In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts:
By Sally Field
Grand Central Publishing, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
In 2017, I had the honor of seeing Sally Field portray Amanda Wingfield in a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, directed by and co-starring Joe Mantello. While the idiosyncratic production itself proved problematic to some eyes, it was nonetheless thrilling for me to commune with one of my generation’s performing icons, a woman looking great and taking care of business at age 70, while snagging a Best Actress in a Play Tony nomination to boot. And now, thanks to her remarkable memoir, I cherish our time together that evening even more.
As many biographies and memoirs as I read every year, I don’t often find myself seemingly transported into the author’s essence, as I did in this case. Field is a superb writer; be her recollections painful or joyous, her eloquence is compelling.
Born in 1946, Sally Field was largely raised by her actress-mother Margaret, who she adored but who would struggle with alcoholism much of her life. In the 1950s, actor/stuntman Jock Mahoney became Field’s stepfather and, per her allegations, began molesting her at around age 12: her descriptions of the abuse are not particularly graphic yet not open to misinterpretation. Field’s mother, to whom she would remain extremely close until Maggie’s death on her daughter’s 65th birthday, supposedly knew nothing about the abuse at the time, though her daughter shared the truth much later in both their lives.
Despite the presence of childhood sweetheart Steve Craig, who became Field’s first husband, the teenager became pregnant by another boy before beginning her television acting career in 1965. It’s stunning for me to realize that by the time we first saw Gidget on our TV screens, when Field was 16, she had already endured sexual abuse and undergone an abortion.
Gidget lasted only one season, but nonetheless made Field a household/media presence. While she tolerated her year in harness with that character, she frankly loathed her next starring persona, one Sister Bertrille, in 1967-1970’s The Flying Nun. It was hate at first sight the moment Field read the premiere episode’s script, but her family needed the income, and pressures surrounded her to make it work somehow. Let the typecasting and pigeon-holing begin.
Her marriage to Steve Craig produced two sons. Fortunately, despite family problems and fears that her career was permanently stalled, Field still managed to stretch herself artistically via classes at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, where she proved to herself and others that there was indeed a truly fine actress lurking beneath the pigtails and aeronautical nun’s habit.
After a third inconsequential TV series in the early 1970s, Field fought for, and won, the demanding role of a woman with multiple personalities—the title character in the 1976 miniseries Sybil, co-starring Joanne Woodward. To the astonishment of the entertainment world, the former Gidget/Bertrille offered a thundering performance, winning her first Emmy Award, and transforming her professional life. (I myself recall the media shock waves back then regarding both her portrayal and subsequent award victory. “THAT Sally Field?” the pundits asked incredulously. Yes, indeed.)
But finding big-ticket movie work after her momentary triumph still proved elusive. As she puts it: “If I failed to get a role, let it be because I wasn’t skilled enough or talented enough… What seemed a harder path to find was how to be given the opportunity to fail when my name never appeared on anyone’s list, when I was systematically dismissed, when no one wanted it to be said that the Flying Nun had been cast in their film.”
Field and Steve Craig divorced in 1975, and a few relationships later, her path crossed with one Burt Reynolds, with whom she would share the screen several times, perhaps most famously in Smokey and the Bandit. Their five-year relationship was initially fortified by Reynolds’ undeniable charm, but eventually ended due to his seeming inability to support Field’s career goals and his chronic jealousy.
But in the midst of their time together, along came a lady named Norma Rae, and nothing would ever be the same. Field reflects: “[Norma’s] struggle to stand up, her fight for respect, was the same as mine, for my work and myself…as Norma’s sense of dignity gradually emerged, I stood taller. As she unleashed her rage, I felt freed. When she found her voice, I heard mine…If I could play her, I could be me.” Her subsequent Oscar proved the skeptics wrong yet again.
The vast majority of Field’s narrative focuses on her childhood and early adulthood; ergo, her post-Norma career is condensed into far fewer pages. That was disappointing to an extent, but her approach to her life’s story—i.e., the “pieces” that have coalesced to make her the 21st century artist and citizen of the world she is today—serves a logical purpose, and is nevertheless riveting.
Later years found Field in a second marriage, eventually leading to another divorce, and a third son. Other notable film roles, including a second Oscar for Places in the Heart (1984), and several more Emmy Awards followed—including my personal favorite of her prizes, a 2001 Guest Performer in a Drama nod for her unforgettable arc as the manic-depressive mother of Maura Tierney’s Nurse Abby Lockhart, in the late, great medical series ER. Field’s stage career began in 2002 with Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, culminating 15 years hence with The Glass Menagerie.
But the film world still beckoned. Field lobbied mightily for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 epic Lincoln, finally winning both the part and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
But this memoir offers far more than a Sally Field career résumé, however illustrious. Throughout, Field gracefully shares her perspective on the inner forces shaping her from day one, including parent/child relationships; her own motherhood experiences; and how she has approached a varied life despite the overshadow of early sexual trauma. Her writing is lyrical and absorbing and showcases yet another talent from a remarkable woman.
So, yes, Sally—we do really, really like you. Thanks for sharing, and for all the rest of it, too.
Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever
By Peter Rader
Simon & Schuster, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Contrary to assumption, the concept of “dueling divas” did not originate in the TMZ era. Thanks to Peter Rader’s lively and enlightening double biography, we now know that legendary actresses Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) also had competing and somewhat intersecting careers, though they never met each other face-to-face. Despite their 14-year age difference, some facets of their personal and professional lives were remarkably similar, though their acting methods differed radically, forever shaping the art of stage performing for generations to come.
In his opening pages, Rader crystallizes the fundamental difference between the two women’s approaches to their art:
“[Eleonora] had been disrupting the Western theater world with a singular style that was both subtle and provocative, rooted in her body, yet profoundly mystical…her power lay in the silence between the words…By disappearing into the world of the play, she became the antithesis of Sarah Bernhardt, which is perhaps why Duse has largely been forgotten.
“Sarah never disappeared. No one sobbed as well as Bernhardt, no one despaired, no one died. When people paid to see the great ‘Sarah Bernhardt,’ the actress gave them a show they would never forget…her roles were riveting and indelible. By the sheer enormity of her stage presence, Bernhardt transformed the theater world…”
Whereas the French-born Bernhardt expressed emotion with movement, tableau poses, and declamation-verging-on-histrionics, the Italian Duse always took a naturalistic approach to character, sometimes even allowing prolonged silence on stage if such lack of dialogue seemed fitting for the person she portrayed. While Bernhardt brought thrills to her audience in far more bombastic ways, Duse opted to make her characterizations more subtle—and since the two women frequently performed the same characters in the same plays during their parallel careers, they offered a valuable visual object lesson to their audiences and to acting history in general.
But there was more to these women’s intersecting lives than just what appeared on stage, and Rader tells their stories engrossingly. Both women had extensive love lives, often conducting affairs with men able to advance their careers. In at least one notable instance, Bernhardt and Duse shared the same lover, though not simultaneously.
Each woman gave birth to a single child who grew up more or less neglected by their preoccupied mothers. As Rader describes, both actresses toured extensively with their productions, often finding themselves performing in the same cities, on dates scheduled close together. While they were keenly aware of each other’s projects and activities, and saw each other perform on occasion, Duse and Bernhardt never met in the flesh.
But, of course, there were major differences between them as well. Bernhardt relished publicity and her adoring crowds, while Duse was far more introverted. As Rader observes: “Eleonora’s art had been one of dissolving her ‘personality’ and becoming invisible. It had maddened Sarah, who had taken great pains as the pioneer of celebrity culture to fashion an unforgettable persona in her professional as well as personal endeavors. The Divine Sarah was larger than life, a legend that would outlive its mortal frame by decades, if not centuries. Duse, on the other hand, [according to Sarah], ‘puts on the gloves of others, but inside out…She has not created a being, a vision, that will evoke her memory.’”
Well, that’s not entirely true. In 1923, Duse became the first woman to grace the cover of the new publication Time Magazine. And here’s a bit of party trivia: from whence did the word “doozy” derive? From the name “Duse,” as it was somewhat carelessly uttered by audience members.
In further contrast to Duse, Bernhardt embraced the fledgling technology of silent motion pictures towards the end of her career, and there are brief vocal and visual clips of her efforts available on YouTube. Bernhardt continued performing long after her acting style seemed to have become passe, and after she was, at least on paper, far too old for the dewy yet strong heroines that were her stock in trade, such as the legendary Camille. In 1915, Bernhardt’s right leg was amputated, but she continued stage work without a prosthesis or crutch of any kind—she simply sat or leaned on props as much as possible. Duse retired from the stage in 1909.
Duse and Bernhardt died within a year of each other, having permanently altered the acting landscape via their parallel commitment to, and passion for their art, albeit with differing modus operandis, as it were. Their “rivalry” undoubtedly inspired each woman to bring her fullest self to each performance, along with continually seeking out the most substantive and audience—appealing works available—though, to be sure, both suffered creative and box-office failures along the way.
It’s good to be reminded of 19th-century and early-20th-century theatrical development as embodied in the lives of two remarkable female artists. In relatively few pages, Peter Rader has offered us a well-told tale of an era in cultural history that deserves not to be forgotten, along with the two actresses who gave extra punch and vigor to so much of it.
» Pages from the Arts now appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December 2017: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February 2018: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.