Isn't she adorable!" the spontaneous cry of a lady in the second row rang out through New York's Vivian Beaumont Theater last week. Stockard Channing says she didn't hear it. She was too deeply immersed in her transporting performance as Ouisa Kittredge, the wife of a Fifth Avenue art dealer (John Cunningham) in John Guare's hit play "Six Degrees of Separation." You need to focus in order to be funny, tough, poignant, mystically radiant--and adorable--in one seamless performance. Channing does it as a woman whose world is turned upside down by a young black con man (Courtney B. Vance) who charms his way into her life. The spotlight that kindles Channing's face in the final glowing image of the play seems to anoint her as a major American actress.
Stockard Channing? Great name, but how did she become a great presence? "I worked my butt off," is her concise explanation. How did a Park Avenue debutante with a Radcliffe education, a trust fund and a moneyed husband come to work her butt off? The trust fund has long since dwindled away. The husband, Walter Channing, supplied her name (originally Susan Stockard) and has been succeeded by three other spouses. And the Radcliffe education led to her first foray into theater. Channing was part of early '60s Cambridge that produced actors John Lithgow and James Woods, playwright Thomas Babe and the prodigy director Tim Mayer. Her professional career started with the Theater Company of Boston, a "tremendous spawning ground" for actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino.
But Channing's career somehow remained unspawned, and she found herself in the chorus of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," Joseph Papp's musical version of Shakespeare's comedy. At-27 she was the oldest person in the show. "There were all these black and Hispanic kids and I hid behind the posts wondering who I was." She won the female lead on the national tour, auditioning for the Hispanic role by "singing a song that I learned phonetically from my Venezuelan roommate in boarding school. Joe was so astounded by such audacity he gave me the job."
Channing made her major movie debut in Mike Nichols's 1975 "The Fortune," costarring with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Although Channing has said that the two superstars acted "like jerks" to her, she was dazzled by their talent and fame. "One day Jack was late because he had to print his hands in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. I thought, 'My God! imagine that!' " The movie was supposed to make her a star, but instead it bombed, which neutralized Channing's rave reviews, and she dove into a series of box-office fiops. "One day I picked up a copy of NEWSWEEK with Sissy Spacek on the cover. There was a section about what ever happened to? And there was my name. I sat there cringing."
She met producer Allan Carr, who cast her in the movie of "Grease" as Rizzo, the girl with the filthiest mouth and roundest heels at Rydell High. The movie and Channing were big hits, but "it put me into a category. I became a heroine to 8-year-olds who wanted to be Rizzo." She landed a contract for her own TV show, but she couldn't enjoy that either. "I was supposed to be the new Mary Tyler Moore, but CBS did a survey and found that the demographics of the viewers were mostly between 6 and 12 years old."
When the show was canceled in 1980 Channing fled to New York. "I was really on the verge of collapse. I didn't know where I fit. Allan Carr told me I should never step out of the house without looking like an 8-by-10 glossy. But that wasn't me. Bertolucci wasn't going to come knocking at my door because I played Rizzo. I didn't want to be the next Mary Tyler Moore. My third marriage was falling apart. I really was paralyzed for about six months. Then I wrote letters to three directors--Joe Papp, Ted Mann and Arvin Brown. The only one who really followed through was Arvin."
Brown cast Channing as the mother of a brain-damaged child in a revival of Peter Nichols's play "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," which earned her a Tony Award in 1986. More Broadway honors followed in Guare's"HouseofBlueLeaves" and Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind." She has two upcoming films, Arthur Hiller's "Married to It" and "Meet the Applegates," a sci-fi fandango directed by Michael Lehmann ("Heathers") in which she plays a carnivorous plant disguised as a human being.'
But her fullest realization so far is in "Six Degrees" as Ouisa, who calls herself "a collage of unaccounted-for brushstrokes." This could be a description of Channing herself, a human action painting who talks in a headlong rush, messing up her blond bangs and dropping French phrases like "nostalgie de la boue "along with slang like "cop to" in the sexiest theater voice since Tallulah. Once called by Vogue the "ultimate natural original," at 46 she still has a face that can look like an Irish kid's with "my goddam chipmunk cheeks." She's taken a mazelike path to fulfillment, but like Ouisa she opened a "Pandora's box of imagination. It's dangerous and exciting to open that box. Today most of us have shoved the box away." You cop to the fact that Channing will never slam the lid.