The Films of Agnes Moorehead is just that--a well-written, insightful and at times acerbic look at Moorehead's uneven film career. Moorehead was a character actress in most of her films, but (as the author astutely points out in his introduction) she is in many cases more well known today than some of the leads she supported (June Allyson, Alexis Smith, Laraine Day,Joseph Cotten, Dick Powell, Robert Cummings & Walter Pidgeon to name a few). Why is that? Moorehead can thank her lucky stars that she decided to play the role of 'Endora' on the TV classic "Bewitched." That show has never been off the air world-wide since it's debut in 1964. The show made her an internationally known celebrity rather than simply a well-regarded character actress.
Despite her many accomplishments as a film actress, I believe her film career takes a back seat to her status as one of the great stars of old-time radio (The Mercury Theater, Sorry, Wrong Number, etc), but today that is very much a niche audience. Even then audiences could hear her but they couldn't see her--and Moorehead wasn't without ego, she wanted to be recognized--she wanted to be a star. Thanks to 'Endora' her film career takes a back seat to television. But this doesn't make her film career irrelevant as the author of this book superbly points out. Her film career has two distinct phases. The first phase roughly a decade from 1941-1951 when she appeared in such memorable films as CITIZEN KANE (she makes the most of her five minute appearance), SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, MRS. PARKINGTON, DARK PASSAGE, JOHNNY BELINDA, CAGED, FOURTEEN HOURS--and especially her deeply poignant performance as Aunt Fanny in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. During that decade she was nominated three times for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and won the New York Film Critics Best Actress award for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. A strong case could be made that she was THE foremost character actress in films during this period. The second phase of her film career comes about 1952 and lasts until the very end when she decided to take almost any film role that was seemingly offered to her as long as it allowed her the freedom to enjoy her new love--the theater--where she was one of the stars of the landmark 1950's production of DON JUAN IN HELL as well as her own hugely successful (and financially satisfying) one-woman shows. There can be little doubt that the quality of her films, with some notable exceptions, dropped off.
The author knows his subject well and each chapter is a different essay about a Moorehead film. Mr. Nissen is no shrinking violet. He has opinions and doesn't hesitate to express them. He is at times in awe over the art of Miss Moorehead and at other times seemingly slaps himself in the forehead wondering in exasperation about some film or over-the-top bit of business. The chapters don't give lengthy synopsis of the films but concentrate on the meat and potatoes--Miss Moorehead's characters and performances. There is also some behind the scenes tidbits as well as fresh interviews with co-workers and friends (Olivia de Havilland, Jean Porter, June Lockhart, for example). In some personal observations he can be a bit over the top himself, but he has a style that is his own and humor is always welcome even in a scholarly book such as this. Despite some negative comments about Miss Moorehead (regarding her success or lack of it as a wife or mother) I never got the impression that the author was personally hostile towards her. Many artists have put their career ahead of marriage or, sadly, even there children (though there are indications that Miss Moorehead did try her best with her adoptive son, Sean)and Moorehead was no different. Her career was her life-blood--she needed to work not only for the fulfillment it gave her as an artist but for purely personal reasons--she was supporting an aged mother and trying to put her son thru the best schools possible and all of that--not to mention the trappings of Hollywood--took a lot of loot. So she took films that were at times seemingly below her great talent--just to keep her name before the public, make a quick paycheck and have time to do what she wanted to do. Even Laurence Olivier did this later in his film career.
Richard Burton in his diaries once wrote that he and Elizabeth Taylor listed the films they made together or individually that were worthwhile and came to the conclusion that maybe roughly one-in-five were worth seeing again--the others being 'rubbish.' Miss Moorehead made sixty-three films, by the Burton-Taylor equation roughly fifteen would be worth seeing again--but in actuality Miss Moorehead's average (as this book makes plain) is much higher than that. Even if some of the films were not all that good--in many instances she brought a little something extra that made at least part of the film a worthwhile experience. And if Moorehead had only played Mary Kane, Fanny Minafer, Aspasia Conti, Madge Rapf, Aggie McDonald, Ruth Benton and Velma Cruthers her place in film history would be secure. "The Films of Agnes Moorehead" by Axel Nissen is a welcome addition to the Moorehead bibliography and testament that interest in this superb actress--dead now nearly forty-years--is not only alive but thriving.