February 27, 1910 – December 7, 1990
“The ‘Golden Age’ is gone, and with it most of the people of great taste. It doesn’t seem to be any fun any more.” ~ [ Joan Bennett, 1984 ]
All eyes are on Elizabeth Taylor in “Father of the Bride” ( 1950 ). Naturally. They always are. But a friend told me I should play closer attention Joan Bennett next time ‘round. Yeah, Bennett could conceivably be Taylor’s mother; both share the same birth date, and Bennett and Tracy appear together in 1932’s “Me and My Gal.” Alright, so next time “Father of the Bride” comes around, I’ll pay attention to Joan Bennett. I did.
I mean Elizabeth is cute…pretty and everything. But, she’s no Joan Bennett.
Yes, Spencer Tracy may be the star, and Taylor is definitely lovely to look at. But Joan Bennett is beautiful, and has the hardest job…she quietly supports. She’s the glue that holds things together. She swats the great Tracy down with a gentle word or a knowing glance. She stands toe-to-toe with him with little outward effort at all. Joan Bennett has to be one of the most underrated actresses from the classic era.
You know how it is when you can’t UNsee a thing? Well that’s me with Bennett now in “Father of the Bride” and with any of her movies now, frankly. ( Thank you Karin. ) When I was in junior high school, all I had to do was come home straight from school, turn on WABC and see her in “Dark Shadows.” But that show was not my thing. ( Youth…wasted on the young. Thank God for DVDs. ) Yes, now I have eyes wide open to Joan Bennett. If you want someone who doesn’t telegraph her emotions, who can silently relay those in-between emotions of contempt, resignation, mocking, worry etc…Joan’s your girl. She could drop-kick a line over the goal post or a give you a withering glance with the finesse of Toshiro Mifune with a Samurai sword.
I’ve invited a few friends to weigh in on how they feel about Joan Bennett, just so you won’t think I’m alone and crazy in this:
“Joan was adorable throughout the thirties, but in the forties she became as good as an actor can be. The dark hair gave her more gravitas, her maturity gave her more insight, and working with Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Zoltan Korda, and Max Ophüls didn’t hurt a bit. So much of her forties work was outstanding, but the two characterizations that leave me awestruck are in ‘The Reckless Moment’ and ‘The Macomber Affair.’ But then there are ‘Scarlet Street’ and ‘Woman on the Beach.’ And…..” – Robert Regan
The Bennett sisters ( left to right ), Constance ( 1904 ), Daughters: Constance, Joan
Joan ( 1910 ) and Barbara ( 1906 ) and Barbara with their parents
Joan is used to being in front of an audience, her father was famed Broadway star Richard Bennett and actress Adrienne Morrison. She had two beauties for big sisters: Barbara and Constance Bennett. Joan’s been before some camera or another since she was a child. If I’m being honest, looking over her filmography early in her beginnings, a lot of her movies are pretty “Meh” and she played nondescript ingenue roles. I don’t mean this as a put-down, believe me; but it is what it is. She just didn’t have films that brilliantly distinguished her like a Bette Davis or a Stanwyck; not consistently, anyway. She was a working mother, having daughters in 1928, 1934, 1943 and 1948 which might have shaped her drive. And I get the impression she didn’t live, eat and breathe the movies, but Lived Life. I’d like to read her autobiography “The Bennett Playbill” and fill in my gaps on her life. ( Joan was a star in her own right, but let me toss a little Constance on the barbie for you from my friend Wendy: )
“I’ll literally watch her in anything. To me she represents the 1930’s, a real STAR, she’s so glamorous. Others also represent the 30’s, but to me, Connie represents the GLAMOUR … the unreality, the studio concoctions, the beautiful unreal crazy HOLLYWOOD side of the movies that got into full swing in the 30’s. You know, she’s like the Cary Grant of women. So completely out of reach, elegance-wise. Whenever the girl in the movie theater in “Singing in the Rain” says: “She’s so refined. I think I’ll kill myself,” I think of Constance Bennett.
Joan is more real, more tangible, more the actress. Constance is a star… first and foremost. She’s got something that makes you want to watch her…there’s something rather free about her that I really love; that, ‘not-caring-a- damn-what-people-think, attitude‘.” – Wendy T. Merckel
If her work is kind of spotty, things take a turn for the better for Ms. Bennett when she becomes a brunette. This happens in 1938’s “Trade Winds” with Fredric March. It gives her career a different trajectory. Hey, it’s not that she changed her subtle acting style. She’s still easy breezy. It’s probably moreso a dulled public finally woke up to her charms. She worked with some of the greats: SpencerTracy, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Eddie G., Gregory Peck, Paul Henreid, Robert Ryan, Michael Redgrave. Her work with Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls gave her career some edge. It’s Bennett playing the femme fatale that contributes to her being remembered. “Scarlet Street” “The Woman on the Beach” “The Macomber Affair” and “Man Hunt” are among my favorite films of Bennett. But I know there are so many more to discover.
“She’s an American girl, but not any American girl. She is sophisticated in every sense of the word. I’d say Joanie is the most sophisticated, continental or European actress of the American cinema. She was the toast of the European directors: Renoir, Korda, Ophüls, Lang; these European emigres loved working with Bennett, perhaps because she conveys a world-weary je ne sais quoi. And she is the intellectual’s dream come true. She exudes sex; intelligent, clever, sexual allure. It’s not in your face like Marilyn or Ava. Her mind comes first and then her looks.” – Fernando Silva
I thought she was wonderful in “The Reckless Moment” as a woman rea-lizing just how trapped in suburbia she is when she has to step OUT of it to save her daughter from a black-mailer. And in this journey, an unexpected attraction develops… Stripped of being a glamor puss in this 1949 film, if that distracts you, ( uh, meaning me ) you can see what Bennett’s made of, acting-wise. ( Here is my review but please do see this film. ) I write of “The Macomber Affair” as well and very highly recommend it.
“She’s smart – no fool, Joan. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, most on display in ‘Scarlet Street.’ She’s beautiful but never acts it. She’s down to earth, as all my favorites are. She knows the tone of a piece and plays to it. She can be relaxed or arch, depending on the piece or her co-stars. I like her voice, which is an odd mix of highbrow and New York swagger. She looks as good as a brunette as she does as a blonde. Oh my gosh, what’s NOT to like about Joanie? I can’t think of a thing I DON’T like about her.” – Wendy T. Merckel
One might think of other actresses first before you’d get to her name. And you’d be ( sort of ) forgiven because the bench ran deep with talent in the Golden Age of Hollywood. But when you do get to her name, pause, check her out, visit with her. She can toss a line with the best of ’em, and her glance speaks volumes. She’s wonderful to watch…and look at, quietly holding her own. I didn’t always know that, but thanks to a couple of friends, I know it now. And isn’t that what counts? It’s been twenty-five years since Joan Bennett passed away. I didn’t want to forget her today. And I wanted to remind you.
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