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Seance on a Wet Afternoon
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,Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Though she did not win the 1965 "Best Actress" Academy Award® for her portrayal of a fragile middle aged Londoner with pretensions of second sight in Bryan Forbes' Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the late Kim Stanley remains inextricably linked with her Oscar® nominated performance. As so often is the case, what seems in retrospect like the perfect fit of character to performer nearly didn't happen; the role of Myra Savage was first offered to Deborah Kerr, Shelley Winters, Anne Bancroft and French actress Simone Signoret. This was not the first time Stanley found herself batting clean-up on a shortlist; on Broadway in 1959, she assumed the title role in Anita Loos' Cherie only after Signoret, Marlene Dietrich, Irene Worth and Edwige Feuillere said no. Nonetheless, at the time of her death from urethral cancer in August of 2001, Seance on a Wet Afternoon was name-checked in the first paragraphs of obituaries from around the world and the role remains Kim Stanley's signature film performance.

The Tularosa, New Mexico native (raised in Texas by her divorced mother) had been pointed towards a career in medicine when an offer to spend a season with the Pasadena Playhouse brought her to Los Angeles. Eventually heading east to try her luck in Manhattan, Patricia Kimberly Reid adopted her grandmother's maiden name of Stanley as her stage name but was unable to make an impression with New York casting directors. Working by day as a waitress and a model for the dressmaker father of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, Stanley began appearing in Off-Broadway productions in the company of the nascent Actor's Studio. On Broadway by 1949, she created key roles in William Inge's Picnic and Bus Stop and made her film debut in 1958 as The Goddess, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe (who had taken on Stanley's role in the 1956 film adaptation of Bus Stop). Though she disliked the medium of film, which she felt benefited directors at the expense of actors, Stanley's string of failed marriages had left her with children to support and bills to pay. In June of 1963, she set sail for England.

Stanley had agreed to star in Seance on a Wet Afternoon in part because she was impressed with the way director Bryan Forbes had handled icy Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (1962). Stanley was also encouraged by Forbes' plan to shoot in sequence, which would allow the actress to build her character in a more theatrically organic way. While Stanley's devotion to her craft was an inspiration to all involved, her penchant for following her muse rather than hitting her marks had cinematographer Gerry Turpin scrambling to keep her in focus. Filming was further complicated by Stanley's debilitating despair at the news from Los Angeles that playwright and friend Clifford Odets was dying, as well as by a painful case of kidney stones for leading man Richard Attenborough (who was subsequently doubled by Bryan Forbes in some shots). However difficult Stanley may have been to handle, she repaid Forbes with a devastating yet controlled performance, one perfectly tuned to the intimacy of film and perhaps even crafted as a riposte to critics (specifically Kenneth Tynan) who accused her of overacting.

For Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Richard Attenborough was again wearing two hats as actor and producer with partner Bryan Forbes. In 1959, the pair had formed Allied Filmmakers with director Basil Dearden, producer Michael Relph and actor Jack Hawkins, and were responsible for a handful of well regarded British films, including Dearden's The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Forbes' directorial debut Whistle Down the Wind (1961). For Seance, Forbes and Attenborough set up shop at Pinewood Studios, with location work grabbed guerilla-style by dint of hidden cameras in Leicester Square (where famed British actor John Gielgud was captured on film, necessitating a retake) and outside a gloomy Wimbledon home whose rooftop turret was (the filmmakers learned after the fact) the site of the previous owner's suicide. In later years, Bryan Forbes recalled that the replica of the seance room mocked up on a soundstage at Pinewood remained inexplicably cold throughout production, setting an appropriately discomfiting tone for a distinctly unnerving motion picture.

Producers: Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes (uncredited)
Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes, Mark McShane (novel)
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: Derek York
Cast: Myra (Kim Stanley), Bill (Richard Attenborough), Women at first séance (Margaret Lacey, Marie Burke, Maria Kazan).

by Richard Harland Smith

Kim Stanley interview by John Kobal, People Will Talk
Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley by John Krampner
Bryan Forbes biography by Samantha Lay, Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide
Kim Stanley obituary by Tom Vallacne, The (London) Independent