OBITUARY : Jo Van Fleet
Thursday 20 June 1996
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.
Jo Van Fleet, actress: born Oakland, California 30 December 1919; married William Bales (died 1990; one son); died 10 June 1996.
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