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TOH! Remembers the Leading Ladies the Film Community Lost in 2013

Features
by TOH!
December 26, 2013 11:00 AM
1 Comment
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Who: Eileen Brennan

Born: Sept. 3, 1932

Died: July 28, 2013 from bladder cancer

Known for: Her tough, sassy presence both on stage (in 1964, she was the original Irene Malloy in Broadway’s "Hello Dolly!" starring Carole Channing) and at the movies in such seen-it-all dame roles as a small-town Texas waitress in 1971’s "The Last Picture Show," a snappy brothel owner in 1973’s "The Sting" and, especially, as the sarcastic drill captain in the 1980 hit comedy "Private Benjamin."

Career breakout: In 1967, She earned her comedy stripes on TV as a regular player on the first season of the irreverent TV variety show "Laugh-In" and built a reputation as a spoof queen of Hollywood classics in such movies as Neil Simon’s 1976’s "Murder by Death" and 1978’s "The Cheap Detective."

High point: Brennan scored her greatest success and earned a supporting Oscar nomination as drill officer  Capt. Lewis  as she hassles Goldie Hawn’s spoiled recruit in "Private Benjamin." In 1981, she would repeat her trademark role on a spinoff  TV sitcom of the same name, winning both a Golden Globe and Emmy for her efforts . 

Low point: After having dinner with Hawn in 1982, Brennan was struck by a car and suffered extensive injuries. It took her three years to recover – which included a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic after becoming addicted to painkillers. Though actress Polly Holliday (Alice) replaced her on the "Private Benjamin" series, it was soon canceled. Brennan resumed her acting career as Mrs. Peacock in 1985’s "Clue," a big-screen flop based on the board game that has since gathered a cult following.

Yes, it’s true: To provide a distraction during her post-accident recuperation, fellow "Laugh-In" alum Lily Tomlin would dress up Brennan’s two young sons in the guise of her lounge-lizard character, Tommy Velour. --Susan Wloszczyna

 

Who: Esther Williams

Esther Williams

Born: August 8, 1921

Died: June 6, 2013

Known For:  Creating a new film genre, the “Aqua Musicals.”

Career Breakout:  “Bathing Beauty” (1944), the first time she hit the water at MGM.  From the beginning, when she was wet, she was a movie star.

High Point: From “Bathing Beauty” to “Jupiter’s Darling” (1955) 10 years of splashing in an ever more luxurious swimming pool on Stage 30 made her one of the Top 10 box office stars in 1949 and 1950.

Low Point:  Her inability to carry that stardom to dry land in such movies as “The Hoodlum Saint” (1946) and “The Unguarded Moment” (1948).

Yes, it’s True:  As a 17-year-old swimming champion who won three gold medals at the national championships in 1939, she was on her way to the 1940 Olympic Games, but the games were cancelled by the start of World War II. --Aljean Harmetz

 

Who: Jean Stapleton

Born: Jan. 19, 1923

Died: May 31, 2013 of natural causes

Known for:   Edith Bunker, a sweetly daffy, shrill-voiced, eager-to-please and forever scurrying Queens housewife who lovingly indulged her bigoted blue-collar husband Archie’s verbal tirades – including the unfortunate nickname “Dingbat” as well as the command to “Stifle yourself” – as the kind-hearted rock of the groundbreaking ’70s sitcom "All in the Family." The role would earn Stapleton three Emmys.

Career breakout: After an impressive Broadway debut in 1953’s "In the Summer House,"  Stapleton became an in-demand character actress on the New York stage. She was part of the original casts of such ‘50s musicals as "Damn Yankees" and "Bells Are Ringing," reprising her roles in the movie versions. She also performed the songs "If a Girl Isn’t Pretty" and "Find Yourself a Man" opposite Barbra Streisand in the original production of "Funny Girl."  

High point: After casting Stapleton in his 1971 anti-smoking film farce "Cold Turkey," "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear knew he found the right sympathetic foil for  Carroll O’Connor’s blowhard Archie – or, as Edith would famously squawk, “Ahh-chie.” During the show’s nine seasons, she was allowed  to grow in the part, becoming less a fluttery object of pre-women’s-lib servitude and more a source of strength and simple wisdom to counteract Archie’s inflammatory outbursts. Landmark episodes had Edith struggling with menopause and a near-rape.

Low point: Though she worried about forever being typecast as a middle-age homemaker, Stapleton did several episodes of the spin-off series, "Archie Bunker’s Place," in which O’Connor continued to star. It would be her choice, however, to have Edith die in her sleep (from a stroke) at age 52 in the first episode of the show’s second season.

Yes, it’s true: As large as Edith looms in her career, Stapleton found herself associated with another inspirational female figure: Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1982, she played the title role in the CBS movie "Eleanor: First Lady of the World," which focused on her late years. Starting in 1998 and for years after, the actress took her Roosevelt portrait onstage while touring in her one-woman show. She also worked to preserve Val-Kill, the first lady’s upstate New York home. --Susan Wloszczyna


Who: Joan Fontaine

Born: 1917

Joan Fontaine wins the Oscar

Died: 2013

Known for: Hitchcock leading lady of "Suspicion" and "Rebecca." In both parts this gorgeous Hollywood actress was able to persuade audiences that she was a real woman like the rest of us, not nearly as beautiful and confident as she should be.

Career breakout: "Rebecca" -- Fontaine spent several years in the 1930s in minor roles and B movies (with a larger role in George Cukor's "The Women" in 1939), before sitting down at a restaurant next to producer David O. Selznick, and telling him about the Daphne Du Maurier book she'd read and loved. Selznick informed her he'd just bought the book rights, and asked if she would audition for the lead role.

High point: She won an Oscar for Hitchcock's "Suspicion," opposite Cary Grant, along with her nominated breakthrough performance in Hitchcock's 1940 Du Maurier classic "Rebecca," opposite Laurence Olivier.

Low point: Hitch manipulated her on the set of "Rebecca," to keep her nervousness at a high, while Olivier outwardly disdained her for having nabbed the role over his wife at the time, Vivien Leigh.

Yes, it's true: Fontaine's older sister was also her greatest rival, Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland, who lost the Oscar for "Hold Back the Dawn" to Fontaine in 1942. Fontaine was also nominated as Best Actress in 1943 for Edmund Goulding's "The Constant Nymph." --Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna

 

Who: Julie Harris

Born:  December 2, 1925

Died: August 24, 2013

Known For: More than 30 roles on Broadway, 10 Tony nominations, and a few choice movies, including “East of Eden” (1955) as the girl torn between love for James Dean and his brother.

Career Breakout: Came on stage at the age of 24 when she played the motherless 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams who plans to go with her brother and his bride on their honeymoon in Carson McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding.”

High Point: Too many to count -- including five Tony Awards, the first actor to win that many, and those 10 nominations, more than any other performer --  on her way to being acknowledged as the premiere stage actress of her era.  Her last Tony came for her tour de force as poet Emily Dickinson in a one woman show “The Belle of Amherst” that introduced her to a new audience when it was filmed for public television.

Low Point: A paltry single Oscar nomination (for “Member of the Wedding” (1952).

Yes, it’s True: Director Elia Kazan was delighted to have her in “East of Eden”  “because she had a calming influence on James Dean,” Kazan wrote in his autobiography. --Aljean Harmetz


Who: Karen Black

Born: July 1, 1938

Died: Aug. 7, 2013 from ampullary cancer.

Known for: With her full lips, messy hair and slightly askew feline eyes, Black fit the bill as a counter-culture sex symbol in the ‘60s and early ‘70s  while starring opposite Jack Nicholson in 1969’s Easy Rider, 1970’s "Five Easy Pieces" (the source of her lone Oscar nomination as a supporting actress) and 1971’s "Drive, He Said" (the actor’s directorial debut).

Career breakout: As a skittish prostitute who endures a bad acid trip in a New Orleans cemetery, Black held her own opposite Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (along with Nicholson) in the road-trip classic "Easy Rider." Her participation in the small anti-establishment film that forever changed Hollywood would define Black as one of the era’s signature actresses.

High point:  Being good in a great film is not that hard, such as Black’s take as a country music diva as part of a stellar ensemble in 1975’s "Nashville." But in the mostly disappointing 1974 adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," she outshone stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow by oozing easy sex and reckless danger with her perfect rendering of Myrtle Wilson, a rich man’s doomed mistress.

Low point: Partly due to her tour-de-force work in the 1975 cult TV movie "Trilogy of Terror," Black would be featured in numerous B-grade horror flicks that bore such titles as "Dead Girls Don’t Tango" and "Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies," both from 1992. But her much-maligned performance as a hysterical stewardess forced to attempt an emergency landing in the notorious turkey "Airport 1975" has inspired many a female impersonator through the years.      

Yes, it’s true: While sometimes cast as less-than-bright characters, Black was a child prodigy who could read beyond high-school level while in the fourth grade. She went to Northwestern University at 15 but dropped out two years later. She would eventually study acting with Lee Strasburg in New York City. --Susan Wloszczyna

Up next: TOH! remembers the writers the film community lost in 2013.

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1 Comment

  • Dea Lawrence | December 28, 2013 8:14 PMReply

    And the fabulous Audrey Totter

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