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In 1957, Joanne Woodward delivered an Oscar®:-winning performance in The Three Faces of Eve as a young woman with three distinct personalities struggling for dominance. Thanks to Woodward's performance and the film's pedigree and polish, it overshadowed another film that arrived in theaters a few months earlier starring Eleanor Parker as a young woman with - you guessed it - three distinct personalities.
Parker, a three-time Oscar® nominee in her own right, was 35 when she played the role of the 25-year-old Elizabeth Richmond, an assistant in a natural museum who is plagued by headaches and illness. With simple dresses and skirts, minimal make-up and hair pulled back to create the plain, mousy girl, she plays the role with a nervous, furtive quality, as if living in perpetual fear. Lizzie, in sharp contrast, leaps out of the eternally tired Elizabeth aggressive and angry, like a coiled spring suddenly let go, and she applies make-up like a war mask to announce her arrival. It's a plum role for the actress and Parker runs with it. As Elizabeth, she plays a convincingly younger woman, but looks older in experience, if not years, as the feral Lizzie, who comes on like an aggressive barfly version of Sunset Boulevard's (1950) Norma Desmond. She adds another dimension when the third persona is pulled out through hypnosis, but the extremes of the shy, timid Elizabeth and the "coarse and evil" (in the words of the doc himself) Lizzie give Parker her meatiest opportunities.
Hugo Haas directs and plays the good-natured neighbor who takes an avuncular interest in Elizabeth. Haas was a comedy star in the Czech film industry of the thirties. Like many artists, he fled the Nazis for the U.S., where he became a busy character actor and director, specializing in low-budget, noir-inflected melodramas about scheming young women and cuckolded middle-aged men (which he invariably played himself). This is something different. Lizzie (1957) isn't based on a real-life case study like Eve was, but on Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest -- in fact, it's the first big screen adaptation of any of her writings. And while Haas plays up the psychodrama of battling personalities within the same mind and body, he also treats the psychiatric side seriously. The opening credits play over inkblots, an instant (if not necessarily accurate) visual metaphor for modern psychiatry, and Haas turns to expressionist techniques reminiscent of Arch Oboler's Betrayal (an earlier psychodrama built around the concept of multiple personalities) to suggest the internal battle of the personas.
Richard Boone plays the compassionate psychiatrist committed to helping Elizabeth. He'd previously specialized in cunning villains and tough, driven characters on the big screen and established his medical credentials with the TV show Medic. He plays this role with gentle professionalism, understated authority, and patience, explaining the concept of multiple personalities in simplistic terms to both the characters and the audience. A few months after the film was released, Boone made his debut in his most famous role: the erudite Paladin in Have Gun - Will Travel.
Playing Elizabeth's boozy but protective aunt is Joan Blondell, the lively, streetwise star of dozens of comedies, musicals and snappy dramas through the thirties turned sardonic character actor. This is a change of pace for her, a cynical, middle-aged lush who is suspicious of psychiatry and increasingly unnerved by her niece's schizophrenic behavior but does worry over the girl, who has survived a lot of heartache in her life.
The lounge singer in the piano bar is none other than Johnny Mathis in his only big screen appearance. He has no lines but sings two songs: "Warm and Tender," composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the film, and "It's Not for Me to Say," which became a hit for the crooner. And if you think you recognize Elizabeth's friendly co-worker, it's young Marion Ross, later to become a TV icon as the mother on the nostalgic 1970s sitcom Happy Days.
By Sean Axmaker