A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White

by Adrienne Kennedy
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976 as a work in progress. This one-act play is introduced by the Columbia Pictures Lady speaking in Clara’s stead. Each scene is first a film set, with the leading roles played by the film’s primary actors. Places and people from Clara’s life, including Clara, who has only a bit part, appear in parallel supporting roles. In her stage directions, Kennedy describes the supporting actors’ attitudes toward the leads as “deadly serious.”

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Characters in scene 1 include actors Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in a scene set on an ocean liner from the film Now, Voyager (1942); the scene simultaneously occurs in a Cleveland hospital lobby in June and July of 1955. Clara’s mother and father, as they were in a 1929 photograph, are on deck. Clara silently joins them, but she isolates herself from the action by writing in a notebook and allowing Bette Davis to speak for her of marital discord, a miscarriage, fears of bleeding to death in labor, and childhood traumas. Clara’s dominant response to emotional confrontation is to read passages from The Owl Answers, which she has apparently been writing in her notebook. As the scene ends, Clara enters her comatose brother’s hospital room and relates what she sees to the film Viva Zapata! (1952).

Scene 2, with Jean Peters and Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!, takes place in the hospital room as well as in a wedding-night scene from Viva Zapata! and in a Now, Voyager stateroom. According to the stage directions, “there is no real separation” between the film scenes and Clara’s life at any time during the play. From the hospital/wedding-night bed, Jean Peters speaks for Clara, then rises and falls bleeding onto the bed. Marlon Brando helps her to change the black sheets, leaving the bloodied sheets on the floor. Clara’s mother and her father, now in their fifties, divorced and feuding, are present at their son’s bedside. Scene 2 ends with Clara observing her parents from the doorway as her mother explains what she knows of her son’s automobile accident.

Scene 3, with Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift from A Place in the Sun (1951), is set in Clara’s childhood room. The scene directly reveals Clara: isolated, fearful, standing on the sidelines of her own life, living in the past, bleeding, and uncertain of the truths of her writing. Clara has filled her absence from her own life with romantic film characters she can never become. She has recognized, however, that writing is her weapon against her lack of belonging, her means of revealing her repressed, fragmented selves and transforming them into a presence with whom she can “co-exist in a true union.” If she does not successfully revolt against her embrace of Hollywood’s romanticized ideal and assume a leading role in her life, she, like the character played by Shelley Winters in the film, will drown in silence.

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