Sandy Dennis blessed with appealing fragility

March 04, 1992|By Lee A. Daniels | Lee A. Daniels,N.Y. Times News Service

Sandy Dennis, who as a young actress in the 1960s entranced Broadway and Hollywood with performances that won her two Tony awards and an Academy Award, died on Monday at her home in Westport, Conn. She was 54.

Although the exact cause of her death was not known, Ms. Dennis had been fighting a long battle with cancer, said Doris Elliott, a longtime friend. Ms. Dennis's death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Lewis Funeral Home in Westport.

Ms. Dennis, born and reared in Nebraska and blessed with an aura of appealing fragility, came to New York at age 18 and within a decade had fashioned a string of outstanding performances, and had earned the awards to prove it.

After making her movie debut in 1961 in a supporting role in "Splendor in the Grass," she won a Tony award in 1963 for her performance, as a social worker, opposite Jason Robards in "A Thousand Clowns," and a year later, she won another Tony as the slightly off-beat mistress of a tycoon, played by Gene Hackman, in "Any Wednesday."

Then, in 1966, she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Honey, the mousy, scared-of-her-own-shadow half of a young faculty couple alternately seduced and brow-beaten by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Edward Albee's scalding "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

She also drew critical praise for her 1967 role as the idealistic schoolteacher in the film "Up the Down Staircase."

Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film in the New York Times, praised her portrayal as "engagingly natural, sensitive, literate and thoroughly moving." He said that Ms. Dennis gave "a vivid performance of emotional range and depth [that] sincerely acquaints us with a genuine loving person we can believe wants to find her pupils' wounds and, what's more, try to heal them -- which she can't."

Her performance won the New York Film Critics' award and the Moscow Film Festival prize for best actress.

Ms. Dennis's success was extraordinary for any actor or actress, but even then, she seemed to recognize that such oversized fame might be ephemeral. In one interview she remarked that acting "isn't like painting a picture or writing a book. When you finish an acting stint, there's nothing except money. You have to keep going, giving the best you've got to get something intangible."

In her later roles, Ms. Dennis was never able to match the dazzling successes of her earlier years in terms of either public acclaim or favorable reviews from critics. Where once critics had been charmed by her freshness and girl-next-door innocence,

many later seemed to detect a mannered nervous quality that drove them to distraction.

This affected even Walter Kerr, the longtime Broadway critic, who had once praised Ms. Dennis's performance in "Any Wednesday" with the line, "Let me tell you about Sandy Dennis. There should be one in every home."

But in 1967, Mr. Kerr wrote tolerantly but pointedly of Ms. Dennis's "habit" of speaking on stage as though sentences "were poor crippled things that couldn't cross a street without making three false starts from the curb."

Still, she continued to work steadily in films and plays and in summer stock.

The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once complained that Ms. Dennis "has made an acting style of postnasal drip," an assessment Ms. Dennis herself said was correct and had worked to change.

Mr. Burton once described her as "one of the most genuine eccentrics I know of."

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