The Reel Dad salutes character actress Shirley Knight
She was, as Hollywood would describe, “a character actress,” that reliable performer who can play just about any role but rarely gets the chance to star.
When Shirley Knight died on April 22, at age 83, she left behind a rich collection of performances on stage and screen, including a Tony Award-winning role in “Kennedy’s Children” on Broadway and two Oscar nominations.
And while she never became a household name, and rarely saw her name “above the title” in movie advertisements, she was always there, that actor who could succeed at any assignment, no matter the size of the role, regardless of the quality of the script. She simply didn’t know how to disappoint.
Here are seven of my favorite Shirley Knight performances on film. And they are magical.
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960)
After capturing a lot of attention on live television dramas in the 1950s, Knight snagged her first Oscar nomination for playing a complex young lady in this film adaptation of William Inge’s play. Working with veterans Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire, Knight caused a mild sensation with her ability to project a character through the camera lens while exploring the layers people create to deny their realities.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
Another movie adaptation of a Broadway play - and another Oscar nomination - quickly followed for Knight with this stunning interpretation of the Tennessee Williams’ drama. Playing opposite Paul Newman - as a young lady he brutally abandons - Knight captures our sympathy without asking us to feel sorry for the choices the character makes. She walks a fine line in the performance, carefully underplaying what could be considered an overwritten role.
The Group (1966)
The movie created quite a stir when it was released with Knight at the center of the chatter. This adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s best-seller follows the lives of eight women after they graduate from Vassar. While Candice Bergen and Joan Hackett secure the flashier roles, Knight is at her most captivating as a woman searching for love, often in the wrong places. While the movie hasn’t aged well, Knight’s performance still rings true.
Rarely in her movie career did Knight get the chance to create a lead performance. When she did, though, the results could be breathtaking. This sterling drama from director Anthony Harvey - who, a year later, guided Katherine Hepburn to an Oscar in “The Lion in Winter” - focuses on two people who ride the subway in New York City. While that may not sound good as the basis for a movie, Knight (and co-star Al Freeman, Jr.) make us want to savor every moment.
The Rain People (1969)
In one of her other films as the lead, Knight shines in this early work from director Francis Ford Coppola, who later directed “The Godfather.” As Natalie, a woman with many agendas, Knight slowly reveals the layers of despair and deception that define her relationship with a relatively innocent man. Never letting herself overplay, Knight uses her mastery of suggestion to create a colorful interpretation of a most complex woman.
As Good as It Gets (1997)
After focusing on stage work in the 1970s and 1980s, Knight returned to the big screen as Helen Hunt’s mother in this Oscar-winning comedy from James L. Brooks. Many expected Knight to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her engaging approach to this role, broadening an overly caring mother into someone to be loved and valued. With this performance, Knight reminds us how powerful she can be even in the simplest of situations.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
While comedy wasn’t Knight’s first calling, she reveals a humorous side to her screen work in this adaptation of Rebecca Wells’ novel. With Sandra Bullock leading an all-star cast - including Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith and James Garner - Knight makes sure she is noticed in a small but smashing portrayal of an eccentric woman with a purpose. Again, she makes the most of every moment on screen to bring her character to life.
Yes, Shirley Knight was “a character actress.” And, because of her work, many films are so much richer. Thank you, and rest in peace.