On the cover of Time

Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.

I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge.  This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose  marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.

I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The  Vinegar Tree.”

On the cover of TV Guide during the run of her second TV series, "A Touch of Grace."

She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.

I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.

“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”

And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”

Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.

Shirley Booth, Don DeFore, and Whitney Blake in a publicity shot for "Hazel."

KATHARINE HEPBURN

We watched “Summertime,” a 1955 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossanno Brazzi, inspired — if I remember right — by the fact that it was shot entirely on location in Venice. In that respect, it was no disappointment. The photography took full advantage of the city.

The premise of the movie is that Jane Hudson (Hepburn), an executive secretary from Akron, Ohio, is vacationing in Venice. It is clear from the beginning that Jane leads a life devoid of excitement and that she came to Venice with the vague hope — accompanied by a vague fear — that something extraordinary will happen to her. The “something,” which anyone would have deduced from the opening credits, is Renato de Rossi (Brazzi), a Venetian shopkeeper with a complicated domestic life.

ROSSANO BRAZZI

After what seems like an interminable buildup, during which Jane’s discomfort as a solo act in Venice is excruciatingly developed, she and Renato have a couple of chance meetings in which Jane’s skittish reaction to him is difficult to understand. At last their acquaintance flourishes until it is consummated in something that couldn’t be shown on the screen in 1955 but was ably represented by fireworks exploding over Venice while one of Jane’s new red shoes lies forsaken on the balcony of Renato’s apartment.

I won’t be a spoiler, but let’s just say there won’t be an opening for a secretary in Akron.

One of many panoramic views of Venice in "Summertime."

We found this film worth watching, but it’s got its flaws. One is that the transitions in Jane’s moods from one scene to the next are rather abrupt in a couple of cases. That might be a function of a larger problem, which is that this movie is largely about Jane’s interior life, but we don’t get much of a look at that. We don’t know why this woman, whom Renato finds irresistible, was incapable of finding romance without coming to Venice.

This film was based on “The Time of the Cuckoo,” which is a play by Arthur Laurents, who — among other things — wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” I haven’t seen that play, but it ran on Broadway in 1952-53 and won a best-actress Tony award for Shirley Booth, who played the character originally named Leona Samish.

ARTHUR LAURENTS

I do know Arthur, though, and I have seen several plays he has written more recently. His work displays a great deal of  insight into the human psyche — maybe I should say the human soul — particularly where love is concerned. I suspect Jane is more understandable in the play.

I have read that the makers of this film didn’t like Arthur’s screenplay and hired another writer to monkey with it. If so, I don’t think they did the audience any favors.

"Arrivederci!"

KURT COBAIN

KURT COBAIN

Old Man Trouble can’t stay away from Kurt Cobain’s door. The huzzerai over the plaque honoring him in his hometown in Washington seems to have died down, but now there is a problem with how his image is used in the video game Guitar Hero 5.

Courtney Love, who was married to Cobain at the time of his death in 1994, gave Activision, the publisher of the game, permission to use Cobain’s image, but she says she did not know or agree that the avatar could be activated so as to sing other writers’ songs. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, Cobain’s Nirvana-mates, are also annoyed. Love says there will be legal action against Activision if the game isn’t altered so as to restrict the use of Cobain’s image to songs associated with him.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

SHIRLEY BOOTH

There have been similar blowups in the past, including one involving the great stage and screen actress Shirley Booth, who played the housemaid Hazel from 1961 to 1966 in a TV series based on Ted Key’s cartoon character by the same name. After the show left the air, in 1971, Key gave Colgate-Palmolive permission to use the Hazel image in a commercial for a detergent called Burst.

The sponsor or its ad agency hired an actress named Ruth Holden to provide the voice in the commercial, but the voice sounded exactly like Shirley Booth’s voice, as I recall myself. Anyone who was familiar with Booth and saw that commercial would have assumed the voice was hers.

Shirley Booth thought so, too. She sued the sponsor and its ad agency in federal court, but the court didn’t agree with her complaint.

For now, you can see the Kurt Cobain avatar and read a Christian Science Monitor blog about Courtney Love’s objections, both at this link:

http://features.csmonitor.com/innovation/2009/09/11/courtney-love-outraged-by-kurt-cobains-role-in-guitar-hero-5/