For the first five years of her acting career (1955-59) Shirley Knight persevered through bit parts in movies and guest spots on television. Then just like that, she scored two Oscar nominations in three years.
First came The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs in 1960, a Delbert Mann directed melodrama about a saddle salesman played Robert Preston struggling with the popularity of the automobile during the prohibition era. Knight plays Reenie, the daughter of Preston and Dorothy McGuire’s characters.
The film hasn’t aged all that well – it’s a bit like a poor man’s Tennessee Williams production, but Knight made for a lovely ingenue and the Academy nominated her for best supporting actress.
Just two years later, Knight would co-star with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in a film actually based upon a Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth for Director Richard Brooks. Despite watering down the more salacious aspects of Williams’ text (Newman’s character is changed from a gigolo to a drifter for the film), Sweet Bird of Youth was a sizable hit with critics and audiences. Page was nominated for an Oscar in the category of best actress, Ed Begley won for best supporting actor, and Knight was recognized once again in support.
As Heavenly, Knight plays Newman’s former girlfriend who falls for the returning ne’er do well a second time (hey, he is Paul Newman) and leaves town with him at the film’s close despite her father’s efforts to keep them apart. Knight was in pretty remarkable company at the time, and she more than held her own.
What’s so strange about Knight’s career is what happened next. Which is to say, not a whole lot of extraordinary merit. In fact, she soon went back to smaller parts in movies and guest roles on television despite being a two-time Oscar nominee. It’s truly hard to think of another performer who capitalized so little on such remarkable early success.
That’s not to say that Knight didn’t have a fine career as a character actress after Sweet Bird – she certainly did. I’m just mystified by how brief her peak was.
There were significant upticks for Knight. She had a fine supporting role in Richard Lester’s criminally semi-forgotten 1967 film, Petulia, and she played a rare lead across from Robert Duvall and James Caan in Coppola’s pre-Godfather drama, 1969’s The Rain People. Lester cast her again in the high class disaster flick Juggernaut, but that was a pretty male-dominated production.
Going through her filmography for this piece, I had to chuckle a bit when I remembered that she was in 1979’s Beyond The Poseidon Adventure. You see, I often get Knight and Shelly Winters mixed up, and here she was following Winters and in a role that largely served the same purpose – to be the “blowsy broad” who dies in an overturned ship.
Knight deserves better than that. It would take a long time after Beyond for her to get it. Besides not keeping the flame hot after her twin nominations, Knight committed the two cardinal sins for actresses of her era – she got older and she gained weight.
It would be more than a decade and a half before Knight would garner the attention she deserved. In HBO’s Indictment: The McMartin Trial, Winters played Peggy Buckley, a woman who ran a pre-school and was falsely accused of child molestation.
The 1995 film – based on an infamous true story – was produced by Oliver Stone with James Woods playing the defense lawyer for the Buckley family. Mercedes Ruehl, Lolita Davidovitch, and Henry Thomas rounded out the cast, but it was Knight who stood out in a heartbreaking performance as a woman who cannot believe what is happening to her. There is a scene in Indictment where Knight is stripped of her clothing upon being incarcerated that was so painful to watch, I can scarcely stand to think about it.
For her performance, Knight was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a series, mini-series, or film. That same year, Knight won an Emmy for guest actress on NYPD Blue playing the mother of a murder victim (she would be nominated in the same category in 2006 for Desperate Housewives).
She also had a small, but significant role in James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets from 1997 as Helen Hunt’s relentlessly positive and persuasive mother. Like I said, it wasn’t a large part, but Knight stole every scene.
Over the next nearly quarter of a century, Knight kept busy the way terrific working actors often do: classing up productions that aren’t up to their level. She often found better fortune on the stage where she won a Tony (beating out Meryl Streep!) for featured actress in 1976 for Kennedy’s Children, was nominated again in 1997 for leading actress in The Young Man From Atlanta, and was nominated for a Drama Desk award as lead actress for Landscape of the Body in 1977.
It could be said that most of Knight’s career was made up of occasional highlights and a fair bit of, well, work. But when given the rare opportunity to show her gifts in full, she never missed. Not once.
Shirley Knight died today. She was 83 years old.