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Anne Baxter

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Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 12:00 am

An Actress, Not a Personality

By Frances Ingram

Anne Baxter was probably the first actress Montgomery Clift ever kissed. “I can’t be sure because he never told me, but he acted like it,” she said. They were trying out for the movie roles of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

Anne was so scared, her kneecaps began twitching up and down uncontrollably. They were just kids, and to them the casting director looked like a giant behind his big office desk. Embarrassed, Anne and Monty struggled through the scene, trying not to look at each other. It was just a peck on the cheek, but they didn’t want to do it. Finally, Monty awkwardly brushed his lips against her cheek.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t get the parts, and they wouldn’t work together again until making a Hitchcock film fifteen years later. It was an appropriate beginning for what would turn out to be a distinguished, and yet difficult, career.

Anne Baxter was born on May 7, 1923, in Michigan City, Indiana. Her father, Kenneth Stuart Baxter, was a sales manager and her mother, Catherine, was the daughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. By the time Anne was eleven, the family had moved to New York City. Although Anne came from a family of means, they didn’t insist that she go to college. They instead allowed her to pursue her passion.

On September 17, 1936, at the tender age of thirteen, she made her stage debut in the murder mystery Seen But Not Heard. Anne revealed years later that “I patterned Eve [from All About Eve] after the understudy I had in a Broadway play when I was 13. She actually threatened to finish me off. She was the bitchiest person I ever saw.”

This was followed on Broadway by the short-lived There’s Always a Breeze and Madame Capet (both 1938), and a stint during the summers of 1938 and 1939 appearing in plays at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Failing to measure up, she was fired from the pre-Broadway run of The Philadelphia Story, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin.

Undaunted, Anne went to Hollywood to test for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. A three-year veteran of the stage, she was still only a girl of sixteen, and looked much too young to play opposite Laurence Olivier; however, her screen test was seen by others. In this young little actress, someone at Twentieth Century-Fox saw something he liked.

In February of 1940, one of the major studios in Hollywood, Twentieth Century-Fox, signed her to a seven-year contract. Starting an unfortunate pattern that would continue through her Fox career, they loaned her to another studio where her first assignment would be a small role in 20 Mule Team (1940). The film starred Wallace Beery and despite the fact that it was made at MGM, the “Tiffany Studio,” it is considered a routine, and minor Western.

At Fox, she appeared The Great Profile, starring a distinguished veteran of stage and screen. “My first picture at 20th Century-Fox was The Great Profile, with John Barrymore,” recalled Anne later. “He was at the nadir of his life, dissipated but somehow handsome still. I remember he had a male nurse named Karl with him all the time. At one point we had to shoot in a nearby theater location where we shared a kitchen. I noticed that Karl brought him one Coke after another all day long. When I saw the cooking rum in the kitchen was disappearing, l knew what was happening. Mr. Barrymore was in a fog most of the time—no, make that another world. But when he faced the cameras he came to life. It was amazing. Another time, during a scene we had together in a car, he let loose a torrent of profanity. The director apologized to me, but I was young and naive and hadn’t understood a word Barrymore said.”

The next year she graduated from University High School in Los Angeles. Fox put her into Jack Benny’s version of the much-filmed farce Charley’s Aunt. Benny and Kay Francis were the stars; Anne and Arlene Whelan had the thankless parts of the two ingenues.

Her first decent role was in Swamp Water opposite talented Dana Andrews. Jean Renoir directed, and his impressive cast included Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, John Carradine and Virginia Gilmore, but the great director, a recent refugee from the Nazi conquest of France, delivered a sputtering drama noted mostly for its tone and mood.

Next, Joseph Cotten, perhaps remembering Anne from her momentary association with The Philadelphia Story, advised Orson Welles to get her for the role of Cotten’s daughter in The Magnificent Ambersons. This version of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize novel received a very disappointing reception at its audience preview, resulting in severe studio-enforced cutting. The abridgement did little or nothing to improve the film’s box office, and succeeded only in mangling what is now considered an Orson Welles masterpiece. Anne’s part was edited down, but you can still see the quality of her acting in her wistful acceptance of her fate as a woman in love with a handsome, shallow, and foolish young man.

Fox now was keeping her busy on the screen, giving their budding star roles in The Pied Piper (1942) with Monty Woolley and, in her first Technicolor film, Crash Dive (1943), as the love object of two Navy officers, Tyrone Power and Dana Andrews.

She was loaned to Paramount for Billy Wilder’s powerful Five Graves to Cairo (1943), with Erich von Stroheim and Franchot Tone. She was also loaned to producer Samuel Goldwyn for North Star (1943), based on Lillian Hellman’s first original screenplay, a paean of wartime praise to Hellman’s beloved Soviet Union. Anne was joined by an excellent cast: Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Ann Harding, Jane Withers and newcomer Farley Granger. (When the film later was sold to television, it was reedited and retitled Armored Attack.)

Anne was announced for the coveted lead in The Song of Bernadette, but ultimately lost out to Jennifer Jones. Instead, she made The Sullivans (1944), the devastating account of five real-life brothers who joined the Navy together after December 7th, and lost their lives after their warship was sunk by the Japanese off Guadalcanal. As a young wife, soon to be a mother and a widow, she gave her role a gentle quality that made the coming tragedy all the more poignant.

In The Eve of St. Mark (1944), Anne was the girlfriend of William Eythe, the farm boy sent off to fight in World War II. This well-regarded film was based on Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway play.

Her next film in 1944 was Sunday Dinner for a Soldier. Cast as Tessa, she plays the older sister in a family living on a houseboat in Florida who scrapes together enough money to invite a soldier for a special Sunday meal. The soldier was played by a rising leading man, thirty-year-old John Hodiak.

The first time Anne Baxter had seen John Hodiak was at the Bel Air home of Alfred Hitchcock. Soon after their first meeting they were both cast in Sunday Dinner for a Soldier. Hodiak was the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and factory worker in the Hamtramck section of Detroit. At seventeen he won an acting prize in a Hamtramck radio station contest. At twenty-two he was a radio star in Chicago, earning $750 a week which was excellent pay in those days.

Anne and Hodiak felt a mutual attraction and it was in November of 1944 that John first proposed to Anne. They would not get married until two years later, on July 7, 1946, in a wedding that took place at her parents’ home in Burlingame, California. The May 1947 issue of Movies magazine had Hodiak describing his lovely bride in the usual artificial fan magazine style of the time: “You make people feel at ease. You give them a spark, a warmth, a lift. It’s your charm, your realness, your sweetness that your family, your friends, your co-workers, your fans—and I’m one of them—love in you. You dress well. You always dress for the occasion. You’re a fine housekeeper. You know food and combinations of food. You know wines and wine cookery. You love to go to art galleries. You play the piano well. You are a happy person.”

United Artists’s Guest in the House (1944), based on the stage play Dear Evelyn, cast Anne against type as an outwardly nice, but neurotic woman, in a part that has been called a precursor to her famous “Eve Harrington” role. In 1945 she made A Royal Scandal, starring Tallulah Bankhead. The film had been started by Ernst Lubitsch but was completed by Otto Preminger. Anne’s role was inconsequential. In Forties Film Talk by Doug McClelland, Anne was quoted as saying, “Grandfather [Frank Lloyd Wright] visited me on A Royal Scandal and watched Tallulah Bankhead working. He said quite loudly, ‘Not bad for an old dame,’ and Tallulah, who was uneasy about her age, visibly bristled. The next take required her to lightly tap me but she responded with an uppercut that sent me reeling. Then she smiled sweetly and retired to her dressing room.”

Next, Anne, second billed to Fred MacMurray, played an attractive ranch owner in Smoky (1946). The Technicolor film did well, grossing $4 million at the box office. Angel on My Shoulder (United Artists), a follow-up to the successful Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), co-starred Anne with Claude Rains and Paul Muni.

Anne’s next role was the best she had received up to that point: the coveted role of Sophie MacDonald in Darryl Zanuck’s big production of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. The extravagant 146-minute production, directed by Edmund Goulding, had an interesting cast: Tyrone Power (in his first film role since returning from the war), Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, John Payne and Herbert Marshall. Both Betty Grable and Judy Garland had been considered for the part of Sophie, while Alice Faye desperately wanted it.

Sophie was a poor Chicago girl who marries well, but after personal tragedy, she sinks into despair and disrepute. “The tragic Sophie, drowning her unendurable grief in Paris bistros,” wrote Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune, “is beautifully realized in Anne Baxter’s sensitive portrayal.” Impressively, Anne won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 1946 against stiff competition from acting greats Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Flora Robson and Gale Sondergaard! She was an Academy Award winner at 23, a versatile performer who avoided being typed. Anne said later, “The Razor’s Edge contained my only great performance. When we shot that hospital scene in which Sophie loses her husband, child and everything else, I relived the death of my brother, whom I adored and who died at three. It gives me chills right now to think of it.”

The Oscar didn’t translate into a higher standing at Fox which next lent her out to Paramount for Blaze of Noon (1947). Playing opposite William Holden, Anne had to battle for her husband’s affections in a competition against his love of aviation. Back at Fox, Anne supplied the narration for the Betty Grable-Dan Dailey musical Mother Wore Tights. It was her only 1947 film for her home studio.

The following year, on yet another loan out (to MGM), Anne appeared with husband John Hodiak in Homecoming. They both had thankless supporting parts to the star duo of Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

Taking over for Gene Tierney, Anne was assigned The Walls of Jericho as a lawyer in love with the married Cornel Wilde. Luck of the Irish (1948) teamed Anne with Tyrone Power, the biggest male star on the Fox lot. It was a popular movie, and pure fluff.

When director William Wellman was casting Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark and Henry Morgan, he said, “I want an actress. I want Anne Baxter.” Nevertheless, he was to be given Paulette Goddard, until Anne was slipped in as a last-minute replacement. With a solid script from Lamar Trotti and W.R. Burnett, the film became an exciting Western drama noted for its fine performances.

With Betty Grable busy elsewhere and Jeanne Crain pregnant, Anne was drafted to co-star with Dan Dailey in the musical You’re My Everything. She can do everything else, the studio executives must have figured, so there’s no reason she can’t do a musical. It turned out to be very popular, and one of Dan Dailey’s best musicals. She appeared again with Dailey in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), a movie reminiscent of Annie Get Your Gun. Anne played a sharp-shooting sheriff’s daughter who looked pretty and who knew nothing about love, but manages to save a train, win a man, and have a ball in this comedy-western.

Anne was next cast as Eve Harrington, the scheming young stage hopeful in All About Eve (1950). Anne and Bette Davis were both nominated for Best Actress Oscars, but Judy Holliday won for Born Yesterday. Despite the Academy loss, Anne’s Eve remains her most noted role. She brings her usual quiet dignity to the part, and adds a subtle but powerful undercurrent of ruthlessness. Anne’s ability to create an ambiguous character was never put to better use than in Eve Harrington, and it seems unlikely anyone could have played the role better.

Anne was pregnant while filming Follow the Sun, in which she played the wife of golfer Ben Hogan (Glenn Ford). She gave birth to her daughter, Katrina, on July 9, 1951. Some time later, she and John Hodiak separated and he went to live with his parents. Anne and John were divorced on January 27, 1953. A little more than two and a half years after the divorce, on October 19, 1955, John Hodiak suffered a coronary thrombosis and died instantly. He was only 41 years old.

The year 1952 was her last at Fox, and was marked by three routine assignments: Outcasts of Poker Flat (with Dale Robertson), My Wife’s Best Friend (with Macdonald Carey) and O. Henry’s Full House, in the segment “The Last Leaf” with Jean Peters.

Even though she proved to be an exceptional actress, her bosses at 20th Century-Fox seemed to value her lightly, often using her as a convenient pawn in the elaborate actor loanout game of give-and-take with other studios. She was a versatile performer, easily handling different roles in different genres, but the competition for top roles at Fox was too much with beauties like Linda Darnell, and Gene Tierney on the studio payroll. Even Jeanne Crain proved more popular in Fox’s casting hierarchy. In fact, Miss Crain was even able to take the leading femme role (opposite Cary Grant) in People Will Talk, just one year after that film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, had used Anne so effectively in All about Eve.

After leaving 20th Century-Fox, in 1953 Anne signed a two-picture deal with Warner Bros. and was given a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. Filmed amid the Old World charm of Quebec City in Canada, the film co-starred Montgomery Clift as a priest involved in a murder. Despite Anne’s quality performance, Hitchcock revealed later that he would have preferred Anita Bjork for the lead. While the film remains interesting to Hitchcock fans, nothing could have helped its lackluster box office.

Her second film for Warners was The Blue Gardenia, playing a woman accused of murder. Next, Anne replaced Agnes Moorehead in the touring company of John Brown’s Body, with Tyrone Power and Raymond Massey.

The low-budget melodrama Carnival Story (1954), filmed in Europe, starred Anne with virile Steve Cochran. This was a competent production, but it was also a testament to the precipitous decline of Anne’s career. In 1955 she went over to MGM for Bedevilled, playing a nightclub singer, and then to Universal for One Desire, a routine soaper elevated by “Baxter’s strong performance,” as critic Leonard Maltin put it. In the umpteenth version of The Spoilers (1955) Anne was fun to watch as the saucy saloon owner involved with Jeff Chandler. This high-profiled part was followed by the low-budgeted The Come-On (1956).

The last big film of Anne’s career was a really big one, the classic Cecil DeMille spectacle The Ten Commandments (1956), starring Charlton Heston (as Moses), and Yul Brynner (as Rameses). Anne sexily vamps it up as Nefertiti, the princess caught between Heston and Brynner. This strong role in a megahit gave fresh wind to her sails. The next year she again appeared with Charlton Heston, now a Hollywood superstar on his way up. Three Violent People cast her as the wife of Heston, and her shady past complicates his fight against local carpetbaggers.

She then returned to the Broadway stage in The Square Root of Wonderful. Opening on September 30, 1957, it closed after only forty-five performances. Movie-wise, she turned down the part of Diana Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon (1958). She was replaced by Dorothy Malone. Instead, she opted for the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.-produced movie in England, Chase a Crooked Shadow, with Richard Todd. Still in England, she did a three-month run in the play The Joshua Tree.

Back in the States, she began doing a lot of television, although she continued in film: the remake of Cimarron (1961) with Glenn Ford; Mix Me a Person (1961); Season of Passion (1961; a.k.a., The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) with Ernest Borgnine, John Mills and Angela Lansbury. After Walk on the Wild Side in 1962, directed by Edward Dmytryk and co-starring Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, Anne made no more films for the next three years.

She remarried on February 18, 1960, during the filming of Cimarron. The groom was Randolph Galt, a former Air Force pilot. Their daughter Melissa was born on October 5, 1961. A second child was born on March 11, 1963, Maginal.

In her book, “Intermission: A True Story” by Anne Baxter, published in 1976, Anne tells of her four years living in the Australian outback with Galt. After their wedding the couple went to Australia and his 37,000-acre ranch, called Giro Station. It was as far from Hollywood as you could be, and it all seemed an unlikely chapter in the life of an Oscar-winning star. Critically praised, the book offered deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of a woman undergoing a dramatic transition in her life.

She had a cameo in the Jerry Lewis film The Family Jewels (1965) and, for some reason, she even starred in a Spaghetti Western, Tall Women (1967), one of many being cranked out like sausage in Italy at the time, usually with actors not of Anne’s stature. She had another cameo-sized role in the Sid Caesar-starrer The Busy Body (1967).

Anne blamed her fading movie career on love and her retreat to Australia. “I gave up my career because I was very much in love. My husband didn’t want me to give it up,” she admitted. “I think he was wiser than I was.” She divorced Galt in 1968.

Anne appeared regularly on television in the 1960s and 1970s. She starred numerous times as the special guest-villain on the ‘60s superhero show Batman and did episodes of The FBI, Ironside, The Big Valley, The Name of the Game, Marcus Welby, MD, Cannon, Banacek, The Love Boat, and Mannix, among others. On a particularly memorable episode of Columbo (Requiem for a Falling Star) in 1973, Anne’s good friend Edith Head had a cameo as herself. Edith was the Godmother of one of Anne’s daughters. Anne gave a strong performance on this episode as a has-been movie star who commits murder to cover up a past crime.

She appeared again on Broadway during the 1970s in Applause, the musical version of All About Eve, replacing Tony-winner Lauren Bacall. Older now, she played not Eve Harrington, but Margo Channing, the role played by Bette Davis in the film.

In 1970 Miss Baxter was made honorary mayor of Universal City. In the 1970s she was a frequent guest and stand-in host on the popular daytime TV talk show The Mike Douglas Show; she and Douglas were good friends. She also continued doing a movie here and there, theatrical (1971’s Fool’s Parade) and television (Little Mo). After many TV appearances, including the mini-series East of Eden (1981), Anne became a regular on Hotel in 1983.

Miss Baxter married for the third time in 1977, to David Klee, a prominent stockbroker. They had purchased a property in Easton, Connecticut, which was extensively remodeled, but Klee did not live to see the renovations completed. Anne was widowed when he died unexpectedly nine months later. The house was architecturally reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s flat-roofed structures. Although she maintained a residence in West Hollywood, California, she considered her beloved Connecticut home to be her primary residence.

On December 12, 1985, while walking down Madison Avenue in New York City, Miss Baxter died of a brain aneurysm. She is buried at the Unity Chapel in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Her last film role was the TV movie The Masks of Death (1984), which starred Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes.

Anne is survived by her three daughters. Today, Melissa Galt works as an interior designer in Atlanta. Katrina Hodiak married and had children. Maginal Galt is reportedly a Catholic nun living and working in Rome, Italy.

“I’m an actress, not a personality,” Anne once said. “It’s more successful to be a personality. But can you use it in every role? I don’t spill over into everything I do; I do what I do from inside someone else’s skin.”