Dennis made art of playing real people APPRECIATION

March 05, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Who can forget Richard Burton summoning Sandy Dennis in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?": "Let's call your charming little wife," Burton leers to the drunken George Segal. Then he turns and says: "SUUUUUUUUU-EEEEYYYYYYYYYYY!"

Burton's cruelty only set the stage for the extraordinary vision that followed. When she waltzed on screen, tiny and porcelain, ++ her damp face a tapestry of doubt and confusion, and when she tried to speak and her words came out in halting and wretched self-consciousness, she somehow broke your heart in a way that it had never been broken before. She was so human!

Indeed, for much of her screen career, Dennis played equally conflicted and wretched characters, who wore their hearts on their sleeves and on their tongues. She was an eternal victim, who somehow never got the power-women parts and who faded from view when the power-woman became the screen icon of the '80s.

Yet she was a revolutionary.

She brought a new rhythm to the screen, a kind of vocal naturalism, a litany of pauses and doubts that redefined the way people saw "acting" on screen.

Before Dennis, "actors" and "actresses" were elocutionary, gifted professionals who spoke the king's English with the precision of a radio announcer. Along came Dennis, who forced the vulnerability of the characters she played into the very words that they spoke, so that the words seemed torn out of the soul, not read from a script.

She arrived on the scene at exactly the same time that the old matinee idol stereotype was breaking down. She, along with such other highly textured types as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, took the movies down a road from which they've never turned back, except in joke.

Stars, this generation of actors proclaimed, could be -- and should be -- people too, not chiseled icons.

The haltings and stumbling could get on your nerves, of course. She never seemed to feel the rush of time, and in unsuccessful works such as the Neil Simon adaptation, "The Out of Towners," you wanted to strangle her for the way she sucked the flavor from each syllable. Perhaps by that time she had fallen into self-parody.

But in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Up the Down Staircase," her two great movies, she was an actress of such heartbreaking reality that she seemed literally to be the parts that she played.

In a sense she invented those who came after: Diane Keaton was an immediate beneficiary, and, in a way, so is Michelle


Dennis, who who won an Academy Award for her role in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and won two Tony awards for work on Broadway, died Monday at her home in Westport, Conn., at the age of 54. She had been suffering from ovarian cancer.

Bill Treusch, her agent and close friend who shared Dennis's seven-bedroom house along with her many pets, said she had recently been offered a role in a new movie with actor and producer Michael Douglas.

Born April 27, 1937, in the small Nebraska town of Hastings, Dennis made her Broadway debut in the 1960 play "Burning Bright." Two years later she would win her first Tony for "A Thousand Clowns." She won a second Tony for her performance a businessman's tax-deductible interest in "Any Wednesday."

She married jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1965. The couple separated in 1976. Dennis also lived with actor Eric Roberts, who died in a car crash in 1981.

Her other film credits included: "Nasty Habits" (1976), "The Four Seasons" (1981) and "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982).

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.