By this time, Jo Van Fleet was on the ascent in her decades-spanning career. Already a stage presence in the National Theater and Broadway, her turn as Jessie Mae Watts in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1954. The following year, she would snag the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “East of Eden” under the direction of Elia Kazan (whom she had studied with at his Actors Studio). There, she learned his directing sentiments, quoted in “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age” thusly: “I want the breath of life from them rather than the mechanical fulfillment of the movement which I asked for.” For Van Fleet, the breath of life for a tense scene could be found in a good smack.
Kirk Douglas’ autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” chronicles the moment Van Fleet asked Douglas to give her a helping hand. “Jo wanted to be pumped up before she went on to do a scene,” he recalls. “She asked me to slap her.” With some reluctance, Douglas complied. Take after take, she’d get a hit and do her scene, sometimes instructing her co-star to put more power into each smack:
“She got ready to play the scene, and asked me to hit her really hard. I said, ‘You really want me to?’ And I hauled off and whacked her. Her head spun. Burt [Lancaster] stood there with his jaw dropping, watching this sadomasochistic ritual. She shook her head, went and played the scene. Actors are willing to do anything that will help them get a good performance. They’re almost willing to sell their souls.”
And what was Douglas’ ultimate takeaway? “Well, she got the performance. It was a take.”