A Life in Focus: Betsy Blair, Oscar-nominated actor who stayed true to left-wing ideals

The Independent revisits the life of a notable figure. This week: Betsy Blair, American actor, from Wednesday 25 March 2009

Michael Carlson
Friday 15 March 2019 15:33
The American actress married British filmmaker Karel Reisz in London in 1963
The American actress married British filmmaker Karel Reisz in London in 1963

Although circumstances conspired to deny her the recognition her talent as an actor deserved, Betsy Blair was never given to regret. As she said in her moving 2003 memoir, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris: “I don’t write in bitterness.” Having endured four years of blacklisting for her left-wing politics, she returned to the screen in Marty (1955), and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

She should have then conquered Hollywood, yet after another strong performance in the western The Halliday Brand (1957) she would not work there again for more than 30 years. “For all my ambitions, I think my life was more important to me,” she wrote; and her career would be peripatetic, with fine performances scattered among stages, television screens, and in movies made all over Europe. Her marriages, first to Gene Kelly and later, in Britain, to the director Karel Reisz, were a major part of her life.

She was born Elizabeth Winifred Boger in 1923 in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, to a teacher mother and an insurance broker father. As a child she modelled, tap-danced on the radio, and performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House; her father disapproved of the Roosevelts, but her mother was a staunch New Dealer. She graduated from high school at 15 and won a job dancing at a New York nightclub; the $35 a week she was paid convinced her father to let her take the job. The money was supposed to fund her college education, but when she showed up a day early for another audition, to become one of Billy Rose’s “long-stemmed beauties”, she was sent away by someone she took to be a charming busboy. The next day she discovered that the busboy was in fact Kelly, the show’s choreographer, and she was hired.

Blair rehearsing for ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan’ at London’s Savoy theatre in 1958

They were soon inseparable, despite her being 12 years his junior. Kelly and his circle provided her education, in the arts and left-wing politics. He became a star in Broadway’s Pal Joey, and she took the lead in William Saroyan’s The Beautiful People. They were married in 1941 and moved to Hollywood just as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. They had a daughter, Kerry, and when Kelly went into the navy she understudied the role of Laura in the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie.

After the War, Kelly’s film career blossomed at MGM, and Blair threw herself into family life, hosting the first of her many salons. She made her film debut in A Double Life (1947) and small roles followed, but by 1951 she got her part in Kind Lady only after appealing to Louis B Mayer, having been blacklisted for such political crimes as befriending Oona O’Neill Chaplin and meeting Paul Robeson at an airport. It was only Kelly’s status that protected him, and her, from more serious trouble.

With Meryl Streep in New York in 2003

She returned to theatre, and turned to Europe. In 1955 she played Bianca in Tony Richardson’s BBC TV version of Othello. The same year MGM was filming Marty, Paddy Chayefsky’s television play about a lonely butcher who falls in love. Chayefsky wanted Blair for the part of the shy girl Marty falls for – and thanks to him, and an intervention by Kelly, she got the part. Her performance won a Bafta and the film won the Palm D’Or at Cannes.

This obituary as it appeared on Wednesday 25 March 2009

But Blair felt the need to break free of Kelly, saying she couldn’t be “the idolised little girl any more”, and moved to Paris where she had fallen in love with the French actor Roger Pigaut. In short succession she starred in Georges Lampin’s Meeting in Paris, Juan Antonio Bardem’s Calle Mayor (both 1956), and Antonioni’s The Cry (1957). She worked in theatre in Paris and London and was exceptional as a woman going mad in the Italian film Senilita (1962). In England she made All Night Long (1962), and while in The Trial of Mary Dugan at the Savoy she was introduced to Reisz; a year later they were married.

Reisz had three sons, and Blair again embraced the role of mother. She retrained as a speech therapist, while taking occasional parts, including one in Tony Richardson’s exceptional film version of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973).

In the 1980s she was excellent in two thrillers, French Descent into Hell (1986) and Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed (1988), which marked her return to Hollywood. This led to TV work in America, including episodes of the TV series Thirtysomething. In 2002, she was signed to play the older version of Julianne Moore’s character in The Hours, but in the end Moore played it herself.

Reisz died in 2002, and Blair’s memoir, which ends with her marriage to him, was published the next year. Her flat in Belsize Park was a remarkable gathering place, and Blair remained a generous hostess, which I knew because when my flat became too small she provided a room for my wife to work on her book. She was down to earth and her optimism was invigorating. Her politics remained firmly left wing; the last time I spoke with her she was still euphoric over Barack Obama’s election. She died while convalescing from broken ribs; she was suffering a recurrence of the cancer she had previously battled successfully.

Elizabeth Winifred Boger (Betsy Blair), actor, born 11 December 1923, 13 March 2009

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