It’s a shame that Agnes Moorehead is best remembered – or maybe only remembered by most – for her flamboyant portrayal of Endora on the hackneyed TV program Bewitched. It’s a testament to her talent that, somehow, she sparkled on that small screen debacle despite the wooden dialogue, groan-worthy and lusterless jokes, and paint-by-the-numbers sitcom plots. Kids who grew up watching Moorehead’s Endora in reruns (like myself) often don’t realize that she had a long and distinguished career as a supporting actor in movies, television, and radio.
Moorehead tried to make a break into Hollywood early in her career, but casting agents took one look at her unconventional, almost vulpine features and passed, opting to continue looking for the next Miriam Hopkins or Jean Harlow. It wasn’t until she hooked up with Orson Welles, whose greatest talent may have been identifying talent in unlikely places and knowing how to exploit that talent to fulfill his artistic vision, that she found her entrée into Hollywood. Following Welles from the Mercury Theater for Citizen Kane, she found a new success in film. Welles understood the depth of her talent and knew how to turn what others called physical disadvantages into advantages. She appeared in several of Welles’ early films and went on to become a fixture in Hollywood, appearing in dozens of features.
After her first role as Charles Foster Kane’s stoic mother, Welles cast her as Aunt Fanny in his ill-fated second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a chronicle of a turn-of-the-century aristocratic family of the Midwest who struggle to adapt to an industrial modern world. Ambersons was another Hollywood horror story for Welles. Annoyed with the long run time and downbeat ending, RKO executives authorized an edit that clopped off close to an hour and added a re-shot ending. What we have left is a bare remnant of what was probably a masterful film, possibly the best American movie ever made.
In the movie, Fanny is the spinster aunt of the Amberson family, at once content with her social position as a member of the family, yet bitter over her unmarried status. She is especially stung by the unreciprocated affections of local industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), who has instead nursed a love for her married sister-in-law (Dolores Costello).
Moorehead exhibits remarkable emotional range, some of which are hauntingly unforgettable – from a giggly coquette to a scheming woman scorned to a broken woman resigned to a new life of poverty. Her hysterical breakdown at the end of the movie is her most famous scene of the movie and, since the Academy eats up stuff like this, probably got her an Oscar nomination. But pay attention to her work in more restrained scenes, like when she serves her spoiled nephew George an impromptu meal in the kitchen. While she tries to casually pump George for information about Eugene, her motherly instincts kick in and she gently chides him for gobbling down his food too fast. The way she delivers her lines feels remarkably natural, especially for the sometimes stiff, formal acting style popular in Hollywood at the time. In this particular scene we feel like we’re actually watching a meal that Welles secretly filmed.
It’s scenes like these, along with the emotionally crushing (and flashier) scenes, that make Agnes Moorehead my choice for the best supporting actress of 1942. And if you don’t believe me, check out Moorehead’s most famous scene here . Tragically, Welles apparently claimed that Moorehead’s best scene ended up on the cutting room floor during RKO’s mutilation of the movie. Damn you RKO…