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Actresses: A Firm Sense of Role

4 minute read

Uta Hagen comes on swearing. In three hours, she weeps, snarls, rages at herhusband, expounds a boozy philosophy, talks baby talk, goes off to the kitchen to seduce a casual visitor, and turns in a performance that stains the memory but stays there. The play is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a psychological Grand Guignol set in the academic world, and last week, for her portrayal of Martha, a professor’s rough-edged wife, Uta Hagen won the Antoinette Perry Award for the year’s best performance by an actress.

With auburn hair, a strong frame and a forbiddingly experienced face, Uta Hagen has the physical force to play Albee’s tough, bitter, foul-mouthed woman. There are, in fact, some superficial similarities between the actress and the character she plays, and her friends kid her about them.

Groves of Academe. Albee’s Martha is the twice-married daughter of the founder and president of a college. Uta is the twice-married daughter of a German professor who emigrated to the U.S. and founded the art history department at the University of Wisconsin. Her language is sometimes as strong as Martha’s. Albee’s Martha talks baby talk. When she wants a drink, she says she is firsty. Uta Hagen has a similar idiosyncrasy. Coffee, on her tongue, becomes tossie.

But there the similarities end. Martha, the woman on the stage, has made a fatal wreckage of her life. Uta Hagen has made hers an accomplishment. After a year at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she made her debut as an Óphelia considerably taller than Hamlet, who was played, oddly enough, by Eva Le Gallienne. She became a memorable Desdemona and a fine St. Joan. She followed Jessica Tandy as Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBoiswith a performance so good that it was generally conceded to be the better of the two. She won another Tony award as the relentlessly dowdy wife of a fading star in Clifford Odets’ Country Girl.

Right Cross. Playing in summer stock in 1938, she did a scene in which she wore boxing gloves and was supposed to hang one on the leading man. This leading man had a nose like Cyrano de Bergerac’s and was not much bigger than Toulouse-Lautrec. Uta flattened him. He got up and, some months later, married her; she became Mrs. José Ferrer.

They did Othello together with Negro Actor Paul Robeson. Traveling from city to city, the Ferrers decided to stay in no hotel that would refuse Robeson. They were all quite close. And as Robeson veered more and more loudly to the left and Moscow, this closeness got the Ferrers into trouble. In due course they were called to Washington to explain their political beliefs. Ferrer, who had just won an Oscar for Cyrano, denied any leftist leanings and was not blacklisted. Uta was dismissed without being heard at all. She ended up on TV and Hollywood blacklists nonetheless. She has never made a movie.

Right Idea. Divorced from Ferrer in 1948, Uta later became the wife of Herbert Berghof. An accomplished actor (The Andersonmlle Trial, Krapp’s Last Tape), Berghof is equally appreciated within his profession as a teacher. With Uta he runs the Herbert Berghof Studio in Greenwich Village, an acting school with a student body of 900 and a roster of celebrated alumni like Geraldine Page and Fritz Weaver.

She thinks that the teaching helps to stabilize her performances and give her objectivity—and she has always displayed both a firm sense of role and an ability to cope with any unexpected developments onstage. In Streetcar, when Stanley Kowalski grabs Blanche and says, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” Blanche swoons and the lights go out. One night, playing opposite Anthony Quinn, Uta fell before his onslaught, but the lights stayed on. Quinn stood there paralyzed, uncertain what to do. Uta knew what to do. “Rape me, you idiot,” she rasped. “Rape me!”

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