Carol Kane: Pregnant With Peril

 Carol Kane in Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street (1975).

Tenn was desperate for images and sounds that would help him fake the fog, from which a female form would emerge, talking, and leading him to a play.

He searched for plays and films and television programs from which a woman would emerge, but he preferred the movie theatres: cool, dark places where he could sit and drink and think and focus on the screen. Tenn adored the theatre that rested beneath the Plaza Hotel, because it was small, generally empty, and there were doors and stairways that led to bars and necessary rooms in the hotel above. "I took vacations there many times," he quipped.
On a rainy October day in 1975, Tenn sat for four consecutive viewings of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, convinced that a film, partially in Yiddish, about Jews making a life for themselves in turn of the century New York, would remove him from the clutter and disarray that his life and mind had become. “Black and white,” he remembered, “like a photograph.” The images of the film reminded him of the photographs he had stood before in museums, of an earlier New York, of an earlier country. Alien country, he called it, one he could invest with any emotion he chose, or in which he could deposit new types of characters. He fell in love with the film’s star, Carol Kane, who looked to him like an early sketch for a painting by Hans Memling, alabaster, with huge eyes. He found her “pregnant with peril and possibility,” and recalling that day, and all of those viewings, he remembered that he didn’t know if she was “a benign or a malignant presence,” but “she is like an angel, a spirit of some kind, that sits on the ledge of your window or your shoulder, and can’t be ignored.” Tenn had recalled the few seconds in which she had appeared in what he called “that Gilroy thing” [the film Desperate Characters, which also featured his “beloved, glorious” Sada Thompson], and he thought that she “vibrates and glows, as she did in Carnal Knowledge, where she speaks volumes with her body and her eyes. Her hooker [in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail] is degraded, abraded, exhausted, but still up for the lubricous necessities, and I wanted more of her and less of the dismal jocularity.”

   In Hester Street Kane did “so much without any of the trappings I usually want in a transforming performance--no big scenes, no breakdowns, no ‘come-of-age’ moments. She is simply, amply human, and grows in that incremental way that people we see every day, people we take for granted, do all the time. The film snatches her in time, freezes the development of this woman, and displays it for us.” 

"I am hopeful for her," Tenn told me. "Marvelously and manically gifted, I would like to write for her, and I will." At the end of our visit, Tenn handed me several jagged pages--from various sources--on which he had begun a play for this "divine image that we've been blessed to host--Carol Kane."
   Doris Roberts, an actress Tenn had already seen on the stage and had admired, and who had, he believed, made a life for William Goyen that improved his writing, appeared as a landlord, often sympathetic, often avaricious, with her “baleful and beautiful face,” and delivered the line of the film that Tenn wrote down, repeated, loved. “And a flower in the window,” a piece of praise the woman offers for Kane’s sad, unwanted character, who makes every effort to improve her husband’s life and home, even putting a flower in the window of their small, hot, filthy apartment. “Flowers,” Tenn remembered, “like the flowers that come to the door of the Kowalski apartment. A sign, an effort. In Blanche’s case, a portent of death and funerals and beaux who will not arrive, but in Hester Street a proclamation that life is within these walls and will continue.”

   Tenn praised Carol Kane and Joan Micklin Silver (whose control of her films Tenn wanted to apply to his writing) to friends, particularly Irene Worth, who took time from her preparations and rehearsals for the revival of Sweet Bird of Youth to see the film—alone. “I knew from experience not to do such things with Tennessee,” she said. “He talked, he moved, his attention wandered.” Worth did, however, respond as strongly to the film, and she told Tenn what she had thought of Carol Kane. “Then he tapped me, so to speak,” she remembered. “I became a sort of scout or ambassador. I was assigned to search for women who might help him fake the fog. And I did. It was something to keep us in touch. Tenuously, but in touch.”


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