Thursday, June 2, 2011

Baxter Building

Quite a few of the men I profile here never really had a strong interest in acting, but were instead noticed for their looks as they worked on the beach or in gas stations (which says a lot about the type of actors I most admire! lol) The ladies, however, tend to be different, nursing a lifelong love of performing that began when they were young. Such is the case with today's featured actress. At the tender age of ten, Anne Baxter attended a Broadway production of Mary of Scotland, starring Miss Helen Hayes and it lit a fire in her to perform that she couldn't (nor wouldn't) shake.

Born in Michigan City, Indiana on May 7th, 1923, Baxter was the granddaughter (on her mother's side) of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Her father was an executive with the Seagrams Distillery Company. While she was still a child, the family moved to New York City and she lived a rather privileged life, attending the private Brearley girls' school in Manhattan. Driven to act by Miss Hayes' performance, Baxter convinced her parents to allow her acting lessons with famed Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya. (You may recognize her from the 1939 Love Affair, that same year's The Rains Came or The Wolf Man in 1941, in which she played a gypsy fortune teller.)

These lessons paid off handsomely as Baxter was cast in her own first Broadway role at the age of thirteen! The 1936 show was called Seen But Not Heard. Baxter had an understudy during the run who loathed her and threatened to finish her off, so that she could be seen in the part herself! This experience stuck with Baxter as she continued to evolve as an actress and would one day come in quite handy.

When she was just sixteen years of age, she tested for Alfred Hitchcock (then new to Hollywood) for his upcoming film Rebecca. Impressive as the test was, she was deemed far too young to play opposite Laurence Olivier in the demanding role. Joan Fontaine was cast and Baxter returned to New York where she appeared in two short-lived Broadway plays (one of which was Madame Capet with noted actress Eva Le Gallienne as Marie Antoinette.)

Now a little bit older and more experienced, the determined actress went back to Hollywood and secured a contract with 20th Century Fox. She made her debut at age seventeen in the adventurous western 20 Mule Team, about mineral miner Wallace Beery, then a big star.) That same year, she found herself in a supporting role opposite John Barrymore, one of the stage's most famous actors, in the film The Great Profile.

1941 brought Swamp Water, costarring Walter Brennan, Walter Huston and Dana Andrews as well as Charley's Aunt, a cross-dressing comedy that starred Jack Benny. Baxter played one of two ingenues involved in the antics of the story (that's her below on the far left.)
The next year she was working with the diverse cast of Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall and Otto Preminger in The Pied Piper, about an Englishman leading some French children out of their country under the threat of German invasion. More significant that year was her use in the film The Magnificent Ambersons. The Orson Welles film had every indication that it would be a sensational follow-up to his previous movie Citizen Kane, but a lot of tampering and manipulations behind the scenes left the movie shy of forty minutes of footage. (This footage was destroyed by the studio to “free up vault space!”) Even in its truncated form, it is considered a great work of the cinema. Baxter was not yet twenty and had rubbed elbows with some of the screen's greatest talents.

She was paired with Tyrone Power, one of the studio's most popular stars, in 1943's Crash Dive. In it, she played a young schoolteacher who is engaged to Dana Andrews, but who “meets cute” with Power while on a train trip and can't help falling for him in spite of herself. Power went directly from filming this picture into the U.S. Marine Corps in order to help fight WWII. He would be absent from the screen for nearly four years and his first movie, once back, would also be a key one in Baxter's career.

In the meantime, though, she continued working, often in films with a wartime backdrop such as Five Graves to Cairo with Franchot Tone and The North Star (with Dana Andrews again.) The latter film was intended to star Teresa Wright, but she fell ill and Baxter was cast in her place with first-place billing. The considerable cast also included Walter Huston, Walter Brennan, Ann Harding, Jane Withers, Erich Von Stroheim, Dean Jagger and, in his film debut, Farley Granger.

Another wartime film was The Fighting Sullivans, based on a real incident in which five brothers, all of the children in one immediate family, were killed during military action. It inspired the government to enact The Sole Survivor Policy which sought to prevent entire sibling groups from being eliminated due to armed service. This was also partially the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's later film Saving Private Ryan.

In 1944, Baxter starred in a simple, small film, geared towards morale-building, called Sunday Dinner for a Soldier, all about a poor Florida family who saves its pennies in order to provide the title meal to a visiting soldier. A mix-up prevents the soldier from being informed of the plans, but thankfully another one happens along. The sergeant in question was portrayed by John Hodiak, an up and coming actor who had just made Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead for Alfred Hitchcock. Hodiak and Baxter fell in love while enacting the tender, heartwarming story of Sunday Dinner and were married before too long.

Before the nuptials, though, Baxter was cast opposite Bankhead herself when she was signed by director Ernst Lubitsch to do A Royal Scandal, all about the love life of Catherine the Great. Though the cast was rehearsed by Lubitsch, he became ill and Otto Preminger was brought in to handle the actual filming. Later, she filmed Angel On My Shoulder with Paul Muni and Claude Rains. Muni played a dead man who comes back to Earth after making a deal with the Devil.

Also in 1946, she landed what would be one of her most important roles ever. Tyrone Power, back from the war and making his return to the cinema screen, chose the Somerset Maugham story The Razor's Edge with which to do so. His leading lady was Gene Tierney, but Baxter had the meaty part of Tierney and Powers' friend who seemingly has it all until an automobile accident robs her of everything and she slides into alcoholism and more. Baxter drew upon the death of her little brother, who was taken at age three, for inspiration during her hysterical scene and swiftly began garnering praise. She won the Golden Globe for her role in The Razor's Edge and then went on to take the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress against the not-too-slight competition of Flora Robson, Gale Sondergaard, Lillian Gish and Ethel Barrymore!

She and Hodiak had a daughter together, Katrina, and maintained the life of a Hollywood couple through the early '50s. As a contract player, she was posed, promoted and otherwise displayed, sometimes in cheesecake ways, that were at odds with her desire to be taken seriously as an actress. She made Blaze of Noon in 1947 with William Holden and then she and Hodiak played the second leads in the Clark Gable-Lana Turner film Homecoming. She played Gable's elegant, patient, but fretful, wife as he is in the field during WWII falling for Turner, an attractive nurse. Hodiak played Gable's friend and Baxter's confidante as she sensed her marriage crumbling through Gable's letters home.

1948 also brought the last of her three films with Tyrone Power. In Luck of the Irish, she played a character named Nora. Baxter must have been drawn to that name as she would play ladies with the name Nora (or Norah) at least four more times in her career. One of her more enduring films from that year was the Gregory Peck western Yellow Sky, a rare one in which he played a bad guy rather than the traditional hero. Paulette Goddard had initially had Baxter's role, but departed. Jean Peters then turned it down, allegedly because it was “too sexy” (!), freeing it up for Baxter.

She next starred opposite Dan Dailey in two consecutive movies, You're My Everything and A Ticket to Tomahawk, before being given what is probably her most famous role. Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz was planning a film that depicted a fading stage star whose life and career are usurped by an initially fawning, but ultimately back-stabbing, younger fan-turned-assistant. Baxter was cast as Eve Harrington, the insidious fan, because of her moderate resemblance to Claudette Colbert, who was set to play the fading actress. When an accident injured Colbert's back, forcing her to exit the film, Miss Bette Davis was brought in to replace her as Margo Channing. The film, All About Eve, would go on to enjoy tremendous critical and popular success.

Baxter drew upon her own early experience with a dastardly understudy, one who didn't even bother to be as duplicitous as Eve Harrington was, but who had made her intentions known, in her sketching of the driven character.

When Oscar time rolled around, the film was awarded Best Picture, Best Director and several other statuettes, but only costar George Sanders won for acting (in a supporting role.) Studio execs had suggested putting Davis in for Best Actress and Baxter for Best Supporting, but Baxter felt that she was every bit as much the lead as Bette (and wasn't the movie, after all, called All About EVE?) Besides, not only was the supporting category already crowded, with both Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter winding up nominated there, but Baxter already had a Supporting Actress Oscar and probably wanted to shoot for the big one. Davis was incensed that she potentially split the vote in doing this, allowing Judy Holliday to win for Born Yesterday (and neither Holm nor Ritter won either, the trophy going to Josephine Hull for Harvey.)

Following this, Baxter played Glenn Ford's wife in the golfing bio-pic Follow the Sun and then starred in the western The Outcasts of Poker Flat, neither film befitting an Academy Award-level actress. Then she took part in O. Henry's Full House, a movie made up from several short stories by the acclaimed author. Hers told the story of a sick girl (Baxter) who clings to life by focusing on the one remaining leaf on a tree outside her window while her sister strives to keep her from dying. Jean Peters played her sister. The ending of the story contained an ironic and fateful twist.

In 1953, a good decade and a half after her Rebecca screen test, she was given to Alfred Hitchcock for use in his latest dramatic thriller I, Confess. She played the (blonde, naturally!) lover of a man (Montgomery Clift) who has since become a priest. Their love story is told in flashback as he undergoes an entirely new challenge due to a murderer confessing the deed to him and him being unable to reveal this due to his position as a confessor. Hitchcock didn't really warm up to Baxter, disappointed that his initial choice of Anita Bjork was not cast in the part.

Baxter stayed blonde as she played her next role in The Blue Gardenia. Here, she portrayed a careless woman who ends up in the apartment of womanizing (!) Raymond Burr only to wake up the next morning accused of having killed him! Ann Sothern played one of her roommates while Nat King Cole had a cameo as a piano-playing singer and TV's Superman George Reeves (on the right) appeared as well.

Hodiak and Baxter's marriage ended in 1953 and he went to New York to star in a Broadway play. The play was a flop, but his own reviews were terrific, leading to him being cast in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. That was a rousing success and gave his career a badly needed jump start. Unfortunately, as he was near the end of filming On the Threshold of Space in October of 1955, he dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of only forty-one. Baxter, who had blamed herself for the collapse of their marriage, couldn't have taken this very easily, but had to be strong for their young daughter.
Baxter kept busy in a series of films from Carnival Story (a 3-D film with Steve Cochran and George Nader, shown above) to Bedevilled (with Steve Forrest, in which she again proved a temptation to a priest) to One Desire (a period soaper with Rock Hudson, Julie Adams and a young Natalie Wood, shown with her to the right) to yet another filming of The Spoilers (this was the fourth remake!) Her male costars were Jeff Chandler, Rory Calhoun and Ray Danton, which leads one to hope that she was making it with at least one of them during the filming! (She was, after all, playing a woman of ill repute.) In 1956, she wore a bathing suit (a surprisingly rare occurrence for her, actually) in The Come On, with Sterling Hayden. In it, she played a scheming, manipulative, unscrupulous woman, a part that would allow her to try out her powers of seductiveness which would very soon come in handy. Right away, in fact!

For that same year she won another of her all-time most notable roles, one that stands for all eternity in the annals of camp, thanks to her vampy, old-fashioned approach to the part. The movie was Cecil B. DeMille's gargantuan epic The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Rameses II. She played the delectable woman who was loved by both of them, though her affections were primarily for Heston. When he begins to question his heritage and considers becoming a hero to his people, she responds with the immortal line, “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”
However, her part is not all camp. She begins the film as a flirtatiously kittenish seductress, then turns into a dangerous protector. Finally, she is a dejected, desperately unhappy shell of a woman who pays dearly for her greatest sin. It takes real acting chops to demonstrate all of these (and other) attributes and she had them. Her filmy, slinky, velvety portrayal is unforgettable, infectious, completely delicious and is an entertaining counterpoint to the pomposity, reverence and preachiness of some of the other parts of the story. I couldn't love this picture of her above left any more if I tried!
The very next year, she was placed with Heston again in Three Violent People, a western that had her formerly-shifty dancehall girl character attempting to go straight as rancher Heston's wife. Unfortunately, his one-armed brother Tom Tryon is at severe odds with him and Baxter's reputation catches up to her in time. Also late in 1957, Baxter returned to Broadway for the short-lived play The Square Root of Wonderful. This was followed by Chase a Crooked Shadow, the tale of a woman being visited by a man (Richard Todd) who claims to be her presumed deceased brother and everyone believes him but her! She's shown here with Herbert Lom, who played a police investigator looking into the situation.
After this, when Baxter flew to Australia to film Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a movie based on one of that country's most beloved and enduring plays, she met an American who was living there as a cattle owner. Swept off her feet by the man, Randolph Galt, she filmed one more movie (the sprawling epic Cimmaron, based on an Edna Ferber novel that had been made once thirty years before and won Best Picture) before taking little Katrina with her to Australia where the pair wed. He purchased a 37,000 acre cattle station in The Outback and she left her career behind, for a while at least. Cimmaron costarred Glenn Ford and Maria Schell (shown below) and Baxter's gutsy character went through many tribulations throughout it.
Having lived as a star in Hollywood, used to all of the many comforts that such a position affords, she was stunned by the lack of facilities facing her. She was isolated and left to run a house with few modern conveniences and even less help. She would later write a popular book detailing this period of her life called Intermission. While married to Galt, she had two more daughters, which helps explain how they passed their free time in the bush! (The second daughter was actually born back in the States, where they eventually returned, though they moved from New Mexico to Hawaii, seemingly always on the go.)

During a return to the film capital, her agent was able to land her a role in the hooty Walk on the Wild Side, a tawdry tale of drifter Laurence Harvey falling for prostitute Capucine, but coming up against madame Barbara Stanwyck, who like Capucine pretty well herself! Baxter was hideously miscast as a Mexican senorita named Teresina who owns a diner and who offers kindness to the surly Harvey. Outfitted in a black fright wig and sporting a “theeck” accent, it's truly one of the nadirs of her acting career. Jane Fonda appeared as well in one of her earliest roles. Her dickering with the director over her lines along with other delays held the production up, meaning that by the time it was finished shooting, the pregnant Baxter was six months along, giving her, at times, an unintentional pudgy appearance!

Now the mother of three and married to a busy husband, Baxter's acting career was practically nonexistent for the next few years. She did do a couple of episodic television appearances on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Dr. Kildare and was the actress in the movie-within-a-movie in Jerry Lewis' The Family Jewels. In 1966, headlined a spaghetti western called Seven Vengeful Women, the story of an Apache attack on a wagon train that leaves only the title ladies left alive. They find themselves trekking across the desert on foot in order to stay that way!
Her film career having lost its momentum, she began appearing frequently on television, guesting on My Three Sons, The F.B.I., Run for Your Life (shown here with star Ben Gazzara and check out her hair!), The Virginian, The Big Valley and on Batman. She is that rare performer to enact two different villains on the series, though neither one is very well-known/notable. First, she was Zelda the Great, a magician, and then appeared later as Olga, Queen of the Cossacks, paired part of the time with Vincent Price as Egghead. Her marriage ended in 1968, leaving her the single mother of three.
Acting-wise, things continued in the same TV guest-starring vein, but a nice opportunity came with Marcus Welby, M.D. Elderly Robert Young, who played the title figure with handsome James Brolin as a sidekick, was given a recurring love interest and that role fell to Baxter. In the pilot and for nine episodes after, she portrayed Myra Sherwood, an elegant and sensitive lady friend to Young (who was sixteen years her senior!) It gave the illusion, at least for that first season, that ol' Marc Welby was possibly still getting a little romance in his life. Her acting was sometimes quite poignant during her appearances and she was given plenty of kicky late '60s clothing to show up in. She had, by now, long had a manner of sighing, dropping her shoulders and looking upward, a conglomorative gesture that was somehow uniquely her own and could be quite effective. Oddly, she would make a later episode in 1973 as a completely different (and terminally ill) character!

Anne Baxter made an ironic return to Broadway, though, in 1970. Lauren Bacall had starred in Applause!, the successful musicalization of Baxter's old classic All About Eve. When Bacall exited the production, Baxter stepped in, this time as Margo Channing! The aura of the Margo/Eve dynamic had resurfaced once again, though it would not be the last time.

After this, Baxter returned to the big screen again, but oh how things had changed. The year was 1971 and she played a washed-up, painted-up floozie named Cleo in Fool's Parade. Here, she practically out-did Bette Davis' Baby Jane in the hair and make-up department! At least her costars, James Stewart and George Kennedy (fellow Oscar-winners) along with Strother Martin, William Windom and a young Kurt Russell were of a decent caliber.

That same year, she starred opposite Steve Forrest in The Late Liz, the story of a booze and pill-reliant woman who gets religion and swiftly changes her point of view regarding alcohol. I recall Leonard Maltin writing something like that viewers might find themselves needing a stiff drink in order to get through it! At least she was able to look attractive in a movie (and did, as shown here!)

After playing one of the killers on the esteemed series Columbo and guesting on Cannon, Banacek and Mannix, she played John Forsythe's wife in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Lisa, Bright and Dark, playing the mother of a young girl facing a nervous breakdown. (Kay Lenz played the daughter...) In the lengthy, star-packed miniseries Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers, she charismatically portrayed the manager of a bank and was working in the same project as her childhood idol Helen Hayes, though unfortunately they shared no scenes together. Also on board was her old costar and fellow 20th Century Fox contractee Jean Peters, but they shared no scenes either.

Baxter married for the third time in 1977 and moved to Easton, Connecticut with her husband David Klee, a successful stockbroker. They bought a piece of property and went through extensive remodeling efforts to make the home reminiscent of the work of her grandfather Frank Lloyd Wright. Sadly, Klee died suddenly after only a few months of marriage. She would remain unmarried after this, but did continue to reside in Connecticut and was a patroness of the local arts there.

In 1980, she played an aging actress battling to do an early work of Jane Austen's in the Merchant-Ivory film Jane Austen in Manhattan. Her character's desire to turn the work into an opera is at odds with fiery director Robert Powell's plans to stage an experimental version of the piece featuring his newest muse (played by Sean Young of all people!) Her daughter Katrina Hodiak acted and sang in this film as well. This marked Baxter's final appearance in a feature film.

During the early '80s, she worked on the miniseries East of Eden and made a couple of episodes of The Love Boat. A significant opportunity came her way, though, when the 1983 TV series Arthur Hailey's Hotel went into production. Hotel was an offshoot of Hailey's novel (which had already been filmed as a movie back in 1966 with Rod Taylor.) The TV series starred Baxter's old Marcus Welby costar James Brolin, now devilishly handsome and sporting thick hair and a full beard, along with Connie Sellecca. The big sell of the show, however, was the signing of Miss Bette Davis as the owner of the St. Gregory hotel, living atop the venue in a fabulous penthouse.
Davis filmed the initial installment, but then had a major, debilitating stroke and was unable to continue further. Who better to call in as Davis' replacement than Anne Baxter! It was yet another All About Eve connection. Baxter instantaneously joined the series as Victoria Cabot, a relative of Davis' character. This was the era of Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty, when practically the only series on TV that were successful were ones that featured plenty of glitz, glamour and sex.

The popular show gave Baxter an appealing, sympathetic role that allowed her to hobnob with the bargeload of guests that checked in and out each week, many of whom were once-great stars now past their prime. (Baxter is seen above right with Miss Jane Wyatt.) Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Jose Ferrer, Joan Fontaine and even Elizabeth Taylor were among the many visitors to the St. Gregory.

Anne Baxter was still a vital part of this television series when she died suddenly. She was standing on a Manhattan street hailing a taxi when she was felled by a brain aneurysm. This occurred on December 12th, 1985. She was only sixty-two years old. The producers of the show brought Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Dina Merrill, Ralph Bellamy and Michelle Phillips on, as players in a power struggle, in an effort to keep the show afloat, and it did last a while, but was cancelled in 1988.

For that velvety husky voice and her extreme sensitivity in acting, along with the screamingly delightful portrayal of Princess Nefretiri in The Ten Commandments and her other indelible performances during her career, we celebrate Miss Anne Baxter, sorry that she was taken away before she could give us even more.


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