Posted by: thewearyprofessor | June 22, 2012

The Performance Art of Grayson Hall: Life on Two Levels

Presented as part of

“We live on two levels…The fantastic level and the realistic level are the two levels upon which we live. But which is the real one, really?” –Richard Burton as the Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon in Night of the Iguana

Even taking into consideration the endless parade of ambitious new talent, almost 27 years after her death Grayson Hall is still one of the most unusual and arresting performers in film and television history. Her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated performance in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s play Night of the Iguana still registers impressively, while her television portrayals of Dr. Julia Hoffman and Magda the Gypsy in the original Dark Shadows are scorched in viewers’ memories.

Why is this so?

Certainly her physical presence is a factor. Her tightly-pulled skin, coolly probing eyes, sharply arched eyebrows and nostrils, hair that always appeared at least mildly askew no matter what wig or how coiffed and short her hairstyle, and the relentless intelligence of her deportment and delivery all served to render her unforgettable whether she was playing a frustrated guardian or a duplicitous doctor. On screen, her clothing choices and wardrobe were always functional at best, even outlandish gypsy garb serving the needs of the particular performance rather than the private personality of the actor. Much as her contemporaries in the art world did in the 1960s, Grayson Hall used the objects and features she had to work with to foster her performance art.

Performers unanimously agree that film and television acting are two very different skills, particularly when the distinction is between a large budgeted John Huston film starring Richard Burton and the nerve-wracking combat acting of live-on-tape televised serials featuring a cast largely composed of young acting neophytes.

Film acting demands seemingly endless waiting and constant delays as technicians prepare, followed by short bursts of concentrated energy and emotion. These snippets of action are frequently repeated in multiple takes before a crew sometimes as large as a small theater audience, with scenes often filmed out of sequence due to location, money or personnel constraints. Preparation time, intimate knowledge of the character arc and motivation are essential for actors to be truly effective under those circumstances.

Live-on-tape television required quick and scattershot memorization, rapid blocking, hasty wardrobe and scenery changes, occasionally frantic leaps over morasses of trailing cables as juggernaut cameras maneuvered in tight spaces—all the while with primitive teleprompters unspooling, as necessary to the frazzled actors as crutches are to the hobbled.

It was the electricity of combat acting versus the waiting and deliberation of film acting. Is it any wonder that the few performers who dared attempt both show differences in their performance art?

On film, Grayson Hall was decisively most at home. She possessed an innate assurance before the cameras, whether it was while adapting her own stage role as Judith Fellowes from Night of the Iguana, or playing the Mrs. Danvers-like role of Carlotta Drake in Night of Dark Shadows. On film, each of her motions was carefully performed, meticulous in execution. Her delivery was precise and nuanced. Each subtle look was powerful and each glare was a rare and shocking indictment, while every line delivery sounded out crisp and flawless. Regardless of what the demands of her harried personal life may have been as working wife and mother, in motion pictures Grayson Hall was almost supernaturally cool and competent—an absolutely assured professional continually delivering a moderated and perfect performance complementary in tone to the material and to the medium of film.

Her Dark Shadows co-star Lara Parker, before acting in her first theatrical feature, sought Grayson Hall’s advice. “We were watching Deborah Kerr (Grayson Hall’s co-star in Night of the Iguana) in Tea and Sympathy. She said ‘Watch her. Watch how she never stops moving. She just could slightly turn her face, drop her face, yet it seemed totally completely natural. Look how she never has an expression on her face, so you can look into her eyes and see what she’s thinking…don’t mush up your face. Leave your face alone. Just act and react. Just don’t do anything, just think it. But keep subtly slowly moving…Whatever you do, keep your face quiet, because you are 30 feet tall!’” This was an experienced film artist describing the core difference between film and daily live-on tape TV acting.

On television, over a span of 475 Dark Shadows episodes, Grayson Hall had countless memorable moments and flashes of brilliance, but was often comically uncomfortable. Not only was she without the luxury of intense rehearsals and downtime for performance preparation, but the storylines were often so fantastic that she admittedly had little idea what was going on—which was even more frustrating since her husband, Sam Hall, was writing many of the shows. There is a memorable vignette in one of Kathryn Leigh Scott’s memoirs where Grayson Hall ducks into a backwater diner for coffee and meets a waitress who at last explains all of the recent Dark Shadows plotlines to her in understandable terms. Receiving the script the day before, blocking a full show only scant hours before taping, and not understanding the full arc or meaning of the story all understandably took their toll on the theatrically-trained actress’ performance. Layers of subtlety and gradations of emotion went out the window. It had to be enough to hit the correct marks, get most of the lines right and rely on a library of stock facial expressions, reactions and body language just to get through each show. This often betrayed her, as looks of shock and befuddlement were always comical when coupled with a daytime drama’s frequent musical stings to telegraph moments of dramatic reveal or tension. “We learned to never end a scene with a shot of her,” admitted Grayson’s husband Sam Hall, presumably with a smile. Viewers will never forget her intrepid but befuddled performance as a victim of the Dream Curse: prancing gingerly, backhand covering her mouth in terror, opening one door after another and barely reacting to such things as bright-eyed plastic skulls or lethargic guillotines–but becoming completely undone by a full skeleton in a wedding dress and a cheap wig, responding with a smoker’s throaty scream and hurrying back to her chair during the bride’s close-up to wait for the camera and wake with a horrified “Aaaah! No! No!” Yet her art demanded she take even these nonsensical moments and the most absurd lines as reality. “Yes, I was a ridiculous doctor…but when I did it I was actually serious and believed every minute of it,” she told Soap Opera Digest years after the series ended.

On one level, this must have been humiliating and frustrating for an Academy Award-nominated actress. Then again, a child had to be raised, bills had to be paid— Dark Shadows furnished two regular paychecks each week for the Hall family—and there was legitimate classic film star Joan Bennett starring in the show, too. Grayson Hall had to make the best of it. Realistically speaking, it just had to be done.

Which brings us neatly back to Night of the Iguana. Late in the film, Deborah Kerr as Hannah Jelkes concludes “We are operating on a realistic level when we are doing the things that have to be done.” Regardless of what was required, no matter how fantastic the circumstances or plot machinations, and whether acting before film cameras or on video for the small screen, Grayson Hall’s priority was always the heightened reality of her performance art. Few actresses are consistently as committed to the needs of each project, vital and alive in each moment, and absolutely riveting.

Her stage work was ephemeral and is now lost in time, but her film and television work remains, hard evidence and clear testament to a theatrical life devoted to a pragmatic and realistic approach to performance art. No matter which of the two mediums, no matter the imitation of life required that day, to the best of her considerable ability Grayson Hall did what needed to be done.

And she is unforgettable.

Dr. Julia Hoffman experiences the Dream Curse

Remembering Grayson Hall:

More Blog-a-thon participants:

The Collinsport Historical Society
Jonathan Frid was the face of Dark Shadows, but Grayson Hall was it’s soul. Even though nobody ever made action figures or board games baed on her characters, Dark Shadows wouldn’t have been the same without her. Plus fan art, vintage newspaper clippings about Hall’s stage career and more throughout the day!

The Collins Foundation
“If you have to choose between real and interesting, choose interesting.” According to Patrick McCray, Grayson Hall gives us both in Dark Shadows.

The Classic Movie Lady
At age 13, this blogger’s favorite actress was Grayson Hall … and she had never seen Dark Shadows.

The Drawing Room (Home of the Dark Shadows podcast)
On the latest installment of The Drawing Room podcast, Chrissy recites her poem, Ode to Hoffman, 1967, which celebrates Grayson Hall’s contribution to the early episodes of Dark Shadows. The poem is also available to read at the website.

Barnabas & Company S. R. Shutt shares his thoughts on the artistry of Grayson Hall, playfully inspired by Wallace Stevens’ short verse cycle, Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.

Dead Celebrity I will Sorely Miss of the Day – The Grayson Hall edition
The “hopelessly unhip blogger and bikini model” says Grayson Hall was the “BADDEST VAMPIRE LOVIN’ FOX THERE WILL EVER BE.”

7 or 8 things I know about Her
Biographer R.J. Jamison summarizes the mystique of Grayson Hall

Hoffman/Lambert: The Doctor and The Vampire
Jessica Dwyer talks about women who are drawn to the dark side, and what Julia Hoffman’s character has to say about that strange fascination.

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