Friday, April 9, 2010

Couldn't We All Use a Little Moorehead?

Apart from any mystical, witchy attributes that her successful role on Bewitched may have lent to her persona, today’s featured actress was one shrouded in mystery long before and remains that way even now to a great extent. And the interesting thing about it is that that is exactly the way Miss Agnes Moorehead wanted it to be! The actress, who seemed to be able to portray practically any type of character during her busy career, was careful to reveal only as much as she wanted to to whomever she was interacting with, and it wasn’t always the same facets of her persona that were shared.

Born in 1900 (though she later backpedaled the date to 1906), Agnes Moorehead was born just that to a Presbyterian minister in Clinton, Massachusetts. A fanciful and creative child, she would impressively imitate the members of her father’s congregation. Her father wanted her to have a reliable occupation and a strong education and so, though he didn’t discourage her love of acting, he “encouraged” her to a bachelor’s degree in biology. Agnes was a schoolteacher for several years before diving into the acting realm fulltime.

She eventually embarked on a theatre career, though one that had its share of dry spells. A spate of particularly rough times caused her to go hungry for several days and, from that, she learned the value of a dollar. In 1930, she was married for the first time (a marriage which lasted until 1952) and she found success working in radio dramas. Radio was a milieu in which Miss Moorehead thrived. Always one possessing a distinctive, yet magically varied and skillful, voice, she swiftly became a favorite with producers in the field, not to mention audiences. One of her greatest successes was Sorry, Wrong Number, which she performed many times over the years, though Barbara Stanwyck was granted the role on film (and much later, thankfully after Agnes was gone, Loni Anderson did a TV movie version!)

In 1937, she met Orson Welles and became part of his fabled Mercury Theatre Group, eventually taking part in the (in)famous War of the Worlds broadcast. The troupe relocated to California within a couple of years and Miss Moorehead was granted her first feature film role through her association with the genius Welles. She played his character’s mother in a little film called Citizen Kane! (This, in case you don’t know, is considered one of the all-time classics in the history of cinema, a very distinguished way to start in the business!)

His next film was primed to succeed even further, but instead it was tampered with extremely heavily, causing Welles no end of torment and ending forever his relationship with the film's (and Kane’s) esteemed editor Robert Wise, who was enlisted to chop 5o minutes from it and shoot some new material to help patch it back together. The film was The Magnificent Ambersons and, even in its ravaged form, there is and was an interest in it. For this, Moorehead’s second screen role ever, she was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category even though her most momentous scene was cobbled together from new footage blended with bits of the old!

After this, she proceeded to fill out the casts of many films, some now obscure, some memorable. Some of the better-known ones include Welles’ Journey Into Fear, Jane Eyre (in which Welles starred, but did not direct) and Since You Went Away. In 1944, her supporting role in Mrs. Parkington (A Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon film) netted her a second Oscar nom. She also appeared in the hooty Tomorrow the World! about a young, blonde child who is a Nazi at heart and does any number of things to destroy the people around him, most of whom are treating him with incredible kindness.

Moorehead could play so many types. She would be a simple, plain farmwoman one time and then a snooty, sophisticated lady the next. Never a “beautiful” woman in the conventional sense (though the period photo of her at the top of this post at least reveals an attractive one), she nevertheless was able to wear ornate period clothing without ever looking swallowed up in them. A long neck and regal bearing helped to pull this off. She has a small, but key, role in The Woman in White in which she played the massive Sydney Greenstreet’s wife. That same year, she was Oscar-nominated again for her part in Johnny Belinda, a Jane Wyman movie about a deaf/mute. Wyman, herself, did take home the Oscar that year.

In The Stratton Story, she played the mother James Stewart, who enacted the role of a baseball player who loses a leg. She was only 8 years his senior, though this type of casting was not at all out of the ordinary for her. Now an important “go to” actress for deep, complex or tricky character parts, Moorehead was working with many significant stars and directors of her era.

In the late 40s, Warner Brothers had planned to use Bette Davis and Joan Crawford together in a prison movie, but that all fell apart. In 1950, the project came to light as Caged starring Eleanor Parker as a female inmate and Agnes Moorehead as a sympathetic warden. It was one of the rare times she enjoyed almost co-starring billing, though her name was smaller than Parker’s in the promotional materials.

Around this same time, she embarked on a theatrical venture, one that would mean very much to her and rank among her very favorite and proudest projects. She, along with noted actors Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, were part of a concert-style reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (itself a large segment from the playwright’s enormous work Man and Superman.) Moorehead would play in this production several times, including a recorded album of the performance. A brief second marriage to (eventual) film director Robert Gist took place in the early 50s. He was gone within a year, though the divorce took longer to occur.

Moorehead continued to accent various movies including Fourteen Hours, about a frantic man planning to jump from the window of a building, Show Boat, the colorful Broadway musical that starred Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner, and The Blue Veil, a Jane Wyman tear-jerker about a young widow who fills her days caring for young children. Wyman and Moorehead worked together in five feature films in all. Their next two would become cult classics.

1954’s Magnificent Obsession was a colorful remake of a Robert Taylor-Irene Dunne film from 1935. The weepy story of a newly widowed woman blinded by a young playboy who then strives to restore her sight made a huge star out of Taylor. This time out, Jane Wyman starred as the blinded woman and Rock Hudson appeared as the playboy. Again, the role translated to major stardom for the actor in the male role. Moorehead played a nurse who winds up caring for Wyman fulltime. Her unbridled, drop-everything devotion has led some viewers to detect a lesbian undercurrent. She did have one now-campy scene in which she threatens to take injured, uncooperative Rock’s temperature anally and, incredibly enough, he is aghast at the idea and allows her to put the thermometer in his mouth instead!

The film’s stunning success led to another teaming in All That Heaven Allows. This one had Wyman as another young widow (it just wasn’t safe to be married to her in the 1950s!) with two teenage children who suddenly falls for her hunky, somewhat younger gardener played by Hudson.

Moorehead played Wyman’s friend who can’t help but reel from the idea of her pal hooking up with someone of not only another age group but also (and perhaps more importantly) from another class. She has the memorably reactive line, “Really, Cary, your gardener?” deftly utilizing the voice that she was famous for. In short time, though, she becomes an ally to Wyman when the people of the town (as well as her selfish, insufferable children) react negatively to the match.

Both Obsession and this film were directed by the masterful Douglas Sirk, who delighted in exploring the underbelly of upper middle (and high) class, suburban American life as well as the restrictive social mores of his time. He used color, shadow, framing and symbolism to enhance his films and they are fascinating to watch (Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life are two others that come to mind.) A “homage” to his films of this type, called Far From Heaven, came out in 2002 and starred Julianne Moore, though I found it to be very disappointing on several levels.

1956 was a key year in that this was when Agnes filmed The Conqueror. A ludicrous epic about Genghis Khan that had the audacity to feature John Wayne in the title role (!), it costarred Susan Hayward and an army of others. Moorehead played Wayne's sour-faced mother. What’s remarkable about it is not that it was any good or any bad (though many people have chuckled themselves silly while watching it), but that it was filmed in the desert amidst a nuclear test site and, as a result, over 90 of the cast and crew developed some sort of cancer. Sadly, Wayne, Hayward, the director Dick Powell and Miss Moorehead were among the many, many people who worked on this film who were cut down by cancer within two decades of filming it.

More regal roles (such as in The Swan) as well as amusing ones in colorful messes (such as The Opposite Sex, the musical remake of The Women with June Allyson and Joan Collins) continued, however the late 50s and early 60s brought a slowdown in her cinematic output, mostly due to the ending of the “Studio Era.” She began to work more and more on television, though the occasional film role popped up, such as in the campy horror flick The Bat with Vincent Price and the Disney family film Pollyanna (again with Jane Wyman!)

In 1961, Moorehead starred, practically alone, in one of the all-time memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone. She portrayed a farmwoman, living in a ramshackle old house, who is suddenly invaded by a small spaceship. There was no dialogue in the episode to speak of and she filled the half hour program with her customary professionalism, using every (considerable) acting tool at her disposal. She was brilliant in the episode and it has a nifty twist ending as the cherry on top.

The following year, Moorehead took a role in the sprawling, gigantic, Cinerama western How the West Was Won. She played Karl Malden’s wife and the couple, along with their children who included Debbie Reynolds among them, were making the perilous journey westward in order to settle. It wasn’t a large role, but she got to enact some (rear-projected) action scenes and be part of a very successful venture. That's her on the far right, straining to keep the raft on course. She and Debbie formed a very close friendship during this, one that would eventually prove controversial.

Agnes may have believed that her days of scoring Oscar noms were behind her since, after all, it had been 1948 since her last one. However, her audacious role in the black and white chiller Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte secured her a fourth and final nomination. The gothic thriller was meant to star Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but Joan took an early hike when she and Bette began to squabble. Davis had had it in for her ever since she swept in to accept Anne Bancroft’s Oscar the year Bette was up for it for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, so Olivia de Havilland was brought in instead.

Moorehead played Velma Carouthers, the slatternly, unkempt, but protective, maid of Davis, a half-mad plantation heiress who is fighting off developers who want to tear down her decaying mansion. Viewers used to seeing Agnes in stylish, well-appointed, intelligent roles must have spit out their popcorn at the sight of her in poorly fitted clothes, her grey-streaked hair askew, chopped off as with a cleaver! I mean, seriously, take a fucking look at this picture of her! Ha! There is no possible way to describe the way she talks and acts in the film. It simply has to be seen in order to be believed.

Needless to say, every single frame of her performance is golden to me because of the spectacularly trashy, grammatically incorrect way in which she delivers her lines and the slough-footed way in which she shuffles and clomps through the house. Her confrontation with Liv on the staircase is a camp scream. It’s just a shame she isn’t in the movie a little bit more. Also in the cast is her old Orson Welles cohort Joseph Cotten. These sort of cast connections have always fascinated me.

That same year, she started filming what would become her signature role. Though she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the project, she signed on to play Elizabeth Montgomery’s mother Endora on TV’s Bewitched. Montgomery’s character was a witch herself and had married a mortal (ad salesman Dick York), much to the dismay of Moorehead. A dynamic in which Endora continually complicated or otherwise made trouble for the couple was set in motion. She often referred to the husband Darrin as “Derwood.”

For the show, Moorehead adopted a wildly outré look with large, pointed collars, hair piled up in thick curls and false eyelashes that could have been cut into thirds and used on three other women! First shown in black and white, the effect was eye-catching, but not too bizarre. In color broadcasts, as the show soon turned to, she was a cornea-scorching, garish medley of green, purple, orange and most any other color!

Her decades of experience lent her the ability to utilize her arms and face and voice to their fullest extent. She would often enter with a flourish and delight in saying and doing all sorts of impish things. Moorehead never wanted to be identified with just this one characterization (and, in fact, was deliberately limited in her appearances at first so that she’d be free to pursue other things) but when a character is this arresting and lives on in rerun after rerun after rerun, there is very little choice in the matter!

While employed on Bewitched, Moorehead was nominated for SEVEN Emmys in a row, every year the program was on, but didn’t win, at least not for Bewitched. In 1967, she picked up an Emmy for her guest role on The Wild Wild West instead. When York was forced to leave the series due to recurring health issues, the replacement Dick Sergeant and Moorehead didn’t seem to hit it off as well. He described her as a “tough old bird.” In truth, Moorehead only allowed certain people to get to know her closely and he apparently wasn’t one of them.

In that time frame, she found work in a variety of other projects with roles as varied as portraying a nun in The Singing Nun with Debbie Reynolds, enacting The Red Queen in a TV version of Alice Through the Looking Glass, playing an Indian in the TV series Custer and an Aimee Semple McPherson-esque evangelist in What’s the Matter With Helen?, a hag-in-distress flick with Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds. These are only a few of the many things she worked on during this prolific time.

In 1973, she played the voice of The Goose in the animated Charlotte’s Web and even sang some in Bewitched sometimes co-star Paul Lynde’s number in which he portrayed the gluttonous rat Templeton. And who was Charlotte? Why, Debbie Reynolds again!

This deep friendship between Agnes and Debbie became the subject of speculation amongst many people. It really came to a head, and, unfortunately for Debbie, started growing even more when Debbie’s ex-husband Eddie Fisher was writing his autobiography and she found out he was going to publish the story that the two ladies were more than friends. She threatened him with legal action and the topic was excised from the book. However, then and now, people still wonder about it.

Debbie went on TCM with Robert Osborne and made a particular point of emphasizing that Agnes was a very devoted Christian and one who would be quite hurt by the gossip-mongering about her sexuality. Moorehead was indeed very religious and was spotted at times with a script in one hand and a Bible in the other. However, she was also a very savvy, wickedly wry and funny person who, while capable of being judgmental, prudish and old-fashioned, also enjoyed the company of gay men very much. She and Cesar Romero were practically a double-bill at many a Hollywood occasion before she died. The bottom line is that, whatever the truth is, Moorehead was an intensely private person with carefully selected friends who, whether straight, gay or into bestiality, would not have shared that aspect of her life with strangers.

One lesser-known fact about Moorehead is that she adopted a son, Sean, in 1949. Her son ran away from home at one point and was eventually discovered living in Europe with, of all people, Paulette Goddard! In any case, he was not mentioned in her will. When she died of cancer in 1974, her estate was divided amongst various charities, schools and so on.

While, even now, most of the details of Agnes Moorehead’s private life are, just that, private, her performances remain for audiences to marvel at. She always found a way to exact as much out a part as she possibly could. A detractor of the legendary Method way of acting, I couldn’t help but be amused by her assessment of it: “The method school thinks the emotion is the art. It isn't. All emotion isn't sublime. The theater isn't reality. If you want reality, go to the morgue. The theater is human behavior that is effective and interesting.” Those are two things Agnes definitely was, effective and interesting!


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