I confess to being angered by the obituaries that were published last week after the death of one of my favorite actresses, Kim Hunter. Without exception, most of the scribes, clearly cutting and pasting from seldom-updated newspaper morgue files, dismissed her early film work as "low-budget", skipped ahead to "A Streetcar Named Desire" (with a needlessly tasteless remark from director Elia Kazan) and fast- forwarded through the Hollywood Blacklist to what they regarded as a career nadir for any Oscar-winner, "The Planet Of The Apes films". Running down the "Apes" series seems to be a favorite of many obit writers: Sal Mineo, Maurice Evans, John Huston, James Franciscus and Roddy McDowall "descended" to making one or more entries, thereby tarnishing the lustre of their otherwise distinguished careers. So why have filmmakers returned to the well so many times since 1968? Because the series is a profitable allegory, and, as the Star Trek franchise has shown, actors enjoy the challenge of creating meaningful characters under unrecognizable makeup.
To detach a fine actress like Kim Hunter from the era in which she worked is to miss the point of her career, which she began with an RKO screen test in 1943. Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, who saw the test, considered it one of the best he'd ever seen and Hunter was cast in the leading role of Mary Gibson in the Val Lewton production of "The Seventh Victim." Lewton was, indeed, plagued by tiny budgets and titles he hated ("Cat People," "I Walked With A Zombie," "The Leopard Man," "Youth Runs Wild," "Curse Of The Cat People)," but he was blessed with an interesting and imaginative mind and the skill to bring low-key horror to the screen for jittery wartime audiences. He made a deep impression on writer James Agee, who saw all Lewton's films in his favorite Times Square theatres, NOT at press screenings!
If there had been no Val Lewton, there might have been no "Night Of The Hunter" by James Agee, for, along with John Huston, Val Lewton was Agee's idea of a truly inspirational filmmaker. DeWitt Bodeen went even further by suggesting that if there were no Val Lewton, there would be no Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," because, many years before Janet Leigh was terrorized in her shower, Kim Hunter is threatened by a Manhattan devil worshipper. No quick cuts, no chocolate sauce, just Kim Hunter's bare back and the silhouette of a menacing woman through the shower curtain. It's chilling because of Kim's extreme vulnerability and because we already know that the devil worshippers are more than capable of destroying lives. Kim Hunter, then 21, is ideally cast in the picture and she fulfilled her promise the following year in William Castle's "When Strangers Marry." Hunter's a young bride who barely knows her much-older husband, shrouded in mystery and played by Dean Jagger. Attractive Robert Mitchum is her helpful friend, or is he? That question led to stardom for Mitchum, but Hunter's next film was Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter Of Life And Death," a British existential drama in Technicolor which was not fully appreciated for years. The play and film "A Streetcar Named Desire" should have made Kim Hunter a star and to her admirers, she IS one, but the pervasive blacklist with its vague reference to organizations identified as Communist fronts shattered her career momentum, at least on film.
On Broadway, Hunter made "Darkness At Noon" with Claude Rains, "The Children's Hour" with Patricia Neal, "Write Me A Murder" with Denholm Elliott, "Weekend" with Rosemary Murphy and "The Women" with Myrna Loy, but the few movie roles she was offered in the 1950's revealed how the blacklist helped to marginalize many of the roles offered to women. Hunter did her best in Richard Brooks' "Deadline USA" and John Frankenheimer's "The Young Stranger," but her characters, despite her billing, were insultingly subordinate to the roles played by Humphrey Bogart and James Daly. With Robert Rossen's "Lilith" in 1964, Hunter's career took an upward turn, which continued through the first three "Planet of the Apes" movies and a 1980 Emmy nomination for "The Edge Of Night" all the way through Clint Eastwood's "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" in 1997. When the 1975 telefeature "Fear On Trial" was made about the blacklisted John Henry Faulk, Kim Hunter declined for her name to be used for her real-life participation in the trial, and a fictitious name was substituted. But later on in life, Hunter would discuss the blacklist and the effect it had on her life. She never did get to play the "Outward Bound" character stuck between life and death that she'd excerpted in her 1943 RKO screen test. But Kim Hunter did bring deeply felt emotion and great integrity to what it meant to be a disciplined and dedicated actress in 20th Century America.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 9/19/02
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