Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kneel Before O'Neil

Some actors do a lifetime of work on the stage or screen and yet are solely remembered for one thing. While today's star may not fit that description entirely, it is probable that most people who know of her at all only know of her because of the role she played in one of the most successful films of all time.

A Student of The Yale School of Drama, Barbara O'Neil joined University Players and rubbed elbows with fellow students (and future stars) Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, among others. It was here that she met her husband (for a short while) Joshua Logan, who was a noted director, eventually enjoying much success on Broadway.

Fans of the old Barbara Stanwyck weepie Stella Dallas will recall O'Neil as the kindly stepmother of Stanwyck's daughter Anne Shirley (you know, the girl who marries a nice young boy as her real mother stands watching from the outside?) This first foray into films (in 1937) was representative of the types of roles Ms. O'Neil would portray most frequently. She was often either the other woman (nice or mean, depending on what was called for) or some sort of motherly figure.

Just two years later, O'Neil would enact the role of Ellen Robillard O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, a film of such magnitude that, even now, 70 years later, it captivates droves of viewers and stands as one of Hollywood's all time classics. Here, she portrayed the soft-spoken, quietly powerful and much-beloved mother of Scarlett O'Hara. Though the role in the film is rather slender, the character in the source novel is a major fixture, her persona looming large throughout, and O'Neil perfectly fit the character (as practically every actor in GWTW did thanks to the exacting obsessiveness of producer David O' Selznick.) One bit of surprising trivia: She was, in real life, only three years older than Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett. Unlike many other instances of this sort of thing, on this occasion, it works perfectly. O'Neil's work here is interesting because it's very understated, something that would contrast dramatically with her other most notable career role.

A year after GWTW, O'Neil took on the role of The Duchesse de Praslin in All This, and Heaven Too, a romantic drama that starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. Here, she was the vividly neurotic and endlessly trouble-causing wife of Boyer who frets and lashes out constantly at both him and the (for once) demure Davis. Once seen, she cannot be forgotten as she flails about in a variety of ornate period ensembles, sporting anachronistic false eyelashes that seem to project 3-D-style from the screen. For her efforts, she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Though there is precious little in her fire-breathing performance that is realistic or (much less) subtle, she is thoroughly captivating and the film can't help but suffer a bit when she makes her exit.

Despite this accomplishment and the forward momentum that these two films should have offered, Barbara O'Neil made sporadic film appearances after this (including Otto Preminger's Whirlpool and Angel Face - and not everyone could work with him twice!), concentrating more on Broadway where she performed in no less than seven plays from 1942 on. She also made a few 1950s TV appearances, usually on anthology shows which were very popular at the time.

Some might be surprised to know that she lived until 1980, but she was only 70, having portrayed Mrs. O'Hara when in her late 20s. Though the occasional bit of acting may show up in which she doesn't make a massive impression, there's no denying the versatility she brought to the roles she did when looked at as a collection, even when they were pigeonholed within a certain range by the scripts and casting directors.


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