The Ballad of the Sad Café: An Excerpt from “Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave”

Excerpted from Vanessa by Dan Callahan. Copyright © 2014 by Dan Callahan. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at Amazon.com. 

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Carson McCullers’s novella The Ballad of the Sad Café is one of the weirder bits of Southern Gothic written in the last century, and its ultimate meaning remains obscure. It deals with the slightly cross-eyed, mannish Miss Amelia, who stands six feet two inches tall. Miss Amelia is a hard, unlikable character, engaging in frivolous lawsuits and tyrannizing the small town she lives in until she meets Cousin Lymon, a hunch- back dwarf who claims to be a distant relation.

Something like love for Cousin Lymon softens Miss Amelia’s mean disposition, and she opens a café just to please him. The café is a success, and the ground-down townspeople are given a bit of pleasure by it until freed convict Marvin Macy comes backto town. The good-looking Macy, who had delighted in breaking and humiliating virgin girls years before, had fallen in love with Miss Amelia and married her. Following a half-hour of unspecified activity on their wedding night, Miss Amelia had thrown Macy out.

Cousin Lymon falls in love, in a way, with Macy, or at least with the idea of him, and the narrative builds to a brutal physical fight between Macy and Miss Amelia that ends with Miss Amelia’s hands around Macy’s throat. Just as she is about to win the battle, Cousin Lymon flies through the air and attacks her, insuring that she loses. After Lymon and Macy wreck her store, Miss Amelia is last seen as a face staring out of a boarded-up window, her hair grown out, her love destroyed.

 

Ballad must be the first time in Anglo-Saxon literature that a woman writer discusses precisely how it is that a man can love a woman for her masculine qualities,” [Vanessa] Redgrave said. “Miss Amelia, because of the way she’s been brought up as a man, and as a laboring, farming man, cannot reciprocate either as a man or a woman. She finds it totally repellent that Macy should seek to give her his physical love. It’s something she knows nothing about and is as disgusted by as any Southern belle would have been in the 1860s who didn’t know about the facts of life. The only difference is that she’s capable of knocking him out for six when he tries it, which very few Southern belles would have done.”

Edward Albee did an adaptation of this material as a play star- ring Colleen Dewhurst in the early 1960s, parceling out some of McCullers’s ideas on love and life to several subsidiary characters. Redgrave has never appeared in an Albee play, whereas her closest rival Maggie Smith starred in several revivals of Albee works through the ’90s and ’00s. Great as Albee is, he is too deeply pessimistic for Redgrave’s taste.

Albee’s play was used as a basis for the film of The Ballad of the Sad Café that was directed by actor Simon Callow in 1991. Callow found the play too talky and cut some of the dialogue and the role of the narrator, which had been played by Roscoe Lee Browne. Albee himself had very clear ideas about the material, which he offered to producer Ismail Merchant:

For the film to succeed to McCullers’s intentions it must bring a mythic quality to the relationship. It is not the story of a shy, sexually repressed, mannish woman set on by a brutish punk. It is the story of two people who, how- ever unclearly to themselves they may comprehend it, are engaged in a bizarre “grand passion”—the one real chance in their lives for something very special—the one oppor- tunity for them both to fully realize themselves. It is this quality, this awareness which reaches toward the mythic, and makes what happens when Marvin Macy comes back so poignant, so inevitable, and the stuff of true tragedy. It is this which is missing from the screenplay. As it is now, a punk gets rejected and comes back and does his dirty work. That is not what McCullers intended, is not what I intended, and is not what the screenplay should be offering us.

Redgrave was considering playing Miss Amelia when Merchant took her to dinner along with fifty Russian actors she had brought over to London. Callow remembered that the vodka flowed and many speeches were given, and when Merchant asked Redgrave to play the part outright, she was at a great flushed-faced height of exaltation. “Why not?” she cried, joyfully throwing back her head and laughing with what Callow called “roguish joy.”

Sam Shepard was originally set to play Marvin Macy, but he backed out at the last minute, and Keith Carradine took the role right before they were due to start shooting. Callow’s film of The Ballad of the Sad Café, shot in and around Austin and Seguin, Texas, came and went from theaters quickly, and it remains his only movie as a director to date. Reviews of it were generally negative. Though it isn’t entirely successful, it remains a more than honorable stab at extremely difficult material, and Redgrave was certainly the only casting possible for Miss Amelia, with her unusual height, her androgyny, and her ability to pretend her way into even the most unlikely situations.

“It was all very, very difficult indeed because Cork Hubbert, who was playing Cousin Lymon, wasn’t really an actor at all, he was a stand-up comedian,” says Callow. “I was very uncertain, because I was a first-time director, and I had to direct Cork very, very carefully.”

Callow approached working with Redgrave with much antici- pation. “I was waiting to see what Vanessa felt about the character, and so on,” he says. “And I think, as quite often happens with Vanessa, she only found out herself as time went on. So at the beginning we were all a little bit tentative, and curiously enough that gave a kind of wonderful quality to her work, a kind of delicacy.”

As always, Redgrave let her ideas about her role carry her down some odd byways. “I think what happens with Vanessa when she works on a part is that she is groping towards a kind of rationalization of the part, or a concept of the part, and she slowly begins to get it,” says Callow. “She said to me one day while we were working that she had been re-reading the novel and suddenly it was staring her in the face that Miss Amelia mustbe Native American. And I said, ‘Why do you say that, Vanessa?’ and she said, ‘Because she has an herb garden, and she must be in touch with the spirits,’ and so on. And she said that obviously we were going to have to re-shoot everything we had done, because obviously she couldn’t be blond, she would have to die her hair black. And I said to her that we just couldn’t do that because we had no money at all for it.”

This movie is the rare occasion when actually seeing the inter- actions between literary characters serves to clarify the source material, and this is no small feat considering how odd and private McCullers’s story is. The film begins with a scene of a chain gang swinging their pickaxes and singing, and it also ends with this chain gang, which serves as the bewildering coda of McCullers’s tale. The picture that Redgrave makes in her first scenes is of whip-smart Frankie Addams from McCullers’s play The Member of the Wedding all grown up physically yet stunted emotionally and intellectually. When she changes out of her overalls and wears a red dress in the café, Redgrave even looks like Julie Harris’s Frankie did in the film of Member of the Wedding when Frankie tries on a bridal party dress that is too big for her.

“In a film, much more than in a play, there are no absolute interpretations,” says Callow. “You just take the actor you have and the quality that they bring and the response that they have, you have to shape that accordingly into the general narrative. Vanessa had a tremendously strong sense of this kind of alienated woman with her own inner life. A lot of the things you see in the film were absolutely her ideas, like Miss Amelia wearing that red dress once the café has opened. Vanessa imagined that this dress was a dress that Miss Amelia’s mother had once worn.”

Miss Amelia’s tyranny in the film is restricted to one darkened scene where she takes away a much-needed sewing machine from a poor family as payment for a debt; otherwise, we see little of her hardest edges. Redgrave’s conception of the role is much more romantic than McCullers’s is, yet this has the effect of bringing out the writer’s buried themes about love more clearly.

“Vanessa did a lot of research among the Carson McCullers papers, and she found various things that gave her a further clue into the character,” says Callow. “She’s always thinking, she’s always working to make it absolutely fresh and completely new and original, sometimes, it seems, at the expense of what seems to be on the page. She is a completely inspired kind of actor, and sometimes her inspirations might mislead her.”

When his friend Peggy Ramsay asked Callow if Vanessa was mad, he said, “Oh completely.” “Stupid?” Ramsay asked. “No, not at all,” Callow said. “Intelligent, then?” she asked. “Intelligent with a poet’s intelligence, not that of a scientist,” he concluded.

Redgrave’s Miss Amelia moves slowly through swamp water like a noble, dumb animal, and Callow’s camera seems transfixed by her harsh face. Redgrave even manages a slight suggestion of Miss Amelia’s crossed eyes when she starts to feel love for Cousin Lymon, taking boyish pleasure when he wiggles his ears for her and exploding in a delighted laugh after he does it, like someone let out of prison and breathing fresh air.

Lymon insists on bringing some excitement to Miss Amelia’s solitary life. They go to see New York Nights, a movie starring Norma Talmadge, and thrill to its car chases and gunfire. Miss Amelia is willing to humor Cousin Lymon, but she has no need for adventure as he does, and Redgrave exactly catches the strangest moment in the story: Miss Amelia reacts withpuzzlement when Lymon envies the fact that Macy has been in jail, as if jail was more interesting (or more honest?) than their lives in town.

Callow indulges in some evocative low-light visual effects, and he saves up some impressive deep-focus shots for key moments, like when he frames Macy’s face in extreme close-up on one side of the composition while Miss Amelia struggles up the road to the church to get married on the other. He’s very attentive to his players and gets excellent work from the hard-to-restrain Rod Steiger as a preacher who gets to deliver McCullers’s own thoughts on the lover and the beloved, and how “the state of being beloved is intolerable.”

“We had a very difficult cameraman, just an impossible and temperamental and destructive cameraman, which sometimes happens,” says Callow. “And he was difficult with Vanessa and was quite rude to her sometimes, and this upset her very much, but it probably added, in the end, to the success of her performance. She would use whatever was going on to inform her work. I remember she would sometimes have occasion to call Tony Richardson to ask how to handle this impossible cameraman, and Tony gave her practical advice on that.

“Vanessa very much made herself part of the community, she involved herself with all the extras, she made the little herb garden all on her own, she made great friends with Miss Amelia’s donkey, and she was much loved by everybody on the film,” says Callow. “As you know, Vanessa, perhaps more so then than now, was tremendously immersed in Marxism and the study of Marxism, and she would very often on the set be found with a copy of a text by Engels or Marx or Trotsky or Lenin, and she would be making notes on it almost like a schoolgirl would, making sure that sheunderstood all their points carefully. She was immersed in that at the time, but she didn’t talk about it much, it must be said, in terms of her work, but that’s what was going on in her life.”

Callow patiently stays on Redgrave as she works through Miss Amelia’s anger, which can feel a bit too much like mugging, though this surface-deep quality is clearly part of her character conception. There’s a lovely moment when she tells Lymon about an acorn she picked up from the ground after her father died where Redgrave puts a full, rippling laugh under the word “died” so that it comes out as “di-he-he-hied,” negating the power of the word with her only weapon at hand, the feelings of the moment.

“It was perhaps a bit difficult for me to direct her at times because I am also an actor, and so I was very much aware of how extraordinary she was in what she was achieving for me,” says Callow. “But I was perfectly able to suggest things to her. Her mind is working all the time. I tried to create an atmosphere where she could do what she needed to do. In fact, the performance she gave was not at all the performance I had expected, but she was so brave, it was really remarkable.”

Redgrave’s Miss Amelia is none too bright. Everything seems to confuse her, and Redgrave comes perilously close to a village- idiot quality at times, but these moments are part of the risks she’s taking and always takes as an actress. In her best work, and Miss Amelia definitely counts among her best, Redgrave’s performances are made up of almost nothing but risks. She has her ideas about her characters and she works them out then and there in the moment, and you’re never sure where they will lead her. Her total immediacy, yoked to a huge imagination, is an exceedingly rare quality on stages or screens, and it makes Redgrave as much of a lovable, beautiful, Brando-esque freak as her Miss Amelia.

Surely Redgrave intuits that so much of McCullers’s large pain over unrequited love is based in the impossible love a gay person might have for a straight person, and this is McCullers’s link to her friend Tennessee Williams, who actually wrote A Streetcar Named Desire on the same table with McCullers while she wrote The Member of the Wedding.

Redgrave goes all out in Miss Amelia’s bloody fight with Macy, putting herself into the most grotesque and ugly positions until she has him by the throat and her eyes fill with bloodlust as she strangles him. No stunt doubles were used for the fight. “The positions had to be very precise, and were blocked out just as you would a modern ballet,” Redgrave said. “It should look very agonizing.”

“I haven’t felt any inhibitions at all about fighting a woman,” Carradine said. “Perhaps it’s because Vanessa is so towering in terms of accomplishments, not to mention her physical stature.”

When Lymon attacks her and Macy wins the fight, Miss Amelia slowly gets up and then starts to cry like a child. “The fight scene was just grueling beyond belief,” says Callow. “It was done in short sections, but nonetheless, this was a man beating up a woman with full pugilistic force. And Keith was skillful at remembering the specific moves, which sometimes Vanessa wasn’t so great at because she was so much in the moment.

“So it was quite dangerous, and then the makeup artist would have to run in every time to increase the damage on their faces. It was both highly technical and highly emotional. And a little catastrophe happened when Cork Hubbert flew in to try to tear Vanessa away from Keith, because his flying rig broke and he fell to the ground. Fortunately he was all right, but it created a bit of tension on the set, and it fed the anxiety of the situation. It was a very tough five days or so of shooting.”

Redgrave left the end of the fight up to chance. “She didn’t do that cry she does in rehearsal at all,” says Callow. “We had very little rehearsal, in fact, because the schedule was so tight. We would work a little on the set if we could. She said to me before- hand, ‘Just let it run, let the camera run, because I don’t know what I’m going to do, but something will come out.’”

Redgrave does not use the deep-seated grief she summoned up for My Body, My Child or The Trojan Women but chooses a more distanced, even theatrical sound of grief, the kind of grief that Olivier was famous for on stage, a larger-than-life howl that has as much to do with technique as with real feeling. It’s the only choice for this outsized material, which last sees her Miss Amelia as a haunted face staring out of near total darkness, an emblem of an undervalued movie pledged to difficulty and far-out allegory, desperate for some kind of reconciliation or understanding of human suffering and contradiction.

“I remember saying at the wrap party, which was very emotional, that Vanessa was my equal collaborator on the film,” says Callow. “Because she was so connected to the character, she had a kind of identification as a tall, slightly awkward woman. Not that Vanessa is in any way really awkward, but I think that she had felt at some point in her life that she was an outsider. She identified with Miss Amelia utterly. And she liked very much my idea that it was a fairy story by McCullers. It was something heightened, something not necessarily naturalistic or realistic.”

 

Dan Callahan[1]
Dan Callahan, author of
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, is the associate editor at Siman Media Works. He has published theater and film reviews in Time Out New York, Sight and Sound, The L Magazine, Slant Magazine and many other publications.  He lives in New York.

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