- The “prestige” peak of actress Ann Sothern’s long and unusually multifaceted film career – dramas, comedies, musicals, thrillers – was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949), which earned the screenwriter-director two Oscars.
- Back in the early 1940s, who would have guessed that nearly half a century later the Maisie movie franchise star would become one of the oldest Oscar nominees in the acting categories?
Actress Ann Sothern: Double Oscar winner A Letter to Three Wives was artistic career peak
Notwithstanding her long association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, actress Ann Sothern reached the artistic peak of her Hollywood career by way of a 20th Century Fox release: screenwriter-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949), a compacted version of John Klempner’s 1945 novel A Letter to Five Wives.
In the romantic drama, Sothern and top-billed Fox stars Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are three women who receive a letter from an unseen vixen (with Celeste Holm’s voice) claiming that she has run off with one of their husbands.
But which one? Jeffrey Lynn? Kirk Douglas? Movie newcomer Paul Douglas? Contemplative recollections of the women’s strained marriages ensue.
Of note, A Letter to Three Wives was one of the relatively few films to give Ann Sothern the chance to display her abilities as a dramatic actress. A radio soap opera writer, her career-focused character finds herself at odds with schoolteacher husband Kirk Douglas, who suffers from Macho Anxiety Syndrome because his wife’s paycheck is much bigger than his own.
Oscars bypass actors in actors’ showcase
The Best Picture Academy Award winner of 1949 was Robert Rossen’s political drama All the King’s Men, but A Letter to Three Wives did earn Mankiewicz, in Hollywood since the dawn of the sound era, double Academy Awards for his direction and screenplay (from an initial adaptation by Vera Caspary) – a feat he would repeat in the succeeding year with Best Picture winner All About Eve.
Unlike All About Eve, which seemed to have just about every cast member shortlisted for Oscars, A Letter to Three Wives failed to garner a single nod in the acting categories. Ironically, two of its actors, Jeanne Crain and Kirk Douglas, ended up receiving nominations, but for their work in, respectively, Elia Kazan’s race drama Pinky and Mark Robson’s boxing drama Champion.
Thirty-six years after A Letter to Three Wives came out, Ann Sothern would be briefly seen in the now largely forgotten made-for-TV remake. Larry Elikann directed Michelle Lee (in Sothern’s old role), Loni Anderson, and Stephanie Zimbalist as the recipients of the titular missive.
Shadow on the Wall & the end of stardom
The first narrative feature directed by London-born Pat Jackson – whose career would be more fruitful on the other side of the North Atlantic (e.g., White Corridors, The Gentle Touch) – the psychological thriller Shadow on the Wall (1950) features Zachary Scott as a man convicted of murdering his wife. The only witness to the crime is the couple’s young daughter (Gigi Perreau), who has been so traumatized by the event that she can’t recall what she actually saw.
Enter psychiatrist Nancy Davis (later Nancy Reagan) who believes in the man’s innocence, suspecting instead that his sister-in-law, top-billed Ann Sothern, is the guilty party. But is she?
A low-budget production ($701,000), Shadow on the Wall was a flop all the same ($330,000 loss) – MGM’s fourth consecutive Ann Sothern movie to end up in the red, following:
- The final Maisie entry, Undercover Maisie (1947, $142,000 loss).
- The Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical biopic Words and Music (1948, $371,000), with Sothern, in what amounts to a supporting role , as one of the seven stars billed above the title.
- The Joe Pasternak musical Nancy Goes to Rio ($52,000).
After proceeding at a steady pace – at least one new release per year (excepting 1945) – for nearly two decades, Ann Sothern’s big-screen career came to an abrupt halt in 1950. As it turned out, Nancy Goes to Rio and Shadow on the Wall marked the end of both her association with MGM and her film stardom.
Television resurgence: Private Secretary & The Ann Sothern Show
As a consequence of social, economic, and political upheavals, the American film industry went through challenging times in the early 1950s; one of the consequences of that was the scarcity of movie jobs for “older” actresses. In Ann Sothern’s particular case, not helping matters was a life-threatening bout of hepatitis that left her out of commission for long stretches.
A return to Broadway in fall 1951 proved unsuccessful. Directed by Richard Whorf and co-starring Hollywood import Robert Cummings, Faithfully Yours, an adaptation of French screenwriter/playwright Jean-Bernard Luc’s 1950 marital comedy Le Complexe de Philémon, lasted 68 performances.
Two years later, Sothern, gone since Shadow on the Wall, was back on the big screen. In Fritz Lang’s Warner Bros.-distributed film noir The Blue Gardenia, she supported Anne Baxter and Richard Conte – but with star billing and her scene-abducting capabilities intact (“I know I’m a little slow, Nora. I was a late baby”). Her next big-screen comeback would take place more than a decade later.
That’s in large part because she was kept busy on television, mainly in two hit series:
- Private Secretary (1953–1957), which earned her four Emmy nominations – in addition to earning producer Jack Chertok a $93,000 lawsuit brought on by his star over her percentage of the profits.
- The Ann Sothern Show (1958–1961), which led to a fifth – and final – Emmy nod and a Golden Globe win. As the assistant manager at an upscale New York City hotel, Sothern got to play a professional woman in a position of power, caring for the needs of both staff and guests (among the latter, Constance Bennett, Lucille Ball, Gladys Cooper, Van Johnson, Sal Mineo, and Eva Gabor).
From gracious earthiness to ungainly frumpiness
In the 1960s and 1970s, by then no longer the classy/brassy beauty of decades past, Ann Sothern would make sporadic returns to feature films, usually in supporting roles as blowsy, loutish hags. Examples include:
- An aging sex worker and petty criminal in Walter Grauman’s underrated psychological thriller Lady in a Cage (1964), starring Olivia de Havilland in the title role.
- A loud-mouthed political operative in Franklin J. Schaffner’s exposé The Best Man (1964), written by Gore Vidal from his own play. Variety remarked, “Of the three females involved [Edie Adams and Margaret Leighton were the other two], Ann Sothern has the meatiest part … and makes the most of it.” Though bypassed for the Academy Awards, The Best Man earned Sothern her only Golden Globe nomination for her work in feature films.
- Cloris Leachman’s trashy mother and fellow desperada in Jonathan Demme’s early directorial effort Crazy Mama (1974).
One notable lead that came her way was that of John Savage’s doting/disturbed mom in The Killing Kind (1973), a Curtis Harrington thriller that pitted the filmmaker against his star, as he felt the movie veteran was purposely stealing scenes from her relatively inexperienced fellow actor.
The Whales of August: Belated Oscar nomination
In 1974, while appearing on stage in John Patrick’s Everybody Loves Opal in Jacksonville, Florida, Ann Sothern suffered serious injuries after a fake tree fell on her back, leaving her unable to work for extended periods. From then on, she would require a cane to move around.
Sothern would be seen in only three more big-screen features after the accident: William Girdler’s horror cult classic The Manitou (1978), Curtis Hanson’s action comedy The Little Dragons (1979), and, after nearly a decade away, Lindsay Anderson’s elegiac comedy-drama The Whales of August (1987).
A lukewarmly received meditation on old age, The Whales of August is chiefly noteworthy for its cast: Lillian Gish and Bette Davis as two sisters spending their final years in a small town in Maine, Vincent Price as a former Russian aristocrat, and Ann Sothern as the sisters’ cheery neighbor – the sort of old dame Maisie Ravier might have ripened into had she retired to New England.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sothern, at age 79 and in show business for nearly six decades, was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination – thus becoming the fifth oldest nominee ever in the acting categories. She lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck.
Once again in the public eye, she told the New York Times, “I’m exactly like my grandmother. She lived to be 93. She never gave up. They pulled the sheet over her three times and she pulled it down.”
The Whales of August turned out to be Ann Sothern’s final film. She died at age 92 in March 2001 in Ketchum, Idaho, where she owned a cattle ranch.
See below TCM’s Ann Sothern movie schedule on Aug. 12 (EDT).
Actress Ann Sothern movies on TCM
6:00 AM WALKING ON AIR (1936). Director: Joseph Santley. Cast: Gene Raymond. Ann Sothern. Jessie Ralph. B&W. 70 min.
7:30 AM THERE GOES MY GIRL (1937). Director: Ben Holmes. Cast: Ann Sothern. Gene Raymond. Gordon Jones. B&W. 74 min.
10:30 AM CONGO MAISIE (1940). Director: Henry C. Potter. Cast: Ann Sothern. John Carroll. Rita Johnson. B&W. 71 min.
12:00 PM GOLD RUSH MAISIE (1940). Director: Edwin L. Marin. Cast: Ann Sothern. Lee Bowman. Virginia Weidler. B&W. 82 min.
3:00 PM RINGSIDE MAISIE (1941). Director: Edwin L. Marin. Cast: Ann Sothern. George Murphy. Robert Sterling. Virginia O’Brien. B&W. 95 min.
5:00 PM SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950). Director: Pat Jackson. Cast: Ann Sothern. Zachary Scott. Gigi Perreau. Nancy Davis. Kristine Miller. John McIntire. B&W. 84 min.
6:30 PM THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953). Director: Fritz Lang. Cast: Anne Baxter. Richard Conte. Ann Sothern. B&W. 88 min.
8:00 PM A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1948). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Jeanne Crain. Linda Darnell. Ann Sothern. Paul Douglas. Kirk Douglas. Jeffrey Lynn. Barbara Lawrence. Connie Gilchrist. Florence Bates. Thelma Ritter. Mae Marsh. B&W. 103 min.
10:00 PM CRY ‘HAVOC’ (1943). Director: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Margaret Sullavan. Ann Sothern. Joan Blondell. Fay Bainter. Ella Raines. Marsha Hunt. Frances Gifford. Diana Lewis. Heather Angel. B&W. 97 min.
12:00 AM THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987). Director: Lindsay Anderson. Cast: Bette Davis. Lillian Gish. Vincent Price. Ann Sothern. Harry Carey Jr. Color. 91 min.
4:00 AM APRIL SHOWERS (1948). Director: James V. Kern. Cast: Ann Sothern. Jack Carson. Robert Alda. B&W. 94 min.
“Actress Ann Sothern: Rare Dramatic Opportunity” notes
A Letter to Three Wives would-be stellar cast
 Before the downsizing of A Letter to Five Wives, 20th Century Fox announced in 1946 that Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Gene Tierney, Maureen O’Hara, and Dorothy McGuire would be cast as the female leads. Tyrone Power was also listed as a possibility for one of the male characters.
By the time the adaptation was finished, one wife had been dropped. By mid-1948, further tweaking led to the removal of another wife. And thus Anne Baxter – who was to have been the fourth lead alongside Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern – was gone from A Letter to Three Wives.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s claim that Joan Crawford wanted to do the voice of the unseen letter writer sounds like a joke he came up with to get Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Celeste Holm (Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947) to accept the faceless gig.
Motherhood & mid-1940s career slowdown
Looks like Sterling’s birth drastically slowed down Sothern’s cinematic output – and her standing as a Hollywood star – as she had been averaging two to four annual releases since moving to MGM. In 1945, she was completely gone from the screen; in 1944, 1946, and 1947, she was seen in only one quickly made Maisie movie per year.
Tisha Sterling plays her real-life mother’s youthful self in a “decades earlier” prologue in The Whales of August.
Oscars’ oldest nominees in acting categories
 When Ann Sothern, 79, received her first and only Academy Award nomination back in early 1988 – the Oscars were turning 60 – there had been only four older individuals previously shortlisted in the acting categories:
- Edith Evans, 80, Best Actress nominee for The Whisperers (1967).
- George Burns, 80, Best Supporting Actor winner for The Sunshine Boys (1975).
- Eva Le Gallienne, 82, Best Supporting Actress nominee for Resurrection (1980).
- Ralph Richardson, 82, Best Supporting Actor nominee for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes (1984).
In the past three decades, the list of elderly Oscar nominees has grown exponentially. Sothern would now be no. 19, while octogenarians Eva Le Gallienne and Ralph Richardson wouldn’t even be included among the top five.
Margie Schultz’s Ann Sothern: A Bio-bibliography was a key source for this two-part article on Hollywood actress Ann Sothern.
The Joan Crawford/A Letter to Three Wives claim is found in Kenneth L. Geist’s Pictures Will Talk: The Life & Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
The Killing Kind filmmaker Curtis Harrington discussed his issue with actress Ann Sothern during conversations with the author of this post.
Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern A Letter to Three Wives image: 20th Century Fox.
Ann Sothern Crazy Mama image: New World Pictures.
“Actress Ann Sothern: Rare Dramatic Opportunity + One of Oldest Oscar Nominees” last updated in May 2021.