(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 4/23; photo: Variety.)
Luminous is an overused word in theater criticism, but the word is aptly applied to Shirley Knight, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress who died at age 83 on Wednesday in San Marcos, Texas.
A product of the Actors Studio heyday, she is linked to those Method stars who may have burned brighter but probably not as consistently. There was never a part, small or star, she didn’t illuminate from the inside out.
After receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” in which she played a teenager while in her mid-20s, Knight was cast as Heavenly Finley in the 1962 film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” directed by Richard Brooks. Her beauty had a celestial quality that might have seemed to earn her the part. But there was more to the actress than Hollywood glamour. There were contradictions worthy of a Williams heroine. Her Heavenly combined porcelain fragility with bitter strength. The movie belonged to Geraldine Page and Paul Newman, but Knight’s Heavenly clarified the drama’s tragic stakes.
In his book “A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio,” Foster Hirsch captured the vital paradox that was Knight’s presence: “Blonde, with dainty features and a translucent complexion, she might have become the conventional ingénue, playing a string of decorative roles. But anger churned beneath that pretty facade, and a sour expression — a stingy smile tinged with irony — promised thunder.”