Forties star known for her complicated private life
Thursday 24 June 2004
A striking brunette with soulful eyes and a deep voice, the actress Doris Dowling had prominent roles in two major films of the Forties, Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning
The Lost Weekend (1945) and the Raymond Chandler-scripted thriller
The Blue Dahlia (1946). She was also Wilder's lover for several years, and later became the seventh of the bandleader Artie Shaw's eight wives.
Doris Dowling, actress: born Detroit 15 May 1923; married 1952 Artie Shaw (one son; marriage dissolved 1956), 1956 Robert Blumofe (marriage dissolved 1959), 1960 Leonard Kaufman; died Los Angeles 18 June 2004.
A striking brunette with soulful eyes and a deep voice, the actress Doris Dowling had prominent roles in two major films of the Forties, Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) and the Raymond Chandler-scripted thriller The Blue Dahlia (1946). She was also Wilder's lover for several years, and later became the seventh of the bandleader Artie Shaw's eight wives.
She acted for most her life in movies, theatre and television, but her finest role was in the acclaimed Italian film and international hit Riso Amoro (1949: Bitter Rice, 1950) in which she was both tough and vulnerable as a girl hopelessly in love with a rogue.
Doris Dowling was born in 1923 in Detroit. During her early career in the theatre she was part of a now legendary chorus line-up in Cole Porter's Panama Hattie (1940) that included such future stars as June Allyson, Vera-Ellen, Betsy Blair and Doris's sister Constance. Shelley Winters, also getting her start in New York at the same time, recalled later that she and the Dowlings were part of a fun-loving group of girls, and they remained friends throughout the years. Other Broadway shows in which Doris appeared were Banjo Eyes (1941) starring Eddie Cantor, Beat the Band (1942) and New Faces of 1943 (1942).
In 1945 she followed her sister (who had already established a career in films) to Hollywood, where she was given a contract by Selznick International but no assignments. She later recounted how she learned about her first film role:
One day Billy Wilder and I were lunching at Lucey's with Charles Jackson, who wrote the novel The Lost Weekend . He said it was too bad I wasn't a more common type so that I could play Gloria. And Billy never even looked up. He just said, "She is." That's all. Just, "She is." I almost went crazy with excitement.
As the bar-room prostitute from whom an alcoholic (Ray Milland) borrows money to buy liquor, she gave a performance that several reviewers tipped as a possible Oscar contender.
She next played in George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, in the unsympathetic role of the dissolute, promiscuous wife of a returned war veteran (Ladd). Wearing a form-hugging lamé evening dress, she informs her husband that their son died in a motor accident caused by her own drunken driving. When she becomes a murder victim, Ladd is the obvious suspect and has to prove his innocence.
Though both films were hits, Dowling's career failed to ignite, and both she and her sister became better known for their private lives. The affair between Doris and the married Wilder was an open secret, as was a similar romance between Constance and the director Elia Kazan. Wilder separated from his first wife in 1945 and they were divorced in 1947. His affair with Dowling continued throughout these years, but he later claimed he never intended to marry her. Dowling's uncredited appearance as a Tyrolean maiden in Wilder's The Emperor Waltz (1948) was to be her last association with the director.
The film career of Constance Dowling floundered when the producer Sam Goldwyn, who had starred her opposite Danny Kaye in Up in Arms (1945), abandoned plans to promote her when he discovered Virginia Mayo. Her affairs with Kazan and, later, the actor Helmut Dantine, ended, so in 1948 the sisters decided to go to Europe, where, according to Kazan, they were "admired and happy". (Constance became the lover of the poet Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide when she ended their relationship. She returned to the United States where she married a film producer, had two sons, then died of a brain haemorrhage in 1969, at the age of 47.)
Doris had the finest role of her career after the director Giuseppe de Santis told her that if she could brush up her Italian she could be the star of his film Riso Amoro. In this low-budget but beautifully photographed melodrama she played a jewel thief's girlfriend, hiding out among the "Mondinas", the female rice workers who toil in the Po Valley. Dowling and her co-stars Vittorio Gassman and Raf Vallone gave fine, intense performances, but the film was stolen by the stunning screen début of Silvana Mangano, whose voluptuous image in clinging sweater, torn nylons and short shorts became iconic and paved the way for the emergence of such stars as Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren.
Along with actual workers, paid as extras, Dowling and Magnano spent hours waist-deep in water for the movie, filmed with the realism that marked the emerging Italian cinema after the Second World War. "It was frightfully humid," Dowling recalled. "We really lived the life of the people who worked in the fields." Other films Dowling made in Italy included Orson Welles's Othello (released in 1955 but three years in the making), in which she played Bianca.
Returning to the US, Dowling continued to work in movies, mainly undistinguished except for a good western, Running Target (1956), plus extensive theatre work. She was in 100 television shows, including Perry Mason, Bonanza, Kojak, Barnaby Jones and the 1980 mini-series Scruples. She was last seen in an episode of Murder, She Wrote (1984).
She became the seventh wife of Artie Shaw in 1952, married a United Artists executive in 1956, and is survived by her third husband, a publicist, and her son by Shaw.
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