Martha Hyer: Actress best known for her Oscar-nominated role as the uptight teacher in the melodrama 'Some Came Running'

 

Martha Hyer was a glamorous Hollywood actress who was cast in several leading roles, but is best remembered as a reliable supporting player, particularly adept at embodying spoilt society girls set on wooing the leading man away from the partner for whom he is obviously meant.

In Lucky Me (1954) she was an upper crust beauty trying to keep Doris Day and Robert Cummings apart, in Sabrina (1954) she was William Holden's fiancée fighting a losing battle against the charms of Audrey Hepburn, in the sprightly comedy My Man Godfrey (1957), she becomes vengeful when butler David Niven is smitten by her sister (June Allyson), and in Mr Cory (1957) she toys with gambler Tony Curtis before leaving the way clear for her less shallow sister.

It was something of a surprise when she was cast as a repressed schoolteacher who has a chequered romance with Frank Sinatra in Vincente Minnelli's heated melodrama based on James Jones' novel, Some Came Running (1958), but her fine performance gained her an Oscar nomination.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1924, she was the daughter of a judge who as judge advocate took part in the war crimes trials in Nuremberg after the Second World War. In her childhood a devoted film fan, she was determined to become an actress, and after graduating from Fairfax Hall Junior College she enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse. Spotted by an agent, she was given a contract at RKO, where she played a small uncredited role in The Locket (1946), followed by the heroine to Tim Holt in Thunder Mountain (1947), a "B" western.

She had a small speaking role as the understudy to Broadway star Rosalind Russell in The Velvet Touch (1948) – "The help Roz gave me was invaluable" – but most of her films at the studio were undistinguished though Hyer, an advocate of the studio system, declared, "I was under contract to RKO for three years, and will always be grateful for the training I received."

In 1951 she spent a year in Japan making two films, Fate and Geisha Girl, directed and co-produced by C Ray Stahl, whom she married. They divorced after Hyer starred in The Scarlet Spear (1953), filmed in Africa. She played a society girl again in the sprawling version of Edna Ferber's novel So Big (1953), then gave a nicely etched portrayal of a girl living in an Alaskan small town in Cry Vengeance (1954), a gripping thriller directed by former actor Mark Stevens.

She later described Billy Wilder's Sabrina as her "breakthrough" role, and the film's popularity has made it one of her best known performances. Though she criticised William Holden, who played her fiancé, for his "lack of discipline" regarding his heavy drinking (which also tried the patience of co-star Humphrey Bogart), she later stated, "Bogart knew how important this film was to my career, and he helped me every way he could." She added, "Audrey Hepburn was very special, and Billy Wilder's close friend, Marlene Dietrich, would visit the set and share her personal secrets with me, teaching me about lighting techniques and how to accentuate my cheek bones."

Because Hepburn was dark-haired, Wilder suggested that Hyer become blonde in contrast, and her new appearance evoked comparisons to Grace Kelly. She admitted to several relationships during this period, stating, "I had boy friends, lots of them. The only one I'll name was the one who meant the most – Gene Kelly. The world remembers his Singin' in the Rain. I remember his kissing in the rain!"

Among her films were two popular comedies, Paris Holiday (1958) with Bob Hope, and Houseboat (1958) with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, "Cary was completely smitten with Sophia, and was driving her crazy trying to get her to marry him. Two weeks later she was married by proxy to Carlo Ponti in Mexico."

When she read that MGM were going to film Some Came Running, the best-selling saga of a disillusioned war veteran returning to his home town, Hyer campaigned for the part of uptight school teacher Gwen French, knowing that Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr and Eleanor Parker had all been suggested. She described the role as "the first real character part I'd played … I consider everything I did before it preparation." Nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress, Hyer was considered to have a good chance of winning, but the award went to Wendy Hiller for her role in Separate Tables. "I tried to be a good loser," she said, "but when I got home, I cried all night."

Despite the accolade the best roles continued to elude her, but she gave good support in such films as The Best of Everything, The Big Fisherman (both 1959) and Desire in the Dust (1960). Her co-star in the lush but ponderous Ice Palace (1960) was Richard Burton, of whom she said, "If the government could have bottled and sold his charm, sex appeal and talent, they'd easily have wiped out the deficit. But how he squandered it!"

Hitchcock is said to have considered Hyer for the part of Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), but the role went to Janet Leigh. Having complained that she "would like to convince people that I can play more than well-dressed sophisticates," she was delighted to play the "whore with a heart" in The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Two years later she married producer Hal Wallis, though he was 20 years older. "Maybe because I'd loved my father so much," she said, "I'd looked all my life for a man smarter and stronger than I." Wallis was noted for being extremely frugal, and to further the lifestyle that Hyer thought they should be enjoying she spent her own money then became indebted to loan sharks, to whom she gave a Monet, a Gauguin and two Remingtons as collateral. The paintings were sold to an art gallery that later became involved in a legal dispute with Wallis, who settled things expensively with the help of lawyers and the FBI. The marriage survived until Wallis' death in 1986, and Hyer, who had become a born-again Christian and last acted in a McCloud TV movie in 1974, settled in Santa Fe.

TOM VALLANCE

Martha Hyer, actress: born Fort Worth, Texas 10 August 1924; married 1951 C Ray Stahl (divorced 1954), 1966 Hal B Wallis (died 1986); died Santa Fe, New Mexico 31 May 2014.

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