Let’s Get Physical: In Praise of Kay Kendall’s Joie De Vivre

In discussions of “physical acting” in film, writers tend to focus on those performers who rely on actual transformation — prosthetics, wigs, weight gain/loss, etc. — to convey the character’s physicality. Immediately I think of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, or more recently, Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours. That each of these stars won an Oscar for jettisoning their own known image and disappearing into their character is telling in that this brand of “physical acting” is both amongst the most coveted and also the most lauded.

Some might even call it obvious in comparison to the kind of “physical acting” done by the greats who actually used their bodies to do the job, rather than relying on a make up artist’s bag of tricks. Examples of this style, for me, include men like Buster Keaton, or perhaps Steve Martin. No Oscar love there. Fred Astaire is another prime example of the sort of “physical acting” that is infrequently acknowledged as being what it is: a daring feat of performance that pushes the limits of the body. He got one Oscar nomination, for The Towering Inferno, where he played a hokey con man, and is about as far removed from any form of true physical acting as possible.

When it comes to women, I have rarely been able to find examples that are comparable to their male counterparts. Carole Lombard or maybe Miriam Hopkins? Lily Tomlin? Certainly contemporary actresses like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock strive — and fail — for this kind of effervescent grace. They don’t seem entirely natural. But to find a perfect example of exactly the kind of feminine guile that I’m talking about, one might turn back first to one of George Cukor’s finest gambols, Les Girls and its one of a kind star, Kay Kendall.

Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly, Taina Elg – Les Girls (1957)

Vivacious as the haughty, statuesque “Sybil” in Cukor’s European folly, Kendall displayed a formidable emotional range. All long legs and red heels in the “Les Girls” opening musical sequence, she’s footloose and fancy free one second, steely and commanding the next. Kendall is brilliantly adept at bridging these types of polar opposites with her uncanny sense of comedic timing and an awareness of what her body can convey on screen.

Because Kendall came from a stock of show folk—her grandmother was a star of musicals and comedies and her father was a vaudevillian—her hilarious line deliveries and natural knack for physical comedy should come as no great surprise. Yet with every precisely tossed bon mot or sway of her hips she manages to surprise. Her interpretation of voi de ville came filtered through an upper crust, refined London lens, each movement measured out with economy, with poise.

In this sense, Kendall’s singular brand of performance, which bridges an array of styles and eras in this courtroom farce, makes her a thoroughly modern, even ground-breaking actress in retrospect (best evidenced in the flirty, cotton candy sweet “Ladies in Waiting” number). Kendall updates this traditional style of performance subtly, adding tightly-controlled movement and character details with riveting effortlessness, essentially playing three versions of the same character, the viewer gets a chance to see Kendall really strut her stuff as “Angele”‘s (Taina Elg) testimony presents “Sybil” in an entirely different light as a drunken good time gal, with a penchant for tipsy pratfalls and hiding liquor in the perfume bottles with mischievous zest. In these scenes, Kendall pulls out all the stops, singing off-key opera, raucous crying jags, and stalking about like a jungle cat.

“Angele”‘s testimony, intended to discredit, actually makes “Sybil” an even more fascinating and multifaceted character. This gives Kendall the opportunity to sing, dance, play a lush, and to really use her body as an acting tool to tell the story properly. Les Girls is a showcase for Kendall’s strengths as a true comedienne with perfect timing, her eyes dart about like the rhythm section of a Bebop jazz band, in perfect, frenzied time. She was such a sensation in Les Girls, that Kendall was recognized in Hollywood with a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her work.

As “Sybil”, it’s Kendall’s smarts and her arch wit, but also her tremendous sense of fairness and heart, that prevail in the end. She’s the meddlesome bitch you want to root for, one who has a heart of gold, one whom you love and fear simultaneously. She’s the kind of best friend you’ve always wanted, whom you drink daiquiris with ’til dawn and tell all of your secrets to, but one you get the distinct sense you shouldn’t cross after that night of indiscretions. This kind of lovable, unpredictable love-to-hate-her juxtaposition sells both her work as “Sybil” in Les Girls, and to a degree her turn as “Lady Broadbent” the following year in Vincente Minnelli’s under-appreciated romp The Reluctant Debutante (which recently screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a part of their successful Vincent Minnelli career retrospective). Opposite Sandra Dee, Rex Harrison and a howlingly funny Angela Lansbury (as the meddlesome bitch you want to hate), The Reluctant Debutante finds our heroine cutting a dashing figure in a seemingly endless parade of satin, ermine and marabou as Dee’s stepmother “Sheila” in this occasionally risqué, mostly very sweet comedy about an American girl’s coming out ball and subsequent ill-timed romance with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

“Sheila” upon meeting “Jane”, her 17 year old charge, foolishly, yet with the best of intentions, tries to assume every important role in the girl’s life: absent mother, wise and concerned big sister, gossipy gal pal, and of course, gorgeous, friendly stepmother. The pair bond instantly, sharing a snappish sense of humor and a keen, frankly edgy taste in high end couture (Kendall’s wardrobe courtesy of Pierre Balmain of Paris and Dee’s by Helen Rose). “Sheila” very quickly gains “Jane”‘s trust, and predictably, hilariously, becomes prone to meddling into the affairs of others’ hearts. “Sheila” was never able to have a coming out party of her own, and in a moment of impulse decides on the spot to throw a debutante party for “Jane”, who is immediately—you guessed it—reluctant.

Vincente Minnelli, no surprise, rises to the occasion of rendering a series of ballroom parties populated by the rich and the chic. Jean d’Eaubonne’s interiors, packed with red velvet lampshades and modish bursts of primary colors mixed with complimentary chinoiserie patterns where you least expect, packs a visual punch to say the least. The art direction of the film matches its madcap, romantic tone. Each set piece is impeccably composed by Minnelli, his eye for detail is exacting. The beautiful construction, specifically the finely-appointed sets, simply means a bounty of scenarios through which Kendall is able to gracefully tumble around in jewels and sherbet chiffon.

Kay Kendall, Angela Lansbury and Rex Harrison in

The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

There’s no contemporary foil for Kendall’s brand of mirth-making, no aristocratic beauty that quite captures her energy (though there are many tiresome imitators — ahem, Jennifer Aniston). This adds to the doomed romance of the actresses’ legacy a mystique that can’t ever be totally explained as she died very young, at age 33 very soon after The Reluctant Debutante was filmed. Right before she was diagnosed with leukemia and while filming her part as “Sheila”, co-star Harrison became taken with Kendall on set, and very quickly fell in love with her. The actor left his wife, with whom he had an open marriage and who knew all about Kendall, to marry and care for the ailing actress. Kendall was unfathomably not made aware of the grave seriousness of her own illness, believing that she was suffering from a blood disorder.

The added knowledge the actress was in fact dying while playing “Lady Broadbent” somehow doesn’t impose any weight onto the film’s bright sensibilities, in fact, if anything there is even more of a joyousness to be spotted in her go-for-broke acting. Her chemistry with Harrison is a serious business and there is a warm tenderness in the way he looks at Kendall in their scenes together, emanating, no doubt, from the fire in every glance they exchange. Even though the very idea that he knew more about her condition than she did inexplicably smacks of both ’50s misogyny and misguided, if sweet-natured protectiveness, the film is still most exciting when Kendall is paired onscreen with Harrison.

In terms of revealing who she was as a performer and as a woman, it’s the role of “Lady Broadbent” that truly encapsulates what Kendall stood for: working like a trouper and delivering a bravura performance in Minnelli’s thoroughly enjoyable, breezy meditation on class, gender and social climbing against the odds. “Sheila” wants “Jane” to marry upward, marry a rich young man, yet she also realizes that even she cannot stand in the way young love despite her best intentions. Her heart might be in the right place, but everything else about her is mixed up, riotously. Watching the actress so bracingly embody the past and present in her work in Les Girls and The Reluctant Debutante, falling in love with her is an inevitability, but it’s her knack for redefining the art of “physical acting” by literally pushing her own body forward, challenging herself and obviously enjoying every delicious moment of it, that you will most remember and hopefully cherish.