Has anyone encapsulated quiet suffering more memorably than Kim Hunter? For the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Hunter snagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and embedded herself in the lexicon as the "Stella!" to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski.
Even now, more than 50 years after the film's release, it's easy to understand what all the shouting is about. Hunter's Stella is a luminous beauty, fragile and delicate on the outside, masking an iron will beneath. She makes you understand her attraction to both the brutish Stanley and the demanding Blanche without question. It's the most difficult role in the script, and when you think of what the character could have been—maudlin, self-pitying, or just plain invisible—Hunter's achievement is all the more impressive. Lesser actresses would have been blown off the screen by Brando and Vivien Leigh, but Hunter more than holds her own—she absolutely shines.
Born Janet Cole, Hunter trained at the prestigious Actors Studio before an agent working for David L. Selznick saw her perform at the Pasadena Playhouse and brought her in for a screen test at RKO. She made her onscreen debut at age 17 in the underrated horror film The Seventh Victim and charmed audiences as a naïve bride in William Castle's When Strangers Marry. She appeared in four other films before returning to Broadway in 1947 to do Streetcar and wasn't seen again on-screen until she reprised her role for the film version.
After the success of Streetcar, Hunter might have gone on to enormous stardom had she not been blacklisted. Hunter was a strong believer in civil rights and a sponsor of a 1949 World Peace Conference in New York, but not a Communist. She refused to back down to intimidation tactics and placed her beliefs before her career. In 1962 she testified before the New York Supreme Court against the publishers of Red Channels, a journal that "exposed" Hollywood Communists, and her courage helped clear many peers who had been unjustly accused of Communist ties.
In the 1960s, Hunter popped up in films like Lilith, co-starring Warren Beatty, but was probably best known for a role she was utterly unrecognizable in: that of the sympathetic primate Zira in the original Planet of the Apes. While many performers of her pedigree might be mortified to be so well remembered for a sci-fi film franchise, Hunter never seemed ashamed of her legacy. Perhaps that's because her Zira was beautifully played, with the same tenderness and strength Hunter brought to all her roles.
It's been less than a year since Hunter passed away, at 79, and she was working up to the end. From 1999 to 2000 she appeared in five films and guest starred in a 2001 episode of The Education of Max Bickford. Hunter will forever be our Stella, but we lost something far more rare than just a great and disciplined actress—we lost a woman of remarkable integrity.