Friday, April 22, 2011

A Forgotten Actress

"Perhaps I'll get used to this bizarre place called Hollywood, but I doubt it." 
Margaret Sullavan

I had a rare treat last night and was introduced to a classic actress I had not seen before.  Her name is Margaret Sullavan and she was quite a force on screen.  Her acting career spanned 35 years, wherein she made 16 films and starred in countless stage productions, which was her first love.  She was married briefly to Henry Fonda, director William Wyler and had a decade long marriage to agent Leland Hayward which produced three children.  Unfortunately, her life took a sad turn when she divorced Leland Hayward and lost her children to him.  She had a congenital hearing defect that took her hearing when she was in her late 40's, which made it almost impossible for her to act on stage, and she ended up losing her life to an addiction to barbiturates at the age of 51. 

Despite, or maybe because of, her sad and storied life, Margaret Sullavan's presence on screen was very complicated.  She brought a depth to her roles that made it seem as if she wasn't acting at all, but merely showing us a glimpse of her life.  The film we saw in it's entirety was the 1938 version of "The Shopworn Angel" also starring Jimmy Stewart (her life long friend) and a very young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.  This is by no means a fabulous film and it is much watered down due to the fact that it's Post-Code, but it is still a very good vehicle for discovering the talent of Margaret Sullavan.  We were also shown two screen tests for the film "Rebecca" - one was Margaret Sullavan and the other was Loretta Young.  While neither actress got the role (it went to Joan Fontaine) it was fascinating to see the different acting styles.  Loretta Young played the part with a deep longing in her face and used her large, glorious eyes to full advantage.  However, she left me cold and it seemed as if she was playing a part.  Margaret Sullavan, on the other hand, played the part with such ease and authenticity, it was as if she was just speaking and certainly not reading a script.  She was wrong for the role because she had too much passion and self-awareness, but it gave me a full appreciation of her acting talent.  And that talent was to not make it look like acting.  Her presence alone pulled you to her, much like Garbo.  I am very glad I now know Margaret Sullavan.  

Other films of hers to watch:  "Three Comrades" co-starring Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone; "The Shop Around the Corner" co-starring Jimmy Stewart and Frank Morgan; and, "The Mortal Storm" co-starring Jimmy Stewart and Robert Young.  

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