OBITUARY : Jo Van Fleet

Jo Van Fleet was a powerful actress, described by Elia Kazan as "full of unconstrained violence", who frequently played roles older than herself. She won an Oscar for her first film role, as James Dean's mother in East of Eden (1955). On both stage and screen she created a gallery of stoic, fiercely dominant women, many of them proud or manipulative mothers.

Born in 1919 in Oakland, California, she was educated at the College of the Pacific in Stockton. Encouraged to go to New York to pursue an acting career, she won a scholarship to study at the Neighbourhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner. She made her Broadway debut as Dorcas in A Winter's Tale (1946) and played Regan to Louis Calhern's King Lear in 1950. Elia Kazan, whom she later credited as a major influence on her life, first directed her in Flight into Egypt (1952), but it was her role as Camille in Tennessee Williams's controversial Camino Real (1953), also directed by Kazan, that established her.

Kazan brought her to Hollywood for East of Eden, and her success led to other films - The Rose Tattoo (1955), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), as an arche- typal stage mother pushing daughter Lillian Roth (Susan Hayward) to stardom, The King and Four Queens (1956) with Clark Gable, and as Doc Holliday's girlfriend Kate in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Holliday was played by Kirk Douglas, who later recounted his amazement at Van Fleet's method approach: "In one scene I had to beat up my hooker girlfriend - Jo wanted to be pumped up and asked me to slap her before we did the scene. We did it over and over and every time she asked me to hit her, and hit her harder."

Returning to Broadway, she won both the Tony and Donaldson awards for her irritable Jessie Mae Watts in A Trip to Bountiful (1957), and the following year won the New York Drama Critics Award for Look Homeward, Angel, in which she played the acquisitive mother of Tony Perkins, who later described the scene-stealing battles in the play. "The worst duel I figured in was between Jo Van Fleet and Hugh Griffith . . . it was always hair-tearing time between them. Hugh would clutch his heart and say, `Do you know what that **** did to me today?' Her knuckles would turn white when she'd say the same thing about him."

She returned to the screen to star with Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick in Kazan's Wild River (1960) as the obdurate 89-year-old matriarch who refuses to leave her farm in a valley about to be flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1935. Only 41, Van Fleet would spend five hours every morning getting into her make-up and applying wrinkles, insisting that the liver spots were put on her hands even for long shots where they would not be seen. The final wordless scene, in which she sits on the porch of the small townhouse she has been given, her bundled possessions still in her lap, her spirit and will to live gone, was profoundly moving. A commercial failure given limited distribution, the film was later described by Truffaut as "the accomplished work of mature artists".

Though she continued to act in theatre, films and television (including episodes of Bonanza and - as a nagging wife who becomes a murder victim - in Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Van Fleet's career did not progress as rewardingly as she hoped. Kazan said: "Jo stagnated, and, since she knew it, was bitter. And as she became bitter, she become more difficult."

When Bette Davis turned down the role of Paul Newman's mother in Cool Hand Luke (1967) because it was too small, Van Fleet took the role. In the 1970s she worked a lot in regional theatre. She played mothers again in two television movies, The Family Rico (1972, mother to Ben Gazarra) and Power (1980), a thinly disguised biography of Jimmy Hoffa in which she was mother to Jo Don Baker's dock-worker turned labour leader. Her last film was Seize the Day (1986), based on Saul Bellow's novella, in which she was one of several notable actors playing small guest roles in support of Robin Williams.

Widowed in 1990 (her husband was the dancer-choreographer William Bales), Van Fleet lived on New York's West Side, where she became known for her unconventional behaviour. Legend has it that when asked by the check-out assistant in the local supermarket for some form of identification, she unzipped her handbag and pulled out her Oscar.

Tom Vallance

Jo Van Fleet, actress: born Oakland, California 30 December 1919; married William Bales (died 1990; one son); died 10 June 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lift Repairs Sales Account Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

£21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

Ashdown Group: Assistant Management Accountant - Part Qualified CIMA / ACCA

£30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are recruitment for an Assistan...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea