Jane Wyman died five years ago today. Judy Bachrach remembered the unforgettable star. Originally published September 2007 on Obit-Mag.com.
, who died at 90, managed something remarkable – and rare – in the life of a star, especially actresses of her era, many of whom outshone her in beauty and sexual allure. Even long past her prime, she never allowed herself to be entirely forgotten. In part this was the result of talent and urgent resolve. She won an Oscar for the famously unglamorous role of a deaf woman who is raped and becomes pregnant in the 1948 film Johnny Belinda
It was a role for which she prepared for six months, studying at a school for the deaf and learning sign language. To give her performance further veracity, she acted with her ears plugged, having memorized the lines of her fellow actors.
But the rest of Wyman’s enduring renown was the result of fortuitous circumstance. In 1940 she married the B-list actor Ronald Reagan
: nine years and two children later, the couple divorced (“… [T]he decision was made by someone else,” Reagan lightly pointed out more than three decades later when he campaigned for the presidency as a Republican. But his wife’s decision left him devastated for years). The discrepancy between their careers – hers ascendant, his spiraling down – hastened the divorce. His growing political activism didn’t help. About her disaffection, Reagan seems to have been clueless. “I love Jane and I know she loves me. I don’t know what this is all about…,” said the actor.
Actors Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan, described as among Hollywood's happily-married couples, are holding their 9-month-old daughter Maureen Elizabeth, on September 13, 1941, at their Hollywood, Calif., home. (AP Photo)
But Jane did. Simply put, Wyman would later reveal, she found him “boring.”
However, even exes can have their uses. By the time the discarded husband became president of the United States in 1981, Wyman found herself once again in the spotlight, and although she detested being pestered for gossipy tidbits about him, there were other aspects of her renewed fame she embraced. At age 64, she managed to snag the role of the cunning wine tycoon Angela Channing on the nighttime soap Falcon Crest. The series (like her marriage to Reagan) ran a good nine years -- but she enjoyed it far more.
Nothing about her dismal childhood seemed to presage such a fascinating destiny, packed with men, marriages and grabbed chances. Born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Mo., she was the blonde, irrepressible daughter of parents who divorced when she was 4. Her father, a factory worker, died a few years later, and her mother simply handed over the child to another couple. Wyman hated school, resented her new parents, and later concluded, “I was raised with such strict discipline that it was years before I could reason myself out of the bitterness.…” What she wanted, she realized very young, was to flee Missouri and become a star.
After jobs as a switchboard operator and a manicurist, she managed to crack Hollywood – in a way. There were bit parts in such forgettable films as Busby Berkeley’s The Kid from Spain (1932) and College Rhythm (1934). Two years later she landed a contract with Warners, dropped her first name, and became, forever, Jane Wyman. (Little imagination was needed. The last name was extracted from her first husband, Ernest Wyman, whom she secretly married at 16, after lying on the marriage license about her age; they were divorced when she was 19).
Indeed it could be said that at this period of her life, Wyman’s acting career was rivaled in bleakness only by her domestic life, which was always in turmoil. In 1937, for example, there was a one-year marriage to Myron Futterman, a dress manufacturer 15 years her senior. The year they divorced, she courted Reagan heavily on the set of the comedy Brother Rat, in which he played a marine cadet, and Wyman his girlfriend. “I just had to go dancing and dining every night to be happy,” Wyman recalled of this time. Reagan, who found his costar incredibly forward and sophisticated, didn’t stand a chance.
It wasn’t until 1945, that the actress got her first serious break, playing opposite Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, a daring and realistic movie about an alcoholic made in an era when the liquor industry was so troubled by its potential impact that it offered MGM $5 million to destroy the film. In fact, both Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn rejected the role of the alcoholic’s understanding girlfriend; prescient decisions in a way, since the film’s release was delayed an entire year.
Wyman knew how fortunate she was to land the role. “It changed my whole life,” she later said. So inspired was her performance that from then on she was offered a succession of major parts, several of which, interestingly, required her to play the disabled or downtrodden.
Wyman won praise as the delicate heroine, afflicted with a limp, in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. She received an Oscar nomination first as an overburdened backwoods mother to a vulnerable young boy in The Yearling (1947), where she played opposite Gregory Peck who found her “wonderful.” Her subsequent Oscar nomination was for her performance (opposite a cool and devastating Rock Hudson) as a blind widow in the 1954 remake of Magnificent Obsession.
At home, her life was equally busy. A year after her marriage to Reagan, Wyman gave birth to Maureen; in 1945, the couple adopted an infant they named Michael. Maureen, who died of cancer in 2001, considered her mother a friend and an ally, especially after her father’s remarriage to the reserved and brittle Nancy Davis, whom Maureen detested for years.
For Wyman reserve was generally out of the question. Usually she spoke her mind, although there was one famous exception. At the Oscars, when she received the award for Johnny Belinda, winning out against a triple-threat combination of Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman, her acceptance speech was a model of modesty, brevity, and characteristic self-mockery: “I accept this award very gratefully – for keeping my mouth shut for once. I think I’ll do it again,” she said.
Jane Wyman kisses her Oscar awarded her in Hollywood for her Best Actress role in "Johnny Belinda" in this March 24,1949 file photo. Wyman, who won for her performance as the deaf rape victim, also starred in the long-running TV series "Falcon Crest." She died Monday morning at 93. (AP Photo/FILE)
For years thereafter parts seemed to fall into her lap. She played an old woman in So Big in 1953; an attractive widow who shocks society by falling in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson again) in All that Heaven Allows in 1955; and in 1959, she became the producer and frequent star of a TV anthology called “The Jane Wyman Theater.” She married a band leader, divorced him after a year. And then remarried him in 1964 – with the same limited success.
Then came an unwelcome career lull, broken by occasional second-rate TV appearances (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, for example, where she played Jane Seymour’s mother). About this fallow period, Wyman feigned uncharacteristic self-righteousness: “Non-exposure is better than appearing in the wrong thing,” she insisted. “I don’t like all the sick pictures being made.”
It was only when Wyman landed Falcon Crest that she managed to reclaim much of her former glory along with many of the perks: a reported $3 million a year in salary – and so much delectable clout that Wyman ordered the character of her sister-in-law, played by the demanding and haughty rival diva Lana Turner, to be killed off after just one season.
Other advantages also came her way with advancing age: most notably the desire to re-examine those who had been close to her. When Reagan died in 2004, Wyman said, “America has lost a great president, and a great, kind and gentle man.”
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