Joan Lorring dead at 88: ‘The Corn Is Green’ performer was one of the earliest surviving Academy Award nominees in the acting categories
Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominee Joan Lorring, who stole the 1945 film version of The Corn Is Green from none other than Warner Bros. reigning queen Bette Davis, died Friday, May 30, 2014, in the New York City suburb of Sleepy Hollow. So far, online obits haven’t mentioned the cause of death. Lorring, one of the earliest surviving Oscar nominees in the acting categories, was 88.
Directed by Irving Rapper, who had also handled one of Bette Davis’ biggest hits, the 1942 sudsy soap opera Now, Voyager, Warner’s The Corn Is Green was a decent if uninspired film version of Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical 1938 hit play about an English schoolteacher, Miss Moffat (Davis), who changes the life of young, illiterate coal miner Morgan Evans (a woefully miscast – and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee – Jon Dall) in a mining Welsh village.
According to the Turner Classic Movies website, Joan Lorring would say, “I have only had one or two teachers in my life about whom I felt as strongly and positively as I did about Bette Davis,” who, as per the site, herself handpicked Lorring to be featured in The Corn Is Green after watching several screen tests (apparently, including those of Angela Lansbury, Betty Field, and Andrea King).
In the movie, Joan Lorring superbly brings to life village girl Bessie Watty (played by Thelma Schnee in the 1942 Broadway production), a coyly conniving vixen who almost ruins Morgan Evans’ life. Lorring lost what would have been a thoroughly deserving Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Anne Revere, who delivers a conventional – but more Academy friendly – performance as Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Lansbury’s stern but kindly mom in Clarence Brown’s box office hit National Velvet.
Joan Lorring movies
Joan Lorring (according to online sources born Mary Magdalene Ellis to Anglo-Russian parents in Hong Kong on April 17, 1926) began her show business career on the radio, after fleeing with her mother from Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1939 to escape the imminent Japanese invasion. After moving to Los Angeles, she began landing minor supporting roles in movies such as Gregory Ratoff’s Song of Russia (1943), which a few years later, at the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), would be used as an example of “communist infiltration” in Hollywood; and Rowland V. Lee’s poor film adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), toplining Lynn Bari and Francis Lederer.
Things began looking up when Joan Lorring signed with Warner Bros. in the mid-’40s; however, the studio seemed at a loss as to how to find appropriate vehicles for her talents. Besides The Corn Is Green, Lorring landed a supporting role in Jean Negulesco’s 1946 thriller Three Strangers (1946), starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Geraldine Fitzgerald; that same year, she had the key female role in Don Siegel’s The Verdict (1946), also with Greenstreet and Lorre.
Despite her Oscar nomination, by 1947 Joan Lorring was no longer getting cast in Warner Bros. releases. In the next two years, working at various studios, she would be mostly wasted in secondary roles in a handful of movies: André De Toth’s melodrama The Other Love (1947), with Barbara Stanwyck and David Niven; Martin Gabel’s romantic melo The Lost Moment (1947), with Robert Cummings and Susan Hayward; Gordon Wile’s B crime thriller The Gangster (1947), with Barry Sullivan; and Leo McCarey’s domestic comedy-drama Good Sam (1948), with Gary Cooper and Ann Sheridan.
Following a three-year break, Joan Lorring was seen in two minor thrillers directed by HUAC victim Joseph Losey: The Big Night (1951), playing opposite John Drew Barrymore (John Barrymore and Dolores Costello’s son, and Drew Barrymore’s father), and the Italian-made Stranger on the Prowl / Imbarco a mezzanotte (1952), with the 26-year-old Lorring as an unhappy maid – she’s caught stealing by her boss and must be his “date” for the night – who crosses paths with a man on the run from the authorities (played by I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang‘s man-on-the-run and The Story of Louis Pasteur‘s Best Actor Oscar winner Paul Muni). United Artists distributed a chopped-up version of Stranger on the Prowl in the U.S. in 1953.
According to the IMDb, following a 22-year absence from the big screen, Joan Lorring could be seen in a small role as Cameron Mitchell’s wife in the 1974 mystery thriller The Midnight Man, co-directed and co-adapted (from a David Anthony novel) by Roland Kibbee and Burt Lancaster, and starring Lancaster as an ex-con turned security guard investigating a murder. The Midnight Man turned out to be Lorring’s last film appearance.
Joan Lorring on Broadway
After her film career petered out in the early ’50s, Joan Lorring chiefly worked on radio, television, and the stage. On Broadway, Lorring played the pert, sexually charged college student Marie in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), a psychological drama starring Shirley Booth as a slovenly middle-aged housewife and Sidney Blackmer as her recovering alcoholic husband. Booth and Blackmer won Tony Awards for their performances, while Lorring took home a Donaldson Award (a prestigious stage honor in the ’40s and early ’50s) in the Best Female Debut category.
Lorring was curiously absent from Daniel Mann’s 1952 film version, which earned Shirley Booth a Best Actress Academy Award and Terry Moore – as Marie – a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. (Sidney Blackmer was replaced by Burt Lancaster, who was bypassed by the Academy.)
Joan Lorring’s other Broadway appearances were in Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden (1951), with Fredric March and Jane Wyatt, and reportedly Hellman’s favorite among her plays; Lenard Kantor’s Dead Pigeon (1953-54), with Lloyd Bridges; and Arthur Laurent’s A Clearing in the Woods (1957), with Kim Stanley.
Joan Lorring on television
In addition to roles in numerous anthology television series in the early ’50s – e.g., Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One in Hollywood – Joan Lorring was featured in the soap opera Valiant Lady (1954-55) and was the wife of bank official David Wayne in the short-lived sitcom Norby (1955). In 1956, Lorring reprised the role of Bessie Watty in Hallmark Hall of Fame‘s George Schaefer-directed version of The Corn Is Green, playing opposite stage legend Eva Le Gallienne as Miss Moffat and Tea and Sympathy‘s John Kerr as Morgan Evans.
After the late ’50s, Joan Lorring’s television appearances became scarce. (She was married to New York-based endocrinologist Martin Sonenberg; he died in June 2011.) As per the IMDb, in the ensuing decades Lorring could be seen in only three more TV roles: as Orson Bean’s frustrated wife in Karl Genu’s 1966 movie The Star Wagon, also featuring Dustin Hoffman, and in guest parts in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope (1979-80) and, inevitably, The Love Boat (1980).
Following Joan Lorring’s death, few pre-1960 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees still alive
Nineteen forty-five was the only pre-1960 year with a majority of Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominees still alive. With Joan Lorring’s passing, that’s no longer the case. Only Angela Lansbury (The Picture of Dorian Gray), 89 next October 16, and Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce), 86 next August 16, remain on Planet Earth. (Both winner Anne Revere and Mildred Pierce nominee Eve Arden died in 1990.)
The earliest Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee remains Olivia de Havilland, 98 next July 1, shortlisted for Victor Fleming’s 1939 romantic epic Gone with the Wind. De Havilland is followed by the aforementioned Angela Lansbury (also for Gaslight, 1944; and The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) and Ann Blyth; in addition to:
- Nancy Olson (Sunset Blvd., 1950), 86 next July 14;
- Lee Grant (Detective Story, 1951; The Landlord, 1970; winner for Shampoo, 1975; Voyage of the Damned, 1976), 88 next October 31;
- Colette Marchand (Moulin Rouge, 1952), 89 last April 29;
- Terry Moore (Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952), 85 last January 7;
- Winner Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront, 1954), 90 next July 4;
- Marisa Pavan (The Rose Tattoo, 1955), 82 next June 19;
- Winner Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind, 1956), 89 last January 30;
- Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed, 1956), 69 next August 21;
- Martha Hyer (Some Came Running, 1958), 90 next August 10;
- Cara Williams (The Defiant Ones, 1958), 89 next June 29;
- Susan Kohner (Imitation of Life, 1959), 78 next November 11.
For the record, the earliest year in which a majority of Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees are still around is 1962: the aforementioned Angela Lansbury (The Manchurian Candidate), plus Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird), 62 next October 7; Shirley Knight (Sweet Bird of Youth), 78 next July 5; and winner Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker), 68 next December 14. The fifth nominee, Thelma Ritter (Birdman of Alcatraz), died in 1969. (See also: Following Mickey Rooney’s death, earliest surviving Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees.)
Joan Lorring Three Strangers photo: Warner Bros.