Film Studies: Smart, difficult, drunk, brilliant: a tribute to the fearsome Mercedes McCambridge

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Mercedes McCambridge was often called "Mercy", and she cannot have been very old before the irony of that began to pile on. As she began her 1981 autobiography, The Quality of Mercy: "Most people call me Mercy. I like it. It's difficult to sound cross when you say that word. Shakespeare tells me that:

Mercedes McCambridge was often called "Mercy", and she cannot have been very old before the irony of that began to pile on. As she began her 1981 autobiography, The Quality of Mercy: "Most people call me Mercy. I like it. It's difficult to sound cross when you say that word. Shakespeare tells me that:

'The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath.'

"But the quality of the Mercy that I am is very strained, and it droppeth like a ton of bricks on to everything into which it stumbleth."

That harsh mixture of grief and grievance was there the first time I ever saw her - in what was her first film. It was 1949, and I was much too young for it: I was eight, but McCambridge was 33 already (she never had anything like a real youth on film - don't forget that Jean Harlow was dead at 26). This was in a picture called All the King's Men, which won Best Picture in 1949. It comes from a novel by Robert Penn Warren that is a version of the life of Louisiana demagogue, Huey Long, a man who became governor of the state. In the movie, Broderick Crawford plays "Willie Stark", John Ireland is the journalist who tells the story and Joanne Dru played the classy young woman. They were all fine (Crawford won the Oscar), and thoroughly professional: by which I mean to say that, even aged eight, I could reason with myself that they had learnt and were reciting lines and were trying to look like their parts.

But there was someone else in the film, who was flat-out frightening, not just because her character was smart and tough and mean, but because the actress seemed dragged in off the back roads of the real South, because she seemed to despise being in a movie and spoke her lines with a terrible, cursing bitterness. It was, of course, Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke, the manager of Stark's campaign. For her portrayal of the part she won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

I'm not alone in believing that she was one of the great presences in American film - though if you were her fan, you had to get used to long gaps between her pictures.

She wasn't popular. I learnt later, from her book and from stories, that there were reasons for that: she was very smart and very difficult - she would argue her head off with directors until they gave up on her. There was also the sad fact that a lot of the time she was very drunk. But I'm sure that her abrasive manner was key to it all: she simply could not come on as if she was so happy to be in a movie, bless you. Instead, she brought an unholy air of bad temper, malice and hostility. People didn't like looking at her.

So, despite her Oscar, she became known for bits and pieces: like the posse leader who has her own inner drive for wanting to murder Joan Crawford in Nicholas Ray's melodrama, Johnny Guitar; like Luz, the sister to Rock Hudson, in Giant, and the most authentic Texan in the whole film - a pain in the neck from start to finish; and like the character in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, the one who... Well, let's allow Mercy to tell the story.

One day, in LA, Welles (who was an old friend of Mercy) called her and asked her to come to the studio. She arrived and saw the set: a motel room, with Janet Leigh in her underwear in bed and a gang of lecherous hoodlums. All it needed was a catalyst: Orson cut her hair and then rubbed black boot polish in to kill the lighter brown.

"They brought a black leather jacket from somewhere, and I was 'ready'. Orson said he wanted a heavy, coarse Mexican accent. I said 'You've got it.' He asked me to walk across the studio like a tough masculine hood-type broad. I said, 'You've got it.' And I did it. He said in a statement terse and unadorned, that he wanted me to burst into Janet Leigh's motel room with all the other hoodlums. As their ringleader I was to give them the go-ahead to have their group pleasure with her, and I was to say in a gruff accent that I would hang around and watch." Touch of Evil still contains one of the most lurid and frightening rape scenes ever shot. It was an afternoon's work; it was stylised and camp, it was over the top; yet McCambridge had a natural grasp of horror that made the scene so mysterious that it got past the censor. I don't think the people ready to ban such a thing ever understood all she was implying.

There were other films for McCambridge - some of them less than B pictures - and she sometimes had stage roles. But she was doomed or destined to do just small things.

When William Friedkin was making The Exorcist 16 years after Touch of Evil he wanted a voice, the voice of Satan, to come roaring, hissing and leering out of the child's body. He remembered that Mercedes McCambridge had come from radio. He gave her corn flakes to fill her mouth and to sound like vomit. And if you can sit through The Exorcist again without cracking up, the one unremittingly fearsome thing is the voice of McCambridge.

It was a comeback for her - yet Friedkin tried to leave her name off the film. I suppose he wanted to leave us uncertain whose voice it was or what kind of creature's. So Mercy had to go to war with the Screen Actors' Guild to get her credit - and the wretched Friedkin was under a curse from which he never has emerged.

There were brighter moments: in the Sixties, on Broadway, she had followed Uta Hagen in the role of Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She also played Annie Sullavan in the touring version of The Miracle Worker. And as late as the Nineties, she had a long-running supporting role in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers.

But the alcoholism came and went and for many years the actress gave up work to run the Livengrin Foundation, an organisation dedicated to alcoholic rehabilitation.

She was 87 when she died a few weeks ago, and I can believe that a lot of young people had never heard of her. There were two failed marriages and she had one child - but in 1987 that child killed his wife and children and then himself.

There are stories more terrible than those that get into print or reach the screen, and Mercedes McCambridge was that rare thing, a person who had lived much of her life in that other world.