Friday, March 14

A Trio of Character Actresses

Time to get acquainted or reacquainted with three superior character actresses... Mildred Dunnock, Jessie Royce Landis and Mildred Natwick.  You've seen each of them in countless movies, no doubt, because they made some big ones.  There aren't enough words to clarify what these ladies brought to films and yet all were primarily stage performers, appearing on Broadway throughout their careers.  Let's get to know them better.

With her serious, pencil-lipped, birdlike features, Mildred Dunnock appeared passive and resigned, yet rapt and omniscient in her roles as the lead actor's mother or a schoolteacher or a spinster.  She was usually the most pleasant person in the story.  Due to her reserved nature, she was sometimes cast as a helpless victim and once in awhile she was not very likeable.  When that happened, you could scarcely believe that sweet woman could act like that.  Whatever she did, she was in the top echelon of character actresses.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1901, she first got bitten by the acting bug while in high school.  She would attend two colleges and would receive a master's degree in theater arts.  For a spell she was employed as a teacher.  She appeared in a number of Broadway productions, both before and after she began movie acting, including The Corn Is Green, Another Part of the Forest, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and most impressively as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman.  She became a founding member of the famed Actors' Studio.

She came to the movies also in The Corn Is Green (1945) but became forever famous two years later as the frightened invalid in the wheelchair that crazed Richard Widmark (in his film debut) pushed down the stairs in the excellent film noir, Kiss of Death.  In 1951 she would repeat her Broadway success in Death of a Salesman, for which she would be Oscar-nominated.  The same year she portrayed a tender but strong mother in I Want You, an under-appreciated, home-front Korean War drama.  In 1956 she was Oscar-nominated again for her ditzy aunt in Baby Doll and as Elvis Presley's loving mother in his film debut, Love Me Tender.  She registered strongly as a high school teacher in Peyton Place (1958).

Work in important productions followed such as the mistress of postulates in The Nun's Story as compared with her most sinister role as Gig Young's domineering mother in The Story on Page One and a year later (1960) as Elizabeth Taylor's supportive mother in Butterfield 8.  She was sweet-natured as Aunt Nonnie in Sweet Bird of Youth and strong as James Franciscus' mom in Youngblood Hawke.

She was always a very busy actress, both on the big and small screens as well as the stage.  And yet she always claimed she was as normal an actress as one would ever meet.  She was married over 60 years to the same man and lived on Martha's Vineyard in her final years.  She died peacefully at age 90 in 1991.

By virtue of her appearances in two Hitchcock films, Jessie Royce Landis became a character actress with whom I was quite smitten.  Just look at that adorable face.  Doesn't she look fun?   In those roles and some others, she seemed to be having such a damned great time and I reacted so positively.  Her movie career was largely comprised of roles as well-to-do women, spirited, normal, always ready with a laugh or smile, giving the impression that she was in on the joke.

She was born in Chicago in 1896 to the wife of an orchestra leader. From an early age she flirted with the idea of being a performer but it took a few years for her to decide on acting.  Once she made that decision, she pursued it with a fervor.  By 20 she was appearing on Chicago stages with Broadway soon to follow and London afterwards.  She appeared in a short and a forgotten film in the early 30s but she didn't pursue film acting until 1949 at which time she was already past the age of leading lady status.  Lucky for us.

In 1949 she made three films... Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (a Clifton Webb franchise), It Happens Every Spring (a baseball comedy) and a Susan Hayward romance-drama, My Foolish Heart. Her greatest fame wouldn't come until Mr. Hitchcock arrived on the scene with a juicy part (her best) in To Catch a Thief.  Dressed to the nines and armed with some wickedly delicious lines, she plays Grace Kelly's mother as they cavort on the Riviera with Cary Grant to keep them both perky.

She would play Kelly's mother again the following year in The Swan, where both were princesses.  It was a sumptuous production with Landis playing a scatterbrain and Kelly getting some experience for what was to come after just one more film.  In real life, the two were close.  In 1957 she would play another comical mother role (to June Allyson and Martha Hyer) in a generally ignored remake of My Man Godfrey, which I quite liked. 

Then Hitchcock requested her services again for the sharp-tongued mother of Cary Grant in the spy thriller, North by Northwest.  She was known to say she was a mere seven months older than Grant, although the truth is it was seven years.  The rest of her films were generally mindless comedies, far beneath this actress' abilities, and ended with a small role as a passenger in 1970's Airport.

She had three husbands and was married at the time of her death from cancer at age 75 in Connecticut.  She always reminded me of Betty White... or the other way around.... in looks and in acting style.

Mildred Natwick never rose to star status in the movies, most likely due to her sharp facial features, rather lived-in body and late start.  She had a great sense of comedy (New York theater critic, Walter Kerr, called her the most hilarious woman in the Western Hemisphere).  Indeed, she could be counted on to be quick with a quip, was often snarky, mischievous, eccentric, with a frisky little smile on her face.  And when called upon to do so, she could be equally loving, thoughtful and wise.

She was born in 1905 in Mildred Dunnock's birthplace, Baltimore, Maryland.  She yearned to be a stage actress from an early age and would pursue drama at two colleges.  She would become part of the famed University Players at Cape Cod where she rubbed elbows with Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.  She would soon tread the boards on the Great White Way and ultimately would appear in over 40 plays.  Like Dunnock and Landis, she considered herself first and foremost a stage actor.

She, too, came to the movies late (age 35).  She was quite lucky to have fallen in with director John Ford and his company of players.  She must have felt like a regular because she made four films for him.  Her debut was in 1940's The Long Voyage Home as a prostitute.  Her next Ford film was as the doomed mother in 1948's The Three Godfathers, then as a tough-as-nails Army wife in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and finally as a crafty widow in The Quiet Man (1952).  John Wayne, her costar in all those films, thought she was a great actress and a good egg.

She drifted into television guest spots, adding a panache to every role she was offered.  She still made movies but they weren't the stuff of which Ford's films were made.  She was a total delight as a wily spinster who keeps an important secret in Hitchcock's 1955 The Trouble with Harry (costarring Mildred Dunnock) and oozing with feisty charm as Debbie Reynolds pal in 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor.

She returned to Broadway in Barefoot in the Park and fortunately not only made the movie version but grabbed a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her trouble.  She ended her movie career in a small role in 1988's Dangerous Liaisons

She never married and died of cancer in 1994 in New York at age 89.

Next posting:  Lollo

No comments:

Post a Comment