The Home Stretch: Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon

(the 8th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

KIM STANLEY IN SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5):

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater

Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style

Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Kim Stanley was a New Mexico-born, method-trained stage actress who, through a fluke of casting, found herself a part of Bryan Forbes’ unnerving British chamber piece in a role meant for Deborah Kerr.  The result is one of the best performances I have view in a long, long time on this quest: a study in dangerous delusion to rival Gloria Swanson.  Kim plays an ambitious two-bit fortuneteller who ruthlessly engineers a plot to kidnap a wealthy family’s daughter and exploit the crime to promote her clairvoyant abilities.  This pulpy setup expands into an intelligent thriller that hinges on the inner workings of its unsettled mastermind.  Kim breathes to life a grand gothic figure, and as the plan slowly frays, we also see fractures form in her shell of delirium and catch glimpses of the tormented creature that lies beneath.

Too often in this reputedly weak category, a strong performance drives a weak film.  Forbes, however, has crafted a plot befitting a first-rate crime thriller that issues from a character study of the woman who willed the crime into existence.  The plan is oddly split between the seemingly flawless—if precarious—mechanics of the crime itself (spiriting away the little girl) and the harebrained notions of capitalizing on the family’s desperation, reflecting the character’s own split between a formidable intellect and equally potent powers of rationalization.  Still, when everything begins to work according to plan, we marvel at the fortuneteller’s mad genius.

Part of the perverse pleasure in the film is in breathlessly watching the crime unfold; Forbes borrows a page from Psycho and has the likable husband (played by Richard Attenborough, in a prosthetic nose) carry out the dirty work at the behest of his cruel mistress, sans identity twist.  When things start to go slightly awry, however, we start to cringe at her coldblooded rationalizations for an increasingly heinous crime.  She illustrates the ability of the brightest people to manipulate reality for the worst reasons, and worse still, the question lingered for me as the film unfolded: is she wise to her own games?  Is this all an act she puts on for her many audiences, a play designed to preclude any attempt to reason with, or more specifically against her ruthless will?

Prior to Seance, Kim was best known onscreen (or rather, offscreen) as the voice of an adult Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, a task that revealed her skill at characterization while leaving her appearance a mystery.  Here, Kim’s resolutely non-movie star appearance helps immensely; in contrast to the still-gorgeous Deborah in the previous year’s The Innocents, Kim’s frumpier, stockier physicality strips her of the charm we so often indulge in stars-as-villains, presenting instead a dangerously plausible desperation.

As regards her technique: despite the expected incongruousness of the Method in a British drama, Kim fits herself to the role of a middle-class mystic like a hand to a glove, down to every spasm of rage and sing-song exclamation.  She imbues the character with several layers, from the fragile dreaminess evident throughout (evoking Joe Gillis’ warning about waking sleepwalkers) to her constant intelligence and tyrannical willpower: we pray for her cowering husband to defy her as she drives them both further and further down the path of no return, to no avail.  And beneath it all is the dread that her character will truly unhinge; while Forbes directs the kidnapping scenes with tense restraint, the real suspense lies in what Kim will do next.  See this damn movie!

For 1964, it’s sacrilege to dethrone the wonderful Academy favorite of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, but I’ve been converted, and unless Anne Bancroft pulls a Harvey-sized rabbit out of her hat, my vote is going to Kim.  A true jewel of a performance, and one I will remember after all this quest nonsense is over and done.

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One thought on “The Home Stretch: Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon

  1. […] I uncovered brilliant works like A Woman Under the Influence, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, or Seance on a Wet Afternoon, all of which I’d barely heard of (if at all) when I took my vow regarding The African Queen.  […]

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