Virginia Mayo Dies: 'The Best Years of Our Lives' & 'White Heat' Actress

Virginia MayoVirginia Mayo movies include The Best Years of Our Lives, White Heat

Virginia Mayo, an actress featured in numerous Technicolor productions of the '40s and '50s, died today, Jan. 17, at a nursing home in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks. Mayo, who was 84, had been in poor health since contracting pneumonia a year ago.

Beginning her career as a chorus girl, the honey-blonde Virginia Mayo (born Virginia Clara Jones on Nov. 30, 1920, in St. Louis, Missouri) soon became one of the leading exponents of Technicolored female beauty during the post-World War II era. Never a great actress, she was always interesting to look at. And if her performances lacked warmth and depth, Mayo exuded more than enough sultriness to compensate for those deficiencies.

Virginia Mayo: Technicolor siren

Initially a Samuel Goldwyn contract player, Virginia Mayo went from bit parts to leading-lady roles within a year's time. Carefully photographed so her slight strabismus wouldn't show, Mayo was cast opposite fellow Goldwyn player Danny Kaye in four films, of which only the first was any good: the box office hit Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song Is Born (1948). The last title was a musicalized (and inferior) remake of Howard Hawks' comedy Ball of Fire, with Mayo in the old Barbara Stanwyck role. (Additionally, Mayo had a bit part in Kaye's 1944 vehicle Up in Arms.)

Among her other Technicolored leading men of that era were Bob Hope in the so-so The Black Swan spoof The Princess and the Pirate (1944); and, during her stint at Warner Bros. (from the late '40s to the mid '50s), Burt Lancaster in the enjoyable The Flame and the Arrow (1950); Gregory Peck in the stilted Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951); Paul Newman in the risible The Silver Chalice (1954); and Rex Harrison and Laurence Harvey in the equally risible King Richard and the Crusaders (1954).

Best performances in black-and-white

In most of those – and others such as Devil's Canyon (1953) and The Proud Ones (1956) – Virginia Mayo was little more than part of the decor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her two most memorable performances were in black-and-white: in William Wyler's Best Picture Academy Award winner The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), as war veteran Dana Andrews' selfish wife who didn't want to waste the best years of her life on him; and Raoul Walsh's crime drama White Heat (1949), as James Cagney's bitchy, cheating moll.

Among Mayo's other movies I've yet to see and that sound worth checking out are three black-and-white crime thrillers: Roy Del Ruth's Red Light (1949), with George Raft; Richard L. Bare's Flaxy Martin (1949), in the title role, opposite Zachary Scott; and Vincent Sherman's Backfire (1950), with Gordon MacRae.

Mayo's film career slowed down dramatically with the demise of the studio system in the mid-to-late '50s and the fact that she was by then pushing 40. Later on, she guested on television (Daktari, Night Gallery, Police Story), and made sporadic film appearances (the 1960s B Westerns Young Fury and Fort Utah, the minor horror flick The Haunted). Her last film role was in the grade-Z horror thriller The Man Next Door (1997).

Virginia Mayo vs. Maureen O'Hara

Off screen, Virginia Mayo, who was married to actor Michael O'Shea from 1947 to his death in 1973, had the reputation of being a tough talker. Some time before Mayo's death, at a film convention in Los Angeles, Maureen O'Hara was on stage complaining that old-timers such as herself didn't see a penny (or very little money) from movies they had made decades earlier even though they still brought a good chunk of cash to the conglomerates that own the old movie studios' film libraries.

At that point, Virginia Mayo, sitting in the audience, yelled at her: “What? Don't you get a pension?”

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8 Comments to Virginia Mayo Dies: 'The Best Years of Our Lives' & 'White Heat' Actress

  1. Valerie Anne Logozzo

    I always loved Virginia Mayo she was a very versatile actress,,in 1951 at the premier of “Detective Story” I got her and her husband Michael O”Shea their autograph I still have it , I am 82 years old, I was 16 years old at that time…..Shortly before she died I wrote to her and she was kind and thanked me for remembering her, she also sent me a beautiful photo of herself

  2. mark

    I have just discovered Mayo through “Best Years of our lives” and she is a very underrated actress. She should have won the supporting actress Oscar in “Best years of our lives” and should have at least been nominated for “White Heat”. She was beautiful, sexy and down to earth without any drama and I have since viewed a number of her movies and I am glad I delved further. Myrna Loy is in the same category but a better actress.

  3. Bill

    I saw White Heat for the first time and had never seen Virginia Mayo previously(at least being aware of who she was), Maybe she wasn't a good actress in other films but in White Heat she is terrific and incredibly sexy, I found myself stopping the film to back over several scenes she was in and she held her own with Cagney no less.

  4. Paul McHale

    Her slight strabismus? I always thought Virginia Mayo had a slight cast in her eyes as we called it way back then. Never thought it detracted from her beauty. Just felt it to be a cute addition to her eyes. No one is ever perfect in this life. Always wished I could meet her face to face and have her fall in love with me. After all, I was not a bad looking guy way back then, although quite impecunious. Still am impecunious. Guess that's why I fell in love with and married an impecunious unemployed coal miners daughter. She, like Virginia, had a slight cast in her hazel eyes with those tiny green flecks. Don't agree with film critics who say Virginia Mayo was not considered a good actress. Like all young swains way back then we went to all her films just to get a good look at a true American beauty.

  5. Minnie jackson

    Virginia Mayo a very beautiful actress and lovey lady. did she have a lot of leads in movies?

  6. Victoria Hardy

    Virginia came to me I`m a UK clairvoyant.

    First her name. Then her image. She told me bed bath. Which I found tonight to be true. The Klu Klux clan. Leg injuries and Idaho.

  7. alan o

    in my opinion a great actress, very underated i wish i could have lived my now adult life back then. god rest her soul….

  8. kurt nulf

    in the HBO series pacific was virginia gray the actress selling war bonds really mayo