Doris Roberts: Flowers In The Window
(In answer to a number of queries that have been sent to me: These pages do not comprise the book Follies of God, although portions seen here are within the final manuscript. These blog entries are culled from the many notes and journals I have kept over the years as I wrote the book and met the people Tenn advised me to meet. Everything cannot be in the book, but I think that Tenn's words--not to mention those about whom he wrote or spoke them--should be made public. I particularly wanted this post to appear, given that I spent time with Doris Roberts recently, when it was much needed. I present this with both Tenn's words and my thanks.)
Notes on Doris Roberts
Gathered in Conversation
The Court of Two Sisters
Tennessee Williams loved the work of the writer William Goyen, and he wrote, on an index card, the titles of the novels and short stories I should read by this man, who possessed, according to Tenn, "magical tendencies with words and with women; his situations are presented with the elegance that attends all talented writers, and this elegance gently presents these characters, deftly moves them into our hearts, at which time we are devastated by the trials in which they find themselves. Read all that you can of him."
Tenn had met Goyen in the 1950s, and when he learned that the writer had married the actress Doris Roberts, he became devoted, in his way, to her work--on stage, in films, and on television.
When children are very young, they understand, through intuition, to trust, or not, the arms that hold them. I think that children can look at someone and know that they can be held safely with them, that care will be taken. The child relaxes, sleeps, smiles.
I have this feeling when I'm in the pages of particular writers, and I feel it most viscerally when I see particular actresses appear: Nothing bad or unnecessary or without thought will take place when Mildred Natwick or Edith Evans or Irene Worth walks on a stage. No matter what you may eventually feel about the final production, you will admit that they gave themselves to their parts and were true and pure and, in their own ways, brilliant. Ruth Gordon possesses a stage, as does Zoe Caldwell. You go with them, you follow them, you are rewarded.
I feel this way with Doris Roberts, even as I saw her in various supporting parts in New York. She possesses her characters and she possesses the stage; she is utterly assured that she belongs, and so are we. She is true and focused and firm; there are no fuzzy lines around the characters she draws. Bold, fierce, confident.
She has a baleful look that can break your heart or send you into gales of laughter. She had a bit part in The Heartbreak Kid--the mother of a bride, and the wedding took place in one little room, and she briskly walked to her seat, beamed, waved to well-wishers. I liked that film; I remember many things; I remember her two minutes. She possessed them.
She and Linda Lavin turned [The Last of the] Red Hot Lovers into something I could enjoy. They elevated it; they invested it with so much truth--they possessed their characters and that stage--so that I could forget the mechanics and see and feel the humanity. You have to understand how much heavy lifting that is--particularly for me, with that play.
I felt that there was an homage to me, of sorts, in Hester Street. I love that film so; I lived with that film for such a long time, held it in my vision. Doris was the landlady, flinty and briny and tough: You feel at first that you should hate her, but Doris played a light hand--an elegant hand, smooth and sure, like Bill Goyen's pen--and presented us to her as neither good nor bad, simply human, simply coping. Her character defends the sad woman played by Carol Kane--she berates her husband, who takes her for granted and fails to notice the work she does, the faith she possesses. Doris recounts the virtues of this woman, then adds 'And a flower in the window.' In this grimy tenement, redolent of sweat and grease and fear, this woman has cleaned as much as she could, then placed a drop of color, a flower, in the window. Flores para los muertos, indeed. Dead in spirit, dead in hopes, but flowers in the window.
Flowers in the window. Possessing the stage. Owning the character.
And loving Bill Goyen.