Eleanor Parker dead at 91: 'The Sound of Music' actress, three-time Best Actress Oscar nominee
Eleanor Parker, one of the best and most beautiful actresses of the studio era, a three-time Best Actress Academy Award nominee, and one of the stars of the 1965 blockbuster and Best Picture Oscar winner The Sound of Music, died today, Dec. 9 at a medical facility near her home in the Southern Californian desert town of Palm Springs. Eleanor Parker was 91.
“I'm primarily a character actress,” Parker told the Toronto Star in 1988. “I've portrayed so many diverse individuals on the screen that my own personality never emerged.” At one point, wildly imaginative publicists called her The Woman of a Thousand Faces – an absurd label, when you think of Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney. Eleanor Parker never altered her appearance the way Chaney did – her make-up (or lack thereof) made her either ravishingly beautiful or just plain heavenly pretty; but then again, she didn't really have to make audiences believe she could be turned into a spider à la Lon Chaney.
Whether as blind, embittered war veteran John Garfield's devoted girlfriend in Delmer Daves' remarkably subversive (even by 2013 standards) Pride of the Marines (1945) – co-written by future Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz; a naive women's prison inmate harassed by lesbian warden Hope Emerson in John Cromwell's Caged (1950); or as the Baroness vying with Julie Andrews for the affections of Christopher Plummer's Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise's The Sound of Music, Parker was almost invariably able to convey the inner goings-on of her characters. A rarity for actors, then or now.
True, she could also go way over the top and resort to melodramatic mannerisms – e.g., Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), as former drug addict Frank Sinatra's manipulative, crippled wife. But even then Eleanor Parker was great to watch if only because she looked so beautiful.
See also: The movies of Eleanor Parker.
Eleanor Parker: Warner Bros. star
Born on June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio, Eleanor Parker began her film career as a bit player. Her minor role in the 1941 Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland pairing They Died with Their Boots On ended up on the cutting-room floor, but by the following year Parker was already getting cast in leads in B movies at Warner Bros.
Most notable among those was probably the D. Ross Lederman-directed Busses Roar (the apparent misspelling was Warners', not mine), in which Parker is one of several passengers aboard a roaring bus on its way from Los Angeles to San Francisco – but, with a saboteur on board, will it ever get there?
By the mid-'40s, Eleanor Parker has been promoted to leads and semi-leads in prestigious productions. Among these was Michael Curtiz's Mission to Moscow (1943), which would cause Warner Bros. quite a bit of embarrassment a few years later; the now largely forgotten Edward A. Blatt's Outward Bound remake Between Two Worlds (1944), in which Parker, Paul Henreid, and others find themselves aboard an ocean liner on its way to … where?; and Delmer Daves' romantic drama The Very Thought of You (1944), co-starring Dennis Morgan, and co-written by another future member of the Hollywood Ten, Alvah Bessie.
Critics generally felt that Eleanor Parker failed in her attempt to emulate Warner Bros.' Queen of the Lot Bette Davis, when she played the nasty, ruthless waitress Mildred Rogers in Edmund Goulding's 1946 remake of Of Human Bondage – ironically, a 1934 RKO production that Warner Bros. (wrongly) felt would damage the career of their up-and-coming contract player Davis. In the remake, Paul Henreid had the old Leslie Howard role.
After Pride of the Marines, Eleanor Parker's Warner Bros. movies were all A productions, but most of them weren't exactly critical favorites. She was Errol Flynn's leading lady in Never Say Goodbye (1946) and, alongside Ida Lupino, in Escape Me Never (1947); she donned beautiful costumes in the period drama The Woman in White (1947), opposite Alexis Smith, Gig Young, and Sydney Greenstreet; was Humphrey Bogart's leading lady in the action drama Chain Lightning (1950); and, along with Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman, wondered if the little boy who survived a plane crash was the ex-infant she had given up for adoption a few years earlier in Robert Wise's A Letter to Three Wives-ish Three Secrets (1950).
Better received was Irving Rapper's romantic comedy The Voice of the Turtle (1947), with Eleanor Parker as an actress wannabe and Ronald Reagan as the soldier she meets and inadvertently falls in love with. In the New York Times, Thomas M. Pryor wrote:
Miss Parker is altogether winning as the naive young actress who reluctantly falls in love while nursing the hurt of a newly shattered first romance with a theatrical producer. Miss Parker is consciously aping Margaret Sullavan's conception of the role [in the original John Van Druten play], but she brings to it the innocence and bewilderment of youth that is so essential and in this respect she is even more successful than was Miss Sullavan.
Also well-received was the harrowing, socially conscious Caged, in which Eleanor Parker is excellent as a terrified young inmate in a no-holds-barred women's prison, much too pretty and naive for her own good – just ask the brutal lesbian warden Hope Emerson – and doomed to return after learning during her prison stint that a life of crime would be her best bet. For her efforts, Parker was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, but lost to Judy Holliday for George Cukor's Born Yesterday.
Eleanor Parker: Actress Wasted in 'Valentino,' brilliant in abortion-themed crime drama 'Detective Story'
Eleanor Parker's three 1950 releases were her last ones for Warner Bros. The following year, she starred in Columbia's critical and box office flop Valentino, with Anthony Dexter as silent film idol Rudolph Valentino and Parker as a mix of Alice Terry (Valentino's leading lady in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Conquering Power), Agnes Ayres (Valentino's leading lady in The Sheik), and Hollywood bullshit.
As an aside: Alice Terry wasn't at all pleased with Valentino. Eleanor Parker wasn't the problem; Terry was angry because Parker's character, “Joan Carlisle” a.k.a. “Sarah Gray,” is shown becoming involved with Valentino both before and after Terry's marriage to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse director Rex Ingram, who had died the previous year. She sued Columbia for $750,000, eventually winning an undisclosed, but reportedly hefty, settlement from the studio.
Also in 1951, Eleanor Parker starred in two movies at Paramount: George Marshall's screwball-ish romantic comedy A Millionaire for Christy, co-starring Fred MacMurray, and William Wyler's well-received mix of crime mystery thriller and psychological drama, Detective Story, co-starring Kirk Douglas – who, coincidentally, turned 97 today (Dec. 9, 2013).
In Detective Story, Parker's role is subordinate to that of Douglas', a self-righteous, law-and-order police detective intent on getting the goods on a suspected abortionist. Yet, hers is the strongest performance in the film; with her quiet playing as the detective's Wife with a Past, she easily overshadows Douglas' actorish boisterousness.
Curiously, considering that his is the showier role, Kirk Douglas was bypassed for the 1951 Academy Awards; Parker, however, received her second consecutive Best Actress Oscar nomination. She lost to Vivien Leigh for Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. (Lee Grant, deservedly nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category shortly before her film career was derailed by the Red Scare hysteria, turned 88 last October 31.)
Eleanor Parker: Third and final Best Actress Oscar nomination
Eleanor Parker's third and final Academy Award nomination was for the highly successful biopic Interrupted Melody (1955). She lost the Oscar to Anna Magnani for Daniel Mann's The Rose Tattoo. Surprisingly, Parker was bypassed for her classy, appropriately acerbic Baroness (“I should have brought my harmonica”) in the otherwise diabetes-inducing The Sound of Music, one of the biggest blockbusters ever – in my view, she is, along with Peggy Wood (however dubbed) and the Alps, the best thing about that Best Picture Oscar winner starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
In June 2013, on the occasion of her 91st birthday, Eleanor Parker was Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Month. I wrote extensively about her and her films at the time. Check out: “Eleanor Parker, Jean Peters, Jean Arthur, Patricia Neal in “Golden Age Actresses” montage.