Eleanor Parker turned 90 yesterday. Her piece of screen immortality is her portrayal of the Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965), the movie in which her sophisticated charms lose out to Julie Andrews’ wholesome appeal: Julie wins the heart of Christopher Plummer. Parker is just about perfection in the role, but who ever even mentions her when this pop classic comes up? How odd to be most familiar for a movie that few people remember that you’re even in! And it came to Parker when she was just about done with Hollywood, or it was done with her, thanks to her committing the unforgivable sin of moving into her middle forties. There was some campy trash ahead—The Oscar and An American Dream, both from 1966—but, sadly, not much else.
Parker was a ravishingly beautiful redheaded leading lady at Warner Brothers in the 1940s, yet it wasn’t until the ’50s that she emerged as a star and an A-list actress. Among her 40s missteps include a stab at the Bette Davis role in Of Human Bondage (1946) and a forced attempt at recreating the onstage charms of Margaret Sullavan in The Voice of the Turtle (1947). But everything changed in 1950.
Before I continue, I must say that, for my money, Parker’s career-best performance came in MGM’s Scaramouche (1952), a film in which she gives a truly dazzling, wittily funny, and immensely stylish performance as a temperamental actress. If you think of Parker as a somewhat cold performer, well, check out Scaramouche and delight in her wondrous mix of sexuality, humor, and fire, the target of which is Stewart Granger.
But back to 1950 and the first of three films for which Parker received Oscar nominations. In Caged, now a camp classic and the women’s prison movie, Parker gets to make the enviably showy transition from sweet, fragile thing to hardened bad girl, which makes the movie a cautionary tale. Savoring her way out of her “cool beauty” image, Parker gives a solid performance in a surefire role. And the movie is reasonably straightforward, not quite as campy as its reputation, though you could still call it a mix of The Snake Pit and Stage Door. Parker secured her nomination with the scene in which her head is shaved.
She received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), a day in the life of a New York police precinct (from the Broadway hit). Far from being one of the great Wyler’s best, this stagy ensemble film is “hard-hitting” in a painfully dated, obvious, and high-strung manner. It’s a melodrama posing as realism. Kirk Douglas goes way over the top as the detective, becoming a caricature of his worst excesses, a ranting, jaw-clenching dynamo. Violent and abusive at the outset, he flips further when he learns that wife Parker has a past as an unwed mother. Sharing “big” scenes with Douglas that are fierce but poorly written, Parker is competent but not much else. What you’re left with is an unconvincing attempt at a Grand Hotel of police movies.
The most deserving of Parker’s Oscar nominations came for her work as real-life opera diva Marjorie Lawrence, an Australian soprano stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair at the height of her fame. Though essentially glossy and formulaic as musical biopics go, Interrupted Melody (1955) is compact, efficient, and boasts a superb musical program. (This was MGM’s answer to Fox’s 1952 With a Song in My Heart, another female-singer biopic featuring adversity and the fight to walk again.) Parker has a field day, impeccably mouthing all those arias voiced by Eileen Farrell on the soundtrack. She creates detailed characterizations for seven operatic heroines in the onstage sequences, a consistently radiant and commanding presence. She’s less impressive off the stage, more than capable, certainly, but less magnetic and fascinating than she is in the opera scenes. The love story with Glenn Ford feels like standard (and phony) Hollywood 101, with Ford looking ill at ease throughout. But overall it’s a commendable movie, sometimes exceptional, sometimes banal, with Parker enjoying her juicy opportunity, even if her transition from farmgirl to diva is more than a tad brisk.
FYI: Parker lost her Oscars to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday (1950), Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo (1955), three of the screen’s greatest female performances. For Parker, it truly was a case of it just being nice to be nominated.
So, give Eleanor Parker’s work a chance outside of Salzburg and Nazis and nuns, including her two Frank Sinatra pictures—The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and A Hole in the Head (1959)—plus Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill (1960). Between 1950 and 1960, Parker held her own as one of the movies’ more dependable, beautiful, and underestimated of screen actresses.