Nina Foch: Oscar-nominated actress with a long career in film and TV who later taught her trade with distinction
Thursday 18 December 2008
An actress who later became a distinguished drama teacher, Nina Foch will be remembered for her starring role in one of the finest B-movies of the Forties, My Name is Julia Ross, and supporting roles in such films as the biography of Chopin A Song to Remember, the Oscar-winning musical An American in Paris, and the big-business drama Executive Suite, for which she won an Oscar nomination.
Her elegant stature and Scandinavian looks gave her a sometimes icy demeanour, making her particularly effective in such roles as her edgy patron to Gene Kelly's artist in An American in Paris, and the mistress of a top business man in Executive Suite. Foch described many of her roles as: "Real tough broads... Poor me, I'm a nice lady, with children and a home, but I play castrating broads".
Born Nina Consuelo Maud Fock in Leyden, Netherlands, in 1924, she was the daughter of Dirk Fock, a renowned Dutch composer and conductor, and an American actress, Consuelo Flowerton, a famous beauty who had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her parents divorced when she was a baby and her mother took her to New York, where she studied music. After a brief spell as a concert pianist she trained at the American Institute of Dramatic Arts, and later at the Actors' Studio under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.
After appearing with several repertory groups, Foch (as she now called herself) made her screen début as a rancher's daughter in a two-reel Western made at Warner Brothers, Wagon Wheels West (1943), then was offered a contract by Columbia Pictures and given leading roles in several B-films including Return of the Vampire (1944) with Bela Lugosi and a neat murder mystery set in a sorority college, Nine Girls (1944). She received top billing as a gypsy with a hideous secret in Cry of the Werewolf (1944).
Foch was then cast in A Song to Remember (1945), an occasionally risible account of Chopin's life which was the studio's top film of 1945. Cornel Wilde played the composer, who neglects his former sweetheart (Foch) after the trouser-suited George Sand (Merle Oberon) woos him away, telling him: "You could make miracles of music in Majorca." Said Foch: "My father was a well-known orchestra conductor, and Paul Muni, who played Chopin's old teacher, was a good friend of my father's. He was a very serious man but when you look at his performance today he's doing very old-fashioned acting. We all are, really."
Foch than starred in one of her finest films, My Name is Julia Ross (1945), in which she is a penniless girl who unwittingly becomes part of a plot to cover up a murder when she is hired as private secretary to a dowager. "Most of us, except for the director Joseph H. Lewis, had worked together before and we knew that we had a better script than we were used to at Columbia. We broke our asses to make it a good film... I have very little memory of our director. I only remember that he took himself very seriously – even more so when the good reviews came out, hailing My Name is Julia Ross as a suspenseful 'sleeper'."
In 1947 Foch made her Broadway début with an acclaimed starring performance in the comedy John Loves Mary, by Norman Krasna. "In the beginning, the studio told me, 'You can act but you're not pretty'. Then I played on Broadway and became the toast of the town that year. Some of the critics said I was pretty and sexy, so I returned to Columbia with a new respect as an actress and got some leads in A-movies: The Dark Past (1948) with William Holden, Johnny Allegro (1949) with George Raft, and The Undercover Man (1949) with Glenn Ford. The only drawback was that now that my attractiveness had been validated by New York, I got chased around a few desks in Hollywood, including Harry Cohn's. I solved the problem by telling them that they reminded me of my father!"
In 1949 Foch returned to New York, where she acted in live television plays and gave a highly praised performance as Olivia in Twelfth Night (1949). Christopher Fry's verse-play A Phoenix Too Frequent (1950) lasted for only five performances, but it prompted MGM to test her for Vincente Minnelli's musical An American in Paris (1951), in which she was almost painfully convincing as the wealthy but repressed heiress ("My family is in oil – suntan oil") who promotes the work of little-known artist Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and is both hurt and angry at his callous treatment. Celeste Holm had initially been considered for the role.
Kelly recalled: "It was decided that Nina had just the right amount of savoir-faire, worldliness, sweetness and bitchiness. She was a damn good actress, besides... We wanted a lady who looked rich and spoiled, and a lady who got what she wanted when she wanted it. It wasn't a tough job deciding on Nina. I wish everything was that easy." Foch was later upset that her final big scene at the Beaux Arts Ball was cut "because it made her character too sympathetic".
Foch stayed at MGM to play Marie Antoinette in George Sidney's lively version of Scaramouche (1952), and was nominated for an Academy Award as supporting actress for her portrayal of a secretary who is suicidal after the death of her boss and lover in Robert Wise's Executive Suite (1954), though she almost rejected the role. "The reason I did it was because of the producer, John Houseman, one of my best friends and a strong influence on my career. Before he sent me that script he said, 'Say you'll do it, dear. Just trust me.' Then I saw the script – the part was so terribly small. We had a terrible fight, but he said, 'You mark my words, you will be very pleased you did this.' He knew that I would be so furious that I would go off and work on it to make it something really good."
The award was won by Eva Marie Saint, which did not please Foch: "She should not have been in the same category as me because she had a leading role in On the Waterfront. The rules have now been changed so a studio can't jump an actor over to supporting category in order to get a better shot at an award."
Foch later worked extensively in television, winning an Emmy nomination in 1980 for her role in an episode of Lou Grant, and after opening an acting studio in Hollywood she became a respected teacher and lecturer. For the last 40 years she taught at the School of the Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, and she was teaching her course, "Directing the Actor", the day before she died. Foch, who was married and divorced three times, described teaching as "the most successful thing I've done in my life".
Nina Consuelo Maud Fock (Nina Foch), actress and teacher: born Leyden, Netherlands 20 April 1924; married 1954 James Lipton (marriage dissolved 1959), 1959 Dennis Brite (one son; marriage dissolved 1963), 1967 Michael Dewell (marriage dissolved 1993); died Los Angeles 5 December 2008.
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