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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Kim Hunter
Oscar-winner who found new fame with 'Planet of the Apes'
The Independent; September 13th 2002


Janet Cole (Kim Hunter), actress: born Detroit 12 November 1922; married 1944 William Baldwin (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1946), 1951 Robert Emmett (died 2000; one son); died New York 11 September 2002.

The actress Kim Hunter won enduring fame when she created the role of Stella Kowalski, tormented wife of the brutish Stanley (Marlon Brando), in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Elia Kazan. She repeated her role in the film version, winning an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.

A popular member of her profession, she was described by Kazan as "unique among actresses she is first a person and second a member of the acting profession". She will also be remembered as the heroine of the Powell-Pressburger fantasy A Matter of Life and Death and for her later role as the sensible ape Dr Zira in the first three "Planet of the Apes" films. Her role as the nose-twitching simian brought her a higher degree of fame than any other. "While Streetcar has become a classic, and A Matter of Life and Death is a classic," she said recently,

those ape films have become a cult in their own right. People from all over the world write to me about those films.

Charlton Heston, who starred with her in the first two of the Apes movies, echoed Kazan's words this week when he also called Hunter "a unique talent", adding, "It is my distinct privilege to have worked with her."

Born Janet Cole in Detroit, Michigan, in 1922, and educated at Miami Beach High School, Hunter became interested in acting while a child. "I was lonely growing up," she said:

My only brother was nine years older, and had little time for me. So I picked friends out of books and played let's-pretend games, acting out their characters before a mirror.

She made her stage début at the age of 17 when she joined a little theatre group in Miami, after which she acted with various repertory companies. She was appearing in the play Arsenic and Old Lace at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1942 when she was seen by the producer David O. Selznick, who put her under contract. She made her screen début in Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (1943), a chillingly atmospheric tale in which she was an innocent in Manhattan who becomes involved with a group of devil-worshippers. One of the famous bunch of exceptional B-movies produced by Val Lewton, it is now regarded as a minor classic.

Hunter was another innocent in When Strangers Marry (1944), this time finding that the man she has married hastily may be a murderer. Dean Jagger was the husband, and co-starring as the hero was another rising star, Robert Mitchum. The modestly budgeted film made by the minor studio Monogram is another B-movie that received exceptional reviews.

In Tender Comrade (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk and written by Dalton Trumbo, Hunter portrayed one of a group of wartime factory workers who pool their resources to rent a house. The film, with its philosophy of "share and share alike", was to haunt its makers years later when it was cited as Communist propaganda. Disowned by its star, Ginger Rogers, it was to be used against Hunter when at the height of anti-Communist hysteria she was labelled a leftist sympathiser.

In 1945, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger travelled to the United States with two objectives to discuss the American distribution of their film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and to find an "ideal American girl" to play the heroine of their next production, A Matter of Life and Death. While visiting Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood, they told him they wanted a girl who was "simple, sensible and pretty, and looks good in a uniform". Hitchcock immediately suggested Hunter, whom he had directed in a test for Selznick.

Michael Powell wrote of his first encounter with the actress:

Hitch had been right. Kim Hunter had chestnut hair and green eyes. She was brave, pretty and sensible and very well put together. When she spoke, her voice was delightful. When she acted, imagination and intelligence showed in every line she spoke.

In the film, her first in colour, Hunter was appealingly sympathetic as the wireless operator who finds herself falling in love with a pilot (David Niven) who has contacted her when he is about to crash. After completing the film she returned to New York, where Irene Selznick, David's wife, was about to produce Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire. Irene asked Kazan to consider Hunter for the role of Stella. Kazan was later to write,

The minute I saw her I was attracted to her, which is the best possible reaction for a director when casting young women.

During the play's run, Hunter studied at the Actors' Studio, along with her co-stars Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, and she would become angry in later years when she heard the studio described as the home of a mumbling and shuffling style of performance. "Does Karl Malden slur his words?" she asked.

Or Tom Ewell, or Eli Wallach, or Eva Marie Saint, or Julie Harris? All Actors' Studio, all as articulate as you can get.

Hunter's marvellous performance in the film version survived what Kazan considered some ruthless cutting of the film to conform with the then current censorship standards. He wrote in his memoirs,

There was a brilliant close-up - I'm speaking of Kim Hunter's performance, not my direction - of her coming down the stairs to her husband when he's called desperately for her to come back. This close-up had been cut short and with it the piece of music Alex North had written. The shot and the music were both considered "too carnal".

(The cut footage was later restored to the film, and it makes more sense of Stella's submissiveness and her response when Stanley bellows his iconic command, "Hey, Stella!")

At the 1951 Oscar ceremonies, Vivien Leigh, Hunter and Karl Malden all won awards for their work in Streetcar the only one of the film's stars not to win was Marlon Brando, who lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. The following year Hunter was featured as Bogart's estranged wife in the newspaper drama Deadline, USA, but her name had by then appeared in Red Channels, the notorious pamphlet that listed alleged Communist sympathisers, and she was blacklisted for several years.

Hunter was not a Communist, but was a keen supporter of civil rights, and she attributed her blacklisting to her involvement with a world peace symposium she helped sponsor in 1949. In 1962 her testimony in the New York Supreme Court against the publishers of Red Channels cleared the way for others to have their names removed.

In 1999, when Elia Kazan, who had named names during the blacklisting days, was awarded a special Oscar, the acting community was divided in its response, but Hunter was one of the minority who were forgiving. "The whole business is dumb," she stated. "Artistic achievement and the mistake someone made years ago don't belong together."

The blacklisting doubtless damaged the progress of Hunter's film career, but she kept busy on television and in the theatre. On Broadway she starred in Darkness at Noon (1951) and she played Karen, one of two friends who run a school and find their lives ruined by slander, in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1952). In The Tender Trap (1954) she had a rare comedy role as Sylvia Crewe, a worldly wise career girl who is one of the girlfriends of a free-living bachelor - Celeste Holm played Sylvia in the film version.

She returned to the screen to play the assistant of a librarian (Bette Davis) who refuses to bow to book censorship in the well-meaning but ineffectual Storm Center (1956). The following year she played the mother of a rebellious youth (James MacArthur) in the first film directed by John Frankenheimer, The Young Stranger. Hunter had worked with the director on such television anthologies as Playhouse 90. Her other television appearances (which ran into hundreds) included roles in Rawhide, Naked City, Dr Kildare, Bonanza, Cannon and Gunsmoke.

In 1961 she spent a season at the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, where she played Rosalind in As You Like It, a witch in Macbeth, and Helen in Troilus and Cressida.

Film roles in Lilith (1964) and The Swimmer (1968) preceded her casting as the coquettish chimpanzee psychiatrist in Planet of the Apes (1968). She recalled,

My agent sent me the script and I thought it was a bloody good script and story. I liked what happened in it, and Zira was a fascinating character.

It was difficult to recognise her beneath the layers of latex and hair which transformed her into a simian. The long make-up sessions, taking over four hours daily, were a gruelling ordeal which Hunter solved by obtaining a prescription of Valium:

I took it as soon as I sat down in the make-up chair. And Roddy McDowall, who played my mate Cornelius, brought in a tape recorder and he played opera and classical music all during our make-up sessions, which helped a lot too. Frequently Roddy and I were together in the same make-up area. He played beautiful music and I'd take my Valium.

Hunter appeared in the next two films in the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). The latter, in which her character died, was one of her favourites:

Roddy and I reprised our roles as simian scientists and we were joined by Sal Mineo. We had escaped the holocaust that ended the previous film and found ourselves in modern-day Los Angeles. I think it was the funniest and gentlest film of the series, and it showed a tender and tragic love story between Roddy and myself. Of course, in modern-day LA these talking "apes" became curiosities and celebrities. The picture was also a perceptive satire on the nature of celebrity.

Hunter, who consistently received fan mail relating to the Apes films from all over the world, stated that the cult status of the films did not surprise her:

I think the theme is just as valid today as it was then, and it will also be, years from now. It's about the problem that creatures have with creatures who are not like themselves. It was a reverse kind of satirical comment on the problem, by having the apes not happy with the human beings, as opposed to human beings not being happy with the apes, but it made its point. It's something that people can relate to throughout history. It's not going to stop.

Most of Hunter's subsequent work was on television or in the theatre. In 1973 she starred as Mary Haines in a revival of The Women, and she was Mme Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1976). On television she appeared in Murder, She Wrote and in two daytime serials, The Edge of Night (for which she won a daytime Emmy nomination in 1980) and As the World Turns.

In October 2001 she made her last television acting appearance in an episode of the Richard Dreyfuss series The Education of Max Bickford, and earlier this year she was interviewed for the forthcoming documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There.

Hunter was married twice. In 1944 she wed a Marine captain, William Baldwin, and they had a daughter who became a judge. The couple divorced in 1946 and in 1951 she married Robert Emmett, who was head writer on the American version of the satirical television revue series That Was the Week That Was. They had a son, now a rock musician, and the marriage lasted until Emmett's death in 2000.

In 1975 Hunter wrote a book, Loose in the Kitchen, which she described as "an autobiographical cookbook".

Kim Hunter's colleagues frequently stated that she should have been a greater star, but she consistently resisted the typecasting which might have given her a higher profile, and recently said, "The work itself has been my life." One producer, seeking to pinpoint her special quality, said,

Well, she's no pin-up, and you wouldn't say she had glamour exactly, or sex appeal ... I guess she has nothing but talent.

The actress herself told the New York Herald Tribune,

When I first began acting, I had a heck of a time. Everybody wanted to type me. You're not with it if you're not labelled. What a bore that is, let me tell you.

Tom Vallance


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