When actress Jean Peters died in the year 2000, her abbreviated career was forgotten by all but her most ardent admirers. Even during her hey day (1947-55), Peters always attracted more press attention for her private life than for her acting, which is a pity if you’ve ever seen her work.
Peters was one of the few Golden Age actresses who made a real effort to change both the way she looked and sounded with every new role. This meant she could play believable Mexican and Native American girls without looking as if she’d just taken a crash Berlitz course. When she played “Anne of the Indies”, Peters was only 25, but she lowered her register to play a tough, no-nonsense pirate captain, willing to fight to the death without batting an eye.
Perhaps her meatiest challenge was as a goodtime girl named Candy in Sam Fuller’s “Pickup On South Street.” Peters looked hot, sweaty and out of her league attempting to pacify a homicidal ex-boyfriend. If Peters had been considered a princess offscreen, she might have had a better shot at an Oscar Nomination for her stunning work in the film: Peters really nailed the edgy, uninterpretive desperation of a gal whose only chance to escape a morgue slab is to cooperate with the police, a group she’s mistrusted since infancy. Candy may wind up beaten within an inch of her life, but once she picks a course, she sticks with it.
The magnificent Thelma Ritter received an Oscar nod for her achingly real portrait of a police informer in the film, but Jean Peters and co-star Richard Widmark as pickpocket Skip McCoy went unrecognized by the Academy, despite excellent reviews. If you needed further proof that Jean Peters could act up a storm, even in a thankless role check out “Niagara.” Marilyn Monroe grabbed all the attention for that 1953 film noir, but she’s really delivering a presence, rather than a performance. For most of the running time, Jean Peters is dodging a lunatic, while Marilyn Monroe is offscreen or unconscious or worse. Any actress who can turn a wallflower role into a woman worth caring about is an Actress with a capital “A”.
Unfortunately, Jean Peters was offscreen for many years because of a bizarre marriage arrangement with Howard Hughes that sounded more like a prison stretch. When she returned to sporadic character roles many years later, her career momentum was gone along with most people’s memories that she had even been a movie star. At her best, her gutsy, gritty performances were the equal of many an Oscar winner.
© 2006 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/11/06
People Who Should Have Received An Oscar: Jean Peters