Betsy Blair, best known for her Academy Award-nominated performance as Ernest Borgnine’s love interest in the 1955 Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning drama Marty, and for her marriage to Gene Kelly, died of cancer on March 13 in London. Blair, who was 85, had been a London resident for many years.
Born Elizabeth Winifred Boger on Dec. 11, 1923, in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, the former child model switched to professional acting in the early 1940s. Throughout the next five decades, she was to appear on Broadway (in, among others, the Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie), in more than two dozen films, and several television shows.
In addition to Marty (she lost the best supporting actress Oscar to Jo Van Fleet in East in Eden), Blair had roles in the mental illness drama The Snake Pit (1948), starring Olivia de Havilland; the crime drama Kind Lady (1951), with Ethel Barrymore; and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Spanish classic Calle Mayor (right, with José Suárez, 1956), a film she almost turned down because she didn’t want to work in Franco’s Spain. (As she told the Spanish press in the late 1980s, Bardem eventually convinced her that Calle Mayor, in which two men try to con a lonely, unmarried woman, was supposed to reflect “the mediocrity of the political situation” at that time.)
Also, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), opposite Steve Cochran; Mauro Bolognini’s Senilità, starring Anthony Franciosa; Tony Richardson’s filmization of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973), with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, and Lee Remick; and Costa-Gavras’ controversial Betrayed (1988), in which she plays a God-fearing, apple-pie-making, All-American grandma who also happens to be a vicious bigot.
Blair’s Hollywood career wasn’t as extensive as it could have been because she was blacklisted in the 1950s. The actress, who had been involved with progressive causes and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and the Independent Progressive Party, described her experiences during that difficult period in her book of memoirs, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris, which was published in 2003.
In 1941, at the age of 17, Blair married Gene Kelly, whom she met at the Times Square nightclub Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. (She recounts that it was through his intervention – and that of MGM head Dore Schary – that she was cast in the independently produced Marty.) Blair and Kelly were divorced in 1957.
She married Karel Reisz, best known for Morgan (1966) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), in 1963. Reisz died in 2002 – the year Blair almost made a comeback in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours; Blair was to have played Julianne Moore’s character as an old woman, but, in what turned out to be an unwise decision, the powers-that-be opted to have Moore, under heavy – but not quite convincing – make-up play the part.
Referring to her divorce from Gene Kelly, “this perfect husband, father, friend, protector, provider, hard worker,” Blair told The New Yorker in 2003, “It had nothing to do with sex. It was freedom.”