Feisty, Flirtatious & Fearful – Betty Field (1916 – 1973)

Posted in Rewind by - December 19, 2015
Feisty, Flirtatious & Fearful – Betty Field (1916 – 1973)

A hugely talented actress who went from playing attractive young flirts to plain motherly types, Betty Field much preferred stage to screen, and even though her movie career was sporadic, she played some memorable characters in a career spanning almost thirty years.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 8th 1916, Betty had a fondness for theatre from an early age, and by 1933 was acting on the London stage. Making her movie debut in 1939, Field had a notable role in Lewis Milestone’s terrific version of John Steinbeck’s rural tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’(’39). Starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. Betty played Mae Jackson, the pretty and conniving flirt who’s accidentally killed by Chaney, Jr’s gentle giant; Lennie. It was a strong sexy turn, and was soon followed by another in John Cromwell’s ‘Victory’ (’40), as a showgirl chased by both Fredric March and Jerome Cowan.

The following year saw Betty shine as a sleazy femme-fatale in Anatole Litvak’s excellent noir ‘Blues in the Night’ (’41), before being poisoned by her doctor father (Claude Rains) in the small-town melodrama ‘Kings Row’ (’42), now famous for containing perhaps Ronald Reagan’s finest performance. After a touching turn playing Joel McCrea’s wife in the excellent biopic ‘The Great Moment’ (’44), another good part came in Jean Renoir’s terrific and rather moving drama ‘The Southerner’ (’45) as another loyal wife, this time to Zachary Scott’s hard-working farmer. A high profile role came in the 1949 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, playing Daisy opposite Alan Ladd’s Jay Gatsby. The movie was not well received, with Field considered miscast in a part that, to this day, is known as being very difficult to carry off.

Following the disappointment of ‘Gatsby’, Field spent the next few years on stage and television before receiving supporting parts in Joshua Logan’s two big screen versions of successful stage productions. First she was Kim Novak’s mother in ‘Picnic’ (’55), and then stole the show as sexy diner owner Grace, in the climactic snow-bound section of ‘Bus Stop’ (’56) with Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray. Another big hit was Mark Robson’s 1957 soap-opera ‘Peyton Place’, where Field was the browbeaten wife of Arthur Kennedy’s drunken handyman. After a witty turn playing Elizabeth Taylor’s nosy neighbour in ‘Butterfield 8’ (’60) Field had one of her best roles as Burt Lancaster’s quiet-spoken wife, in ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. Although she was only in a few scenes, they were all memorable, especially her final prison visit with Lancaster, which is rather moving and showed Field at her very best.

Field was also excellent as a pregnant missionary in John Ford’s final movie ‘7 Women’ (’66), a studio-bound yet mostly compelling period drama with Anne Bancroft and Sue Lyon among the other missionary women. A rare comedy followed with the hit-and-miss sex farce ‘How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life’ (’68), and she was wonderful in it, playing Stella Stevens’ sarcastic landlady. Field’s final role came in Don Siegel’s New York cop thriller ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ (’68), as the shady mother of Don Stroud’s psychotic criminal. She was great as usual, really inhabiting the role of an aggressive mother defending her son from Clint Eastwood’s no-nonsense deputy.

Just five years later, at the fairly young age of 57, Field sadly died following a stroke, on September 13th 1973. Married three times with two sons and a daughter, Betty Field was somewhat underappreciated in movies, and while not a big fan of Hollywood, she still managed to give some outstanding performances in a wide range of roles. A far better actress than most of the material given to her, Betty Field’s expressive performances saw her in everything from literary classics to some now cult pictures.

Favourite Movie: Birdman of Alcatraz
Favourite Performance: Bus Stop

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