Obituary: Ruth Nelson
Tuesday 22 September 1992
LAST WEEK on television you could have watched one of the few wartime movies which attempted to confront Nazism. Its many contemporaries handled patriotism, battles and the 'Resistance' with varying degrees of incompetence, but None Shall Escape (1943) was rare in that it tried to explain the formation of the Nazi mind. As the protagonist, a usually estimable actor, Alexander Knox, was wooden; as one of his victims, exploited and destroyed by him, the top-billed Marsha Hunt was even worse. It was left to the small-part players to pick up the pieces. One of these was Ruth Nelson, a conscientious and caring actress, playing the wife of Knox's anti-Nazi brother.
Nelson was not really a star in the theatre either, although she was associated with the influential Group Theatre from its inception in 1931 till it disbanded in 1941. Her most important role with the Group was as the chief striker's wife in Clifford Odets's play Waiting for Lefty, whose cast included such stalwarts as Robert Lewis and Elia Kazan. To all of them Hollywood was anathema, but the studios were offering good money for the Group's plays - Odets's Golden Boy was filmed in 1939, and Irwin Shaw's The Gentle People, as Out of the Fog, with John Garfield (who had gone out under contract to Warner Bros), in 1941.
As the Group players reassembled in Hollywood, most of them chose to appear in worthwhile subjects. Nelson's first movie role was in Sam Goldwyn's paean of praise to Russian peasants, The North Star (1943). She was engaged by 20th Century-Fox to play the farmer's wife in The Eve of St Mark (1944), mother to a son drafted just before Pearl Harbor, and she remained to play President Woodrow Wilson's first wife in Wilson. In 1945 Kazan arrived at Fox to make A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and he cast Nelson as Dorothy McGuire's sister. He directed her again two years later at MGM in The Sea of Grass, with Hepburn and Tracy, and in the meantime she had played Garfield's mother in Humoresque, with Joan Crawford.
Neither this particular film nor some others Nelson made show an exact seriousness, but in 1946 she married the director John Cromwell, responsible for some of Hollywood's finest entertainments of the 1930s, including Of Human Bondage and The Prisoner of Zenda. It was her second marriage and his fourth, and was to endure happily till Cromwell's death in 1979. As one of the founders of the Screen Directors Guild, he became suspect in the Red witch hunt which began in 1947, but continued to work in Hollywood till 1951. He and Nelson returned to New York, where they resumed their careers as stage actors. Cromwell returned to Hollywood to direct The Goddess in 1957; but in 1963 they accepted an invitation from Tyrone Guthrie to join him in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although Guthrie was chiefly interested in presenting the classics, this was for Nelson a return to basics - above all, Guthrie's company was smitten with idealism; it was, for instance, non-profit-making.
Both were too busy to give Hollywood more than a passing thought, till 1977, when they accepted Robert Altman's offer to play Sissy Spacek's parents in Three Women. The following year Altman cast them in A Wedding, Cromwell as a doddery old bishop and Nelson as a socialist aunt of the bride.
Ruth Nelson's last screen role was particularly difficult, as Robert De Niro's mother in Awakenings (1990), adjusting to his been returned to humanity after being a vegetable since childhood. It was a role a lesser actress might have showed off in: by playing in her understated way, she was immensely moving.
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