Thursday, March 19, 2009

Betsy Blair: An Appreciation

"Few film-makers of the left emerged unscathed from the Hollywood witchhunt led by Senator Joe McCarthy, wrote Brian Baxter in The Guardian. "Some died, some were ruined, some headed for Europe. Others named names. Among its victims, the actor Betsy Blair, who has died last Friday (at the age of 85), considered herself fortunate.

Despite being blacklisted, she was made less vulnerable by her marriage to fellow socialist Gene Kelly who, by the early 1950s, was virtually untouchable thanks to such succesful movies as On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain. Eventually she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the 1955 film Marty".

Born Elizabeth Winifred Boger in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, she met Kelly while working the boards on Broadway, understudying the role of Laura in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and playing the lead role in Willliam Saroyan's The Beautiful People before migrating West to Hollywood.

Though her initial film roles included small roles in such films as The Guilt of Janet Ames, George Cukor's A Double Life and Another Part of the Forest, her initial distain for movies allowed her to focus on theatre work, motherhood, and keeping open house to Hollywood's elite. Her fundraising and outspoken support for liberal causes resulted in her being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. During that time, she came under the scrutiny of the FBI for her association with left-wing organizations such as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the Sleepy Lagoon Committee and the Civil Rights Congress.

However, in 1955, she took on the role of Clara in the film adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky's teleplay Marty, due in no small part to the interventions by Chayevsky, Kelly, and then-MGM studio head Dore Schary on her behalf.

The film, a tender portrait of a lonely butcher (Ernest Borgnine) and a plain girl who fall in love, became a critical and commercial sleeper hit. It netted Oscar nominations for both Ernest Borgnine and Blair, though it was Borgnine who went home with the Oscar.

Later, she divorced Kelly and moved to Europe, working in numerous foreign films. It was through her work abroad that she met and, in 1963, married film director Karel Reisz, whose debut film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning made him a force to be recokened with. They remained married until Reisz's death in 2002.

Afterwards, she worked sporadically in film and television, even earning a college degree in speech therapy and working as a speech therapist while pursuing her first love of acting. In 1988, she returned to the U.S. to portray the mother of a white supremacist being tracked by the FBI in Costa-Garvas' political thriller Betrayed.

In 2003, Blair published her autobiography, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris. She had no regrets about the blacklist, which obliged her to mature as a person and – consequently – as an actor. Modestly, she once said, "it certainly wasn't much of a career. For all my ambitions, I think my life was more important to me."

Her role in Marty was that one shining moment that defined her career and left one wondering what potential she might have had. Still, she's still not getting her due for what she accomplished in her lifetime, and for her humanity as well.

Rest peacefully. You will be missed.

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