What a delightful subject to be writing about! Agnes Moorehead: A polished and flawless character actress. To celebrate her birthday, December 6th, Crystal, In the Good old Days of Classic Hollywood, came up with the idea for a special Blogathon to celebrate Moorehead’s life and work. So, I would like to thank her for the invitation to contribute and to invite all readers to read more about Moorehead’s work using the link below:
Most of us remember her as Endora, the witch and mother of Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the popular 60s TV show, Bewitched (1968 – 1972). Endora was controlling, over the top, bitchy, en vogue, meddling, protective and always the funny “Mama Witch” who could not stand the idea that her daughter was married to a mere mortal. Endora was the real deal when it came to being the ultimate bitch to her son-in-law, Darrin Stephens (played by Dick York and later Dick Sargent). Endora enjoyed to make Darrin’s life miserable in inconvenience ways like changing him into various animals or tempting him to do something naughty to prove to Samantha he was not worthy of her. Of course, Endora’s schemes never worked; but we loved her nonetheless.
When Samantha or Endora would make their magic, they would always make up an incantation that rhymed and used their body to send the spell. Samantha always twitched her nose to create her magic; and, Endora always used the twist of her wrists and hands to perform her enchantments. When I was a kid this would fascinate me. Those small body movements convinced me their magic worked. I have learned that many great actors use physical mannerisms to become the characters they portray. By utilizing the smallest body gestures to convey something about that character’s thoughts or emotions, they appear to become the person they are portraying.
Voice is another tool actors use to help their audience enter into their character’s world. Moorhead was a genius when using these two tools. No matter what Endora was up too, we hung onto her every word. Endora spoke with perfect diction in an unrecognizable accent. Moorehead’s accent had the same effect on me as did Audrey Hepburn’s accent. It sounded a bit British but not really. I know now neither of them were British.
Agnes Moorehead was born in Clinton Massachusetts, near Boston, in 1900, to a mother who was a trained opera singer and a father who was a Presbyterian minister. Both parents, by nature and practice, taught her the incredible value of a powerful, melodic voice. She most assuredly practiced her voice in the Church choir and doing imitations of more colorful parishioners at the family dinner table.
One of the first things I admired about Moorhead was how she completely submerges herself into the roles she plays. She studies each character by learning each characteristic nuance they might display. This most certainly involves but not limited to facial expressions and body movements like hand gestures or the tilt of the head. Once you observe her performances, you truly understand what the term consummate actor really means. It is no wonder her acting career spans over 50 years. Her performances vary in all sorts of entertainment mediums: movies, theater, voice overs, and Radio.
Radio is a great art form. It could be described as the technological poetry of modern man. As a matter of fact, it is Agnes Moorehead’s voice that first brought her to fame. If you think about the early days of radio as an art form rather than just a means of communication, you will come to appreciate those early radio shows which were usually performed live, on the air.
On radio, a story is conveyed through the emotions of the voice and maybe some added background sounds. If you compare the effectiveness of ancient storytellers to radio storytellers, you will find a huge discrepancy. Like radio, ancient storytellers depended not only on a good story, but also the effectiveness of the emotions conveyed in the voice. Unlike radio, storytellers also depended on their physical gestures and movements to impress a story on their audience. Despite this similarity, there is one huge disadvantage for Radio: no one sees the storyteller. The audience relies only on their hearing and listening skills and the talents of a wonderfully gifted voice.
Moorhead had a voice made for Radio. Her most memorable character was the terrified wife on Sorry Wrong Number. She performed it 8 times from 1942 to 1960. Radio led her to another great voice in radio Orson Wells. She became one of the original actors of his Mercury Theatre. However, it is her performance in Sorry Wrong Number that is most memorable to radio audiences. While listening for her cries of help as woman who is finally murdered, it is unforgettable.
So, Moorehead is a woman of many talents. Her voice and mannerisms are used effectively in her art. To understand this better, I decided to look at two very different movie characters in two very different movies that she made within a year of each other. The evil Mrs Reed is the British character in Jane Eyre (1943) and the lovely Baroness Aspasia Conti is the French character in Mrs Parkington (1944).
In Jane Eyre, Moorehead plays Mrs Reed. This movie runs for one hour and 36 minutes, Moorehead may have had a total of 5 minutes screen time. However brief she is on-screen, she is unforgettable as the evil Mrs Reed. This character is a widow with two children. Her husband’s dying wish is that she promise to take care of his orphaned niece, Jane Eyre (Margaret O’Brien). Although Mrs Reed attempts to take care of the high-spirited and very intelligent child, her care involves verbal abuse, neglect, and some old-fashioned torture. She allows her children to bully and abuse Jane also.
Finally, Mrs Reed has had enough of the uncontrollable Jane when she begins getting the best of her son in a fight. She calls for Mr. Brocklehurst who man is the director and treasurer of Lowood School for orphaned girls. Moorehead as Mrs Reed coldly explains to Mr. Brocklehurst that she has done her best with the child and Jane repays her with lies. The whole time during this exchange, Moorehead is calmly petting her lap-dog while her son sits quietly next to her. The boy quietly admires his mother as she speaks as continues to pet the dog. We understand through Moorehead’s characterization that Mrs Reed is a very malicious woman. The message is sent loud and clear: If you let her train and control you like a dog, you too can be petted. High spirited and honest Jane refuses to be a lap dog.
Moorehead’s accent and voice is British with that aristocratic tone throughout her brief conversation. Her accent sounds so natural that you would never know that she was not a British aristocrat. When Jane leaves to go to Lowood School, she turns back to yell at Mrs Reed who is watches her leave from a window. Basically, Jane tells back at her that if she was a liar, she would say she loves Mrs Reed and that she would miss her. But, she is not a liar; and, she hates Mrs Reed and hopes never to see her face again. Jane ends by saying that Mrs Reed was cruel and cold-hearted; and, she refuses to come back to visit her, never to return.
Years later, a grown up Jane does go back to a much older and sick Mrs Reed. Her son and Jane’s abuser, gambled away the family fortune, and mostly stayed with a bad crowd in a drunken stupor. He eventually commits suicide. Mrs Reed has a stroke upon hearing of her son’s death and cannot recover. A completely different Mrs Reed emerges. She begs Jane not to leave her. Jane forgives her and promises to never leave. Moorhead lies dying in bed as we last see her in this movie. She is weak and unclear of her surroundings. Yet,even in this very emotional reunion, Moorehead conveys in her characterization of Mrs Reed a concern for only herself. No remorse or apologies can be found from the cold and possibly evil Mrs Reed for poor, sweet Jane.
In contrast, in the movie Mrs Parkington, Moorhead was not the first choice to play lovable Baroness Conti. Moorhead feared being typecast as a dark, unlikable character; so, she fought hard for this part. She convinced the director to look at her audition. He saw it and agreed that she would be perfect for the part. Just to emphasize how good she was as the Baroness, she received a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mrs Parkington stars another one of my favorite actresses, Geer Garson, who plays the titled character: Susie Parkington. Her husband Major Augustus Parkington is played by likeable actor Walter Pigeon. An actor who also has a great voice. He has a resonating baritone voice. At the beginning of the movie he first sees Susie looking out a second story window. He winks and she winks back. He is impressed with the lovely, decisively bold Susie. He falls fast for this impoverished hard-working young lady. He finds her lovely, inquisitive, smart and charming. Susie works as a maid in her mother’s boarding house. When the Major asks to rent a room, he is told there are none available. So, smart, inquisitive Susie graciously gives up her room for him to rent. She is a smart cookie who recognizes an opportunity when it knocks. We soon discover the life of the town depends on a silver mine owed by the powerful and charismatic, Augustus Parkington. Susie really is a smart cookie.
This movie reminds me of several movies that follows. It is basically a Cinderella story that shows what happens after she marries the Prince (Ever After, 1990). It begins with Mrs Parkington 86th Birthday dinner. During the event, she reminisces about her life with the decreased”Major.” This is very similar to the television movie-series, Woman of Substance (1984). At the “Christmas dinner party” we meet the Parkington’s spoiled children and grandchildren who prove to be unworthy of their inheritance and power. There is one exception, who is a shining star, granddaughter, Jane.
It is during Mrs Parkington’s trip to the past, that we meet Moorehead’s character, Baroness Anpasita Conti. Again, she uses every aspect of her body and voice to provide the movie viewer with a completely believable person. The Baroness is a French aristocrat who is the Major’s main squeeze. She is also his confident and friend. We first see the Baroness while she is still in bed. The Major abruptly wakes her when he rushes in to shock her with the announcement that he just married. He confesses that he is a scoundrel; but, he loves the girl. He asked his friend the Baroness to help his new bride adjust to a different social class that he feels his new bride would be totally at lost.
The Baroness does some of her own confession. She asked the Major to open the Windows and pull back the drapes. She wants him to take a long hard look at the real woman, without the shadows and “war paint.” She is letting him know that this is the real her without the masks, cosmetics and pretense. The Major is a little surprised to learn that she is much older than he realize. She is his friend and will help his bride. This is definitely a twist. Why would we believe that his long time mistress would want to help his new bride? That is an arduous task for any actress, let alone one who has brilliantly convinced audiences that she is the impediment of evil. Moorhead plays such villainous characters it is understandable why the director hesitated to cast her for this part. Only a very talented actress like Moorehead could convince the audience, that the Baroness is honestly this loyal to her friend the Major.
With her French accent and her open expressions, she uses her hands and eyes to convey complete sincerity. When she exposes her physical flawlessly of lost youth, she is saying: the gloves are off, where do we begin? The consummate actress has us totally convinced she is a caring, loving friend of the Major’s in any way he needs her. It is also in a way, to make each of us wish the Baroness was our friend too.
It is no surprise that Moorehead received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actress for her performance in Mrs Parkington. When one compares the evil Mrs Reed with the tender Baroness Conti, you can see two completely different people. These two women are nothing alike. They do not even look-alike even though they are played by the same actress. If you study the pictures of the two characters, you can see the unfriendly, expressionless face of Mrs Reed in contrast to the relaxed and open face of the Baroness. If you listen to each, not only are their accents different, English verses French, but in their pitch and pause within each sentence. Which craft is this? Certainly, not witchcraft.
If Agnes Moorehead were alive today, she would have.
N: celebrated her 116th birthday. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of 74 from uterine cancer. She always believed her cancer came from exposure to radiation poisoning from a movie site in the Nevada desert. She was one of the other 54 cancer victims, which included movie legend, John Wayne, who worked on that movie, The Conquered (1958). Apparently, a weeks before the shoot began, atomic testing done there.
Agnes Moorehead was a truly gifted artist who could work miracles on film, radio, and in person. She mesmerize us with the sheer force of her personality, imagination and skills. Her dedication to her arts gave us unforgettable characters. Her attention to detail as she studied the people she met and the characters she played gave us unforgettable characters. Those close to her described her grace and sense of humor. She certainly had a brilliant career. In closing, she proved she was so much more than even Endora’s magic could conjure up.