The Woman Who Broke Ground in Film-Acting Nearly a Decade Before Brando Did
by J. Albert Barr
"Perhaps the most revolutionary thing Orson Welles ever put on film was this character - a spinster aunt who wasn't a comic relief biddy but a full-blooded, Jamesian tragic figure, brilliantly and scarily realized by Agnes Moorehead." - (on Moorehead's character, Aunt Fanny, from "The Magnificent Ambersons") Michael Gebert: The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards (1996)
In 1942, a mere year after the release of his masterpiece debut film, "Citizen Kane", Orson Welles wrote and directed his follow-up (and provided the film's narration as well); a period piece adapted from the 1918 Booth Tarkington novel of the same title, "The Magnificent Ambersons". Both tell the story of a proud, wealthy, American Midwestern family who find themselves collectively falling on hard times as major changes take-over society shortly after the turn of the 20th century. These "changes" ultimately result in what became the Modernist Age, an age the Amberson family were ill-prepared to meet, or accept, to their financial detriment and broken familial solidarity. Though not as fervently celebrated, and endlessly praised, or analyzed, as its monumental predecessor, "The Magnificent Ambersons" is generally considered an American classic and one of the finest films ever made. It was added to the National Film Registry and the Library of Congress in 1991 as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The film starred Joseph Cotton (who co-starred with Welles in "Citizen Kane"), a young Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Ray Collins, and the unforgettable Agnes Moorehead, as the feisty and emotionally-wrecked spinster, Aunt Fanny. Her performance easily towers over all of her co-stars in the film. And I would submit that Moorehead, in general, broke new ground in film-acting that year in 1942. She brought a completely new and modern on-screen presence, sensibility and tone to her incredible performance.
In an era where cinema was still relatively young and rife with possibilities in all areas of its craft, Agnes Moorehead was already a veteran actress of little acclaim, already in her late 30s, when she met Orson Welles in 1937 and joined his theatre company, the Mercury players. She also did myriad radio performances with The Mercury Theatre on the Air (until Welles moved the company to Hollywood in 1939 to work for RKO Pictures, which distributed "Citizen Kane" in 1941) and later with CBS, particularly on their radio program "Suspense". Later, as a result of her increasing popularity and demand, she would be referred to as the "first lady of Suspense". Her significant cinematic debut was in "Citizen Kane" where she played the small, but memorable, role of the mother of future newspaper mogul, Charles Foster Kane, whom she reluctantly, but out of tragic, financial necessity, gives up to a wealthy banker in order to give her son a better life. Its implied that the child has been abused by his father as well, thus reinforcing the mother's intentions for the child's future welfare, not knowing what actually laid ahead for the boy and his now compromised childhood and adolescence; his beloved sled, 'Rosebud", left behind with his innocence forever,...seemingly. The classic shot of her looking out the window as her child is about to be taken away from her is both disturbing and heartbreaking in its seeming emotional distance: "I've got his trunk all packed. I've had it packed for a week now."
In her next film role in "The Magnificent Ambersons" Agnes Moorehead got a much bigger part, and she fearlessly threw herself headlong into the role of tight-buttoned, yet emotionally unhinged, Aunt Fanny. I feel it was with great irony that Moorehead's performance would be initially met with similar disdain and dismissiveness, as the Amberson family did while observing the great societal changes outside their collective 19th century bubble, when the film was first screened for test audiences. During many of Moorehead's scenes as Aunt Fanny, the audience would laugh out loud! Why did they laugh at her performance? Because it was a kind of performance not seen before in film at that time. It was so new and modern that its initial audience had no idea what to make of it, and so laughter (as is so often the case when people encounter the new and unfamiliar, even to this day, of course) was evidently their first reactionary impulse towards this "strange" on-screen behavior before them.
Moorehead's performance was filled with a precariously tethered, and episodically unleashed, disposition uncharacteristic of a properly bred Victorian era "lady". But its important to take into consideration Aunt Fanny's "spinster status". She's likely in her thirties, unmarried with zero prospects, and probably still a virgin, yet she evinces all the signs of a passionate and energetic, grown woman. In other words, her untapped sexuality has rendered her prone to outright hysterics, especially by the time the film reaches its ironic and unfulfilled, but necessary, "climax", where during the memorable "boiler room scene", Aunt Fanny, while confronted yet again by her pompous and ignorant nephew George, reveals that she is completely broke and the family fortune reduced to nothing. George is, not surprisingly, dumbfounded by this confession from his visibly distraught aunt, and so he unwittingly pushes her for an explanation that should have been obvious had he not been so selfish and oblivious. This "push" finally drives poor Aunt Fanny over-the-edge, and so she has a complete emotional breakdown in which George futilely attempts to restrain her to little avail when she wishes that the furnace she's leaning against, while pitifully sitting on the floor, was actually working so she could be burned by it. But, again to George's ignorance, for which Fanny must again inform him, they can't afford the gas to operate the furnace.
Moorehead infused her innovative performance of Aunt Fanny with many fascinating ticks and idiosyncrasies, unusual verbal inflections and startling moments of unbridled outbursts that set her far apart from not only her co-stars in 'The Magnificent Ambersons", but also her colleagues in the film industry in general at that monumental time; a time that preceded Marlon Brando's legendary, and hitherto industry-changing performance nearly ten years later in 1951's now classic, "A Streetcar Named Desire", where he remarkably introduced the style known as "method acting"; a novel approach that brought a new form of on-screen naturalness that challenged and ultimately supplanted the old "mannered style" of acting that was the norm for pre-50s cinema.
After the release of "The Magnificent Ambersons", where it did only moderate business at the box-office, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Agnes Moorehead in the Best Supporting Actress category (her first of ultimately four nominations in that category within a 22 year span). She eventually lost to Teresa Wright for her performance in the year's highest grossing film and biggest winner at the Oscars, "Mrs. Miniver" - a crowd-pleasing wartime melodrama that went on to win Best Picture and five other awards besides. Only the New York Critics circle awarded Moorehead for her astounding performance in Orson Welles' underappreciated sophomore effort.
Although quite attractive, with rather striking and visibly intelligent facial features, Agnes Moorehead never became an "A-list" actress, with many starring and top-billed roles over the course of her long and distinguished career. Told early in her career that she was not "the right type", she was predominately relegated to "supporting roles" which she always gave her all in with great range, originality, effortless poise, naturalness and zest. She had a great reputation for being a consummate professional and dedicated thespian in the truest sense. For better or worse, she is best known for playing the haughty, eccentric and mischievous witch, Endora, mother to Samantha, on the very popular 60s sitcom "Bewitched" for eight seasons. In my opinion Agnes Moorehead was greatly underrated and one of the absolute greatest actresses of her, or any, era!