PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
When Barbara Bel Geddes died of lung cancer at age 82 on 8 August (she was a lifelong smoker), television fans around the world lamented her loss. But if she is best remembered as Miss Ellie, matriarch of the volatile Ewing clan, Bel Geddes made an impact on every entertainment medium she took on.
It was in her blood. Daughter of wealthy industrialist and theatrical producer/scenic designer Norman Bel Geddes, Barbara was born in New York City on Halloween, 1922. Though she wasn’t close to her father, they did share a love of the performance arts. When she completed her private education (including a stint at the famed Putney Finishing School, where she was kicked out for being a “disruptive influence”), her father used his connections to further her burgeoning career.
At 18, she made a less than stellar first appearance in a summer stock production of School for Scandal. A year later, she debuted on Broadway in 1941’s Out of the Frying Pan. After winning critical acclaim for her role in Elia Kazan’s Deep Are the Roots, Bel Geddes headed for California, where she landed a contract with RKO. Her first film, 1947’s forgettable The Long Night, found the starlet co-starring with Henry Fonda and Vincent Price. But for her next part, in I Remember Mama, Bel Geddes garnered her only Oscar nomination.
|If she is best remembered as Miss Ellie, Barbara Bel Geddes made an impact on every entertainment medium she took on.|
When Howard Hughes bought RKO in 1948, he dropped Bel Geddes’ contract, deeming her “not sexy enough.” She re-teamed with Kazan, this time in Panic in the Streets, with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance. The film was critically acclaimed and won 1951’s Academy Award for screenwriters Edna and Edward Anhalt. But her relationship with Kazan would take another turn when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names, including Panic costars Zero Mostel and Bel Geddes.
So, as quickly as she left, Bel Geddes was back on the Great White Way. She made the cover of Time magazine, celebrating her star turn in Otto Preminger’s scandalous comedy of social mores, The Moon is Blue. when Kazan came calling again, Bel Geddes took on one of the most demanding parts of her career, Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tennessee Williams’ play rocked Broadway with its subversive sexuality. Bel Geddes received a Tony nomination for her efforts, and she parlayed the notices into a nice string of triumphs.
She aspired to work with the great filmmakers of her era. None was more important, or imposing, than Alfred Hitchcock. He gave Bel Geddes her first substantive role since the McCarthy hearings had left her virtually unemployable in Hollywood, casting her as the lovelorn yet spunky Midge in 1958’s Vertigo. The collaboration was so rewarding that he brought in Bel Geddes to be part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Though she only appeared in four episodes, her turn as the wife who kills her husband with a leg of lamb, in “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of the series’ classics.
After 1960’s Five Branded Women, where she costarred alongside Jeanne Moreau, Bel Geddes again turned to the stage, for Jean Kerr’s 1961 comedy Mary, Mary. The show was a smash, running for three years and 1572 performances, and earned Bel Geddes a second Tony nod. But in 1966, following this triumph, however, Bel Geddes’ second husband, theater director Windsor Lewis, was diagnosed with cancer. She immediately “retired,” only taking an occasional part (including Anthony Newley’s “hip” Vietnam war drama Summertree), while she devoted herself to her husband’s care.
When Lewis died in 1972, Bel Geddes (who had her own bout with breast cancer around the same time) was financially ruined. Reluctantly, she took a part in a TV version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 1977, but she needed greater fiscal security. And so she agreed to costar with Larry Hagman and Linda Gray as the no-nonsense Miss Ellie. Embodying stability in a world where other characters were constantly spinning out of control, Bel Geddes was nominated three times for Emmys, winning in 1980 for Outstanding Lead actress. It is the only time to date that a nighttime soap has won that award. Though Dallas provided Bel Geddes with steady work as well as the occasion for further heartache. In 1981, her television “husband,” Jim (Jock Ewing) Davis died of cancer in real life. She took his loss hard, as if suffering Windsor Lewis’s death all over again. Indeed, some observers speculate that her 1984 heart attack was more a result of broken spirit than her heavy cigarette habit.
Bel Geddes left Dallas for a year (replaced by Donna Reed), then returned in ‘85, staying with it until 1990, the year before it ended. And with that, both Miss Ellie and the actress who created her disappeared from the spotlight. Aside from an interview for 1997’s DVD of Vertigo, she remained at home in Maine, refusing to appear in Dallas reunions, “Behind the Scenes” showcases, and TV movies. And yet she will forever be that emblem of stoic suffering, the mother who tried to temper her children’s melodrama with stern, sage advice.