When my cable provider added SOAPNet a couple of years ago, I finally had a chance to see Ryan's Hope. The episodes airing then were from 1980, about five years into the show's 14-year run. I have to confess, the character of Delia Reid Ryan (Ryan Coleridge Crane Coleridge) didn't make much of an impression on me one way or the other.
The Delia of the early-1980s, as played by Randall Kennedy, was pretty - and pretty full of herself - but Kennedy's portrayal lacked depth. Being a soap, of course the facts of Delia's backstory were filled in, but there was no indication of the character's emotional journey.
Initially, the RH character who most interested me was Jillian Coleridge - a woman who wanted what she wanted - and who she wanted - the consequences be damned. As I watched Jill turn Frank's life upside down, knowing exactly what she was doing, yet, seeming to have internalized all the of contradictions, so she never came across as the typical soap opera bitch, I wondered if Claire Labine had modeled Jillian on As the World Turn's Kim Hughes - who also wanted who she wanted, in her case, her sister's husband - and got him - and yet was adored by all, as was Jillian. Interestingly, ATWT creator, Irna Phillips, was said to have modeled Kim after her own life.
Just as the RH's 1982 episodes were to begin, the show went back to its 1975 premiere. The official explanation was a problem clearing the music rights for post-1982 episodes. As I said, here, there was a huge hew and cry, but I was delighted to have a chance to see the show from the beginning. As it's turned out, one of the best parts - perhaps the best part - has been the opportunity to see Delia played by her originator, Ilene Kristin.
There are all sorts of ways viewers identify with soap opera characters. Patrick Erwin talked about his sense of finally belonging when As the World Turns introduced its first gay character, Hank Elliott. For me, it was class and ethnicity. I grew up part of an Italian-American working-class family living in an affluent town in northern New Jersey that looked a lot like Springfield and Oakdale. So did the inhabitants; WASPY physicians, attorneys, businessmen and their stay-at-home wives. It wasn't until One Life to Live premiered in 1968, that soaps began to reflect class and ethnicity.
But it wasn't until the late 80s, when Doug Marland brought Jessica Griffin's extended family onto the Oakdale canvas, that I saw a story right out of my own life. Jessica always wanted something more than the South Bronx had to offer; she became the first in her family to go to college. When her family appeared, all the long-simmering resentments her ambitions had created in her parents, her father in particular, and brother came to a boil: "Just because you went to college don't make you better than us" and "Why isn't what we have good enough for you" were frequent refrains in the African-American Griffin household, as they had been in my own.
But, as important as seeing soap characters who reflect our demographic markers, even more important is seeing characters who reflect our personal characteristics - good and bad. Now, assuming that Hermann Hesse was correct when he said in Demain, "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself," it is certainly easy to understand hating Delia. The power of Kristin's performance is that the character of Delia holds up a mirror to viewers, and reflects back to them so many of the shortcomings, and vulnerabilities, we all do our best to tame.
Her hysterical, manic, insecurity exists within us all. Most of us deal with it on our own time, and try not to impose it on others. Not Delia. We all know people like Delia, and we all struggle with how to keep them from sucking the life out of us. I watch Kristin play every level of a narcissism so profound that Delia was utterly oblivious to the impact of her never-ending emotional neediness has on those around her and wonder what it would be like to let loose like that. How would my friends and family react if I gave in to that level of insecurity? I suppose I've always been too afraid to find out. But not Delia. I guess that's what they mean by living vicariously.
As I write, SOAPNet is airing episodes from early 1978 - about two-and-a-half years in the RH's 14-year run. Watching those 650+ episodes, I don't know how many times I've asked myself, sometimes aloud, how could Ilene Kristin have never even been nominated for a Daytime Emmy for her portrayal of Delia? I finally looked up who did win for supporting actress in the mid-1970s. It turns out that 1979 was the first year Daytime Emmys were given in the supporting category.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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