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Star of the Month: Jane Wyman
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Jane Wyman - Thursdays in January

Marlene Dietrich called her "a mystery nobody has bothered to solve." Indeed, it's hard to tell who the real Jane Wyman is. Depending upon which phase of her career you study, she could be a snappy chorus girl, an unaffectedly sincere dramatic actress, a glamorous musical star, queen of the tearjerker or grande dame of one of television's most popular prime-time soap operas. Her career was slow to take off, but once it hit, she lasted through a series of changing images that met the needs of changing times.

Little Sarah Jane Mayfield (later Fulks) of St. Joe, Mo, first came to Hollywood as a teen, but failed to break into the acting profession. Returning to her native Missouri to go to college, she started getting radio work as a singer under the name Jane Durrell. That brought her back to Hollywood, where unbilled bits, including one line in Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) brought her a Warner Bros. contract as Jane Wyman. She made her official studio debut with an eighth-billed role as a hatcheck girl in Smart Blonde (1937). Though she was blonde at the time, the title role went to Glenda Farrell, in whose wisecracking footsteps she would follow for her first few years in the movies.

Initially, Wyman was just one of many contract actresses at Warner's, learning her craft with small roles in their major films and larger roles in B-movies. She sunk to 14th billing as a secretary in the Ruby Keeler musical Ready, Willing and Able, then rose to fifth billing for a colorless role as singer Kenny Baker's love interest in Mr. Dodd Takes the Air (both 1937).

In 1938, Wyman met future husband (and future president) Ronald Regan, when they teamed for Brother Rat. Their romance and marriage increased her exposure in fan magazines, but didn't immediately improve her lot at the studio. Although relegated to a stock wise-cracking role supporting Ann Sheridan and George Brent in Honeymoon for Three and the B horror comedy The Body Disappears, at least she got into the record books by sharing a three minute, five second kiss with Regis Toomey in You're in the Army Now (all 1941). Things improved a bit with the gangster comedy Larceny, Inc. (1942), in which she got to work with Edward G. Robinson, and she also scored a leading role opposite Jack Carson in Make Your Own Bed and a slot as one of the victims of Washington's wartime housing shortage in The Doughgirls (both 1944).

It was another of her supporting roles, however, in the Olivia de Havilland vehicle Princess O'Rourke (1943), that changed the course of her career. She had one big, emotional scene in the comedy, and it caught the eye of director Billy Wilder. He was looking for somebody to play Ray Milland's sympathetic girlfriend in The Lost Weekend (1945) and gave the role to Wyman. Reviewers were shocked to discover an inspired dramatic actress living in the body of the formerly non-descript utility player.

It took a while for Warner Bros. to catch on, however. They kept Wyman in routine roles like Cole Porter's chorine friend, who gives up her shot at stardom to let Mary Martin sing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in Night and Day (1946). During production, she had to commute cross-town for the much more demanding role of a taciturn farm wife in MGM's The Yearling (1946). The former film is now considered one of Hollywood's worst songwriter biographies, while the latter has become a classic and brought Wyman her first Oscar® nomination for Best Actress.

Finally aware they had a top-notch actress on their hands, Warner's gave Wyman a shot at her most demanding role ever, the deaf mute who survives rape in Johnny Belinda (1948). Critics were astonished by her expressive performance, as were Academy® voters, who named her Best Actress. The only downside of the film was the damage it did to her marriage. Wyman had immersed herself in the role, partly as compensation for a miscarriage she had recently suffered, and the marriage never recovered. Reagan would later say that he should have named Johnny Belinda as correspondent.

Warner's announced big plans for their new star. They even claimed to have bought the screen rights to A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) for her, though the role ended up going to Vivien Leigh. But under her studio contract, for every prestige film she made, like The Glass Menagerie (1950), she had to make several routine films like the romantic comedy A Kiss in the Dark (1949). A loan-out to RKO for The Blue Veil (1951) launched the next phase of Wyman's career. An unabashed weeper, the film cast her as a woman devoting her life to raising other people's children, doing for nannies what Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) had done for Latin teachers. It brought Wyman an Oscar® nomination and established her as queen of the soaps.

Back at Warner's, Wyman got to capitalize on this new genre in a remake of Edna Ferber's So Big (1953), playing a farmwoman devoting her life to her son. But it took a trip to Universal to work with producer Ross Hunter to make her a bigger star than ever. As the woman blinded in an accident caused by the callow playboy (Rock Hudson) who had unknowingly caused her husband's death, she brought a surprising level of credibility to Magnificent Obsession (1954), winning another Oscar® nomination. The following year, she re-teamed with Hunter, Hudson and director Douglas Sirk for another hit romance, All That Heaven Allows (1955), this time playing a small-town widow who shocks her family and neighbors by falling for a younger man (Hudson). Decades later the film would inspire the 2002 romance Far from Heaven, with Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in roles modeled on those played by Wyman and Hudson.

Wyman was still on top at the box office when she jumped ship for television, taking over hosting, starring and producing chores on Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre. Although the series did well in the ratings and brought her an Emmy nomination, it killed her box-office momentum. Wyman made her last big-screen appearance in 1969, opposite Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in How to Commit Marriage. But she remained active on television, starring in movies-of-the-week and returning to series television as powerful and often unscrupulous matriarch Angela Channing on the prime-time soap Falcon Crest. She stayed with the show for all of its nine seasons, though failing health forced her to limit her appearances during the last season. Wyman's final years were lived in retirement in Palm Springs; she only making occasional forays back into the spotlight, as when she made one of her few public statements about ex-husband Reagan, commenting sadly on his death in 2004. Her own passing followed in 2007.

by Frank Miller

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