cash. We are insane to expect this menu of impossibilities, but it sometimes happens for us, and there is consummation.
"The actress, however, sits and waits, in possession of a talent, an intellect, a passion, and an expiration date. She can never know what is being written, considered, analyzed, and she can never know if she is the right ingredient for the next adventure.
"Be patient with actresses. They have all become virtually inured to abuse, and they may appear at times to be suffering a virtual Stockholm Syndrome within their craft, but there is an actress in there, and I use that term as its highest honor; I do not bestow it carelessly. Seek them out, write for them, dream for and about them. So many are lazy in who they want for roles; so few really investigate what is within a woman who acts. Don't be lazy. Search them out. Write for them. Surprise everyone."
The notes Tenn made for and about Annette O'Toole and Barbara Feldon are in my possession still. They would make a fascinating play.