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Interview with Kim Hunter

Extract from: Science fiction stars and horror heroes: interviews with actors, directors, producers and writers of the 1940s through 1960s
by Tom Weaver

Becoming a star wouldn't have bothered me,
but what is a star? A star isn't anything.
An actor acts. That's the important thing.

----------------------  Kim Hunter  ----------------------

    By Hollywood's skewed standards of normal behaviour, Kim Hunter probably qualifies as "the eccentric type": She lives in a Manhattan apartment and not in L.S.'a smoggy climes, her Oscar statuette is tarnished and inconspicuously displayed, and she doesn't give two hoots in a barn about owning any of her films on videotape. But in Hunter's case, "eccentric" also translates into warm, intelligent and charming. On a bleak spring afternoon, and electrician is rummaging through her Greenwich Village digs as rain spatters the windows and lights flicker off and on, but Hunter is unruffled and unfailingly pleasant, giving her full attention to an interviewer whom any "normal" Hollywood actress would have gladly kicked down the stairs on such a trying day.

    Née Janet Cole, the future stage, screen and television actress began her acting career fresh out of high school, first as a member of a Florida stock company and later with the Pasedena Playhouse. A talent scout for Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick spotted her in one of the Playhouse productions and Selznick quickly placed the young actress under contract. Hunter film-debuted in the Val Lewton chiller The Seventh Victim and has since gone on to appear in more than twenty films and close to a hundred stage roles. One of her finest and most challenging roles was as Stella Kowalski in Broadway's A Streetcar Named Desire (she later reprised the role in the 1951 film version, copping a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), but by her own admission she is best remembered today for playing the chimpanzee psychologist Dr. Zira in the '60s classic Planet of the Apes and two sequels. Truly a class act, Kim Hunter has more than made her mark in the annals of fantastic filmdom.

How did you get involved on Val Lewson's The Seventh Victim?
    Val Lewton knew me because he had been in charge of the screen test that got me my contract with David O. Selznick, and Jaques Tourneur had directed it. In fact Tourneur and Val were around when Selznick said my name had to be changed. Val had worked for David during the time of Gone with the Wind [1939], and Val was assigned to get audience comments during the intermission. He didn't want to do it, and what he finally ended up doing was making up a list of comments and inventing names to go with them. David later found out what Val had done, and when he sent me over to see Val at RKO, he said, "I'm sending you to a man who's very good at making up names!" [Laughs.] Anyway, the three of us say in Val's office - Val Lewton, Tourneur and me - thinking up first names, and Val's secretary was writing down a whole list of last names. Hunter was among them. And in our first names I suggested Kim, only because I remembered it from Showboat - I sort of liked it, thought it was kind of fun. And Selznick put the two together - I had nothing to do with that. He called me and asked, "Kim Hunter - do you like it?" [Laughs.]

What were your impressions of Val Lewton?
    A darling, gentle man - so wrong to be known as the king of the horror films [laughs]! Just a sweet human being.

Was he on the set of Seventh Victim much?
    I don't remember him being on the set all that much. I really don't. He saw all the dailies, I know that, and he insisted that I not! He had brought me in to look at my tests, and I damn near burst into tears, and so he said, "Oh, no, no, keep her out! She's one of those that has no objectivity about her own work." Actors do that, they just sit there and criticize everything.

Did you have first-picture jitters?
    It was just all so new. I remember them telling me to be very, very careful because the camera exaggerates everything, and what an actor might do on stage is not necessarily a good idea on film because it looks five times as large. Which means that I found myself terrified to move a muscle [laughs]! Every now and then Val would say, "Would you relax, please? You look like you're embalmed!" So I had to find a way, somehow, and I concentrated on trying to understand the medium. Camera marks, those were hard to get used to, and the silence drove me absolutely crazy. There is nothing quite as silent as the silence during the shooting of a film in a studio. It was [director] Mark Robson's first picture too, so we were hangin' onto each other for dear life [laughs]!

What do you think of the film today?
    Oh, I don't know - it's very hard for me to ever see myself. I keep seeing things I wished I'd done, or not done, or what-have-you. I just know from what I'm told and what I read that it was considered one of the best of the whole lot of horror films that Val Lewton did. But Lewton's way of dealing with horror films, I thought, was so marvellous, letting the audience use its imagination rather than showing all the blood and guts and all of that.

Another one of your early pictures was When Strangers Marry [1944], once called the best-ever B movie, directed by William Castle.
    I liked working with Castle very much, but When Strangers Marry was a very peculiar experience. In a way, it was a horror film of its own type [laughs]! The King Brothers produced it, and they had quite a reputation in Hollywood for having notches on their guns - little things like that! Mama kind of ran the gang, but it was a gang, those guys! They slapped a ten-day schedule on the film, and Bill Castle said [whispering], "Would you mind if we sneaked a rehearsal period for about a week at my apartment?" And we said [still whispering], "Yes, we'd love to do that!" So we had an illegitimate week's rehearsal, Dean Jagger, Bob Mitchum and I. That saved our lives, in order to do that film in ten days.
    The King Brothers were absolutely fascinated with Mitchum, and Bob was very glad when the ten days were over. Because frequently, while Bob was waiting to do a scene, two of the King Brothers' "henchmen" would come over to him, one guy would stand on one side of him and the second guy on the other, and he swears they had guns in their pockets. They would say to him, "You really oughta leave MGM and move over to the King Brothers. They really want you under contract." Bob said, "No, I don't think I can get out of my MGM contract," and they said, "We'll manage it, we'll get you out of it!" They were at him the whole time, and he was glad when he was able to get out!

How did you land your role in A Matter of Life and Death?
    While I was under contract to Selznick, I got a call asking if I would mind coming to the studio and substituting for Ingrid Bergman in tests that Hitchcock wanted to make for Spellbound [1945]. I said hell, yes, because I wanted to go and watch the guy work. He would shoot the back of my head, testing various male minor roles, and it was very exciting - I worked with him for about three days doing that, and we had lunch together each day. And that was the end of that. A year later, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came to this country looking for somebody to play the WAC in A Matter of Life and Death. They saw people in New York, then they came to California and had dinner with Hitch. And Hitch said: "Well, there is a girl you might see..."
    That's how I got brought to them, and we just sort of talked. I had just finished making a film with Lizabeth Scott, You Came Along [1945], and they asked to see snippets of that. I didn't know any more until some time later, when my agent got a call saying that I should go to London, etc., etc. - I was in. Later, talking to Mickey [Powell], I found out that he had hired me on a hunch and it was not You Came Along - in fact, seeing that film almost turned him against me, because he didn't like the hairdo!

You liked Powell?
    God, what a gorgeous man! I was so sorry when he died, but he had been quite ill so it was probably a relief. He was on morphine almost 24 hours a day towards the end. I saw him just before he went back to England, where he died - he was dear, but he wasn't "in" the conversation, because he couldn't hear, couldn't relate. So sad. I had much more contact with Mickey than I did with Emeric during the making of Life and Death because Emeric didn't come around the set all that much. His work was basically done when they had decided on the finished script. The two of them worked pretty closely together in writing it - the first draft would always be Emeric's, then Mickey would get his hands on it, and then Emeric would tidy it up! So as I said, Emeric didn't really come to the set much, but I got to know him because of various little gatherings. Another dear, sweet man.

Where was Life and Death shot
    In Denham Studios in London - I believe the whole film was shot there except for one scene at Saunton Sands, where they did the opening shots on the beach. But most of it was in the studio. I liked England very much; the work was very good, very exciting, particularly after Hollywood. The attitude was so much more concentrated on the work - that was the important thing. How you lived, what kind of car you drove and what-have-you didn't mean a damn thing; it was each to his own taste over there. I'll never forget when I bought my first car in California, a Ford business coupe, and I drove it up to my agent's office and I said very proudly, "Look!" And he said, "You're crazy - take it back!" He said, "When you're well-known, you can be eccentric and drive a Ford business coupe, but until you get to be a star you need a Cadillac!" To impress. And that's insane. It was such a relief to find that that attitude just didn't exist in England.

Congregated on the Stairway to Heaven, Marius Goring, Kathleen Byron, Robert Coote, Roger Livesey, unidentified players, Joan Maude, Abraham Sofaer and Raymond Massey look on as Kim Hunter reaches out to David Niven

Life and Death was a fairly prestigious picture for England, wasn't it?
    Yes, it was. And it was the first Royal Command Film Performance - it took place at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. It was quite a show that night, because there were so many of us involved. There was a stage show as well as the film and actors from all over the world were there. From Sweden, from Greece, from France and the States, and of course all the top English people. After the show we went upstairs to the Royal Lounge and they had us all lined up in a semi-circle and the Royal Family came around us. Mickey said later that when King George got to him, he was very complimentary, and then he said, "I know what you did! I know how you got the film to go from black-and-white to color and back!" What Mickey had done was shoot the black-and-white scenes on color film and then print only one of the three color matrices - you had to print all three to make it color. The King said, "That's how you slid back and forth, isn't it?" He was right, and he was terribly pleased with himself that he had figured it out!
    When the film was released, all the critics laced into it, calling it an anti-British film! In the trial scene, Raymond Massey had all these marvellous things to say about America and terrible things to say about England, and Roger Livesey just sort of sat there quietly and once in a while said "But you're wrong..." Roger won the battle, but because he didn't say enough, the critics all thought ultimately that Massey's character had won! It was crazy.

Why did they change the title to Stairway to Heaven for U.S. release?
    Jock Lawrence [head of the Rank Organization in the U.S.] said, "You've got to change the title because nobody in the United States will come to a film with Death in its title." So it became Stairway to Heaven - this is the only country in the world where it's called that. Also we're the only country in the world that had various little cuts, like the little goatherd boy on the beach. He was perfectly decent [laughs] - the way he was sitting, you couldn't see his parts! - but no, no, you couldn't have any nudity in the United States.

The color in Life and Death is very striking.
    Powell was relentless, he kept sending prints back to the lab until he got it exactly the way he wanted it. He was marvellous.

You also appeared in scenes for Powell & Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.
    They had already made that film, and they wanted to shoot a few new scenes and bring it up to date for release in the States. So they brought back [actor] John Sweet and they used me in those scenes as well. Mickey knew he was going to do it before he got me to London, because he had me shopping in New York for a hat and clothes and what-have-you for Canterbury Tale. I was just in the prologue and epilogue for American audiences.

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