I’ve been watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his marvelous television show of suspenseful half-hour dramas that were on the air around 1960, the same year he released his masterpiece, Psycho, in movie theaters. I remember his press conference when the movie was scaring viewers nationwide. A female reporter asked, “Mr. Hitchcock, that shower scene was so horrific that I’ve not been able to take a shower ever since I viewed it. Do you have a suggestion for me?”
The droll British wit of Hitchcock was on full display when he thought for a moment and then answered drily : “Madam, have you considered dry-cleaning?”
Hitchcock’s reputation was so high at that time that he was able to cast top-name stars in these half-hour television shows. Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Vera Miles were just a few of the many famous actors who appeared. Most would never have considered working in a medium like television that had so little status back then. But they could not refuse The Master of Suspense.
One pleasure of mine is watching old movies or television series and then immediately after the show (or, dare I suggest, during it) googling these actors from the last century and learning about their entire lives from Wikipedia.
I do this now with every famous performer on Hitchcock’s television dramas. I find myself lingering a little too long over the biographical details of when and how the actor died. If the actor was truly a huge star with one enviable success after another, I am quite eager to find out exactly when he or she died. If they were younger than seventy-five when they passed, I find myself thinking “Oh, well, I’m not famous, but at least I’m already living longer than they did.”
I also find myself paying close attention to the final credits where all the cast members are listed. Of course, the main characters come up first in large letters, followed by the minor players who supported them. At first, I did this hoping I’d see a familiar name who was a bit player in 1960 but who went on to become a major star. Nope—I still haven’t found one of those.
I wondered if these minor actors, who are certainly unknown today, just might have a Wikipedia entry. Amazingly, many do. The bios are quite short but list even the most minor part they played in every film or television show in which they briefly appeared. Some even mention the roles they had in television pilots that were never picked up by any TV station. Talk about padding your résumé. I felt sorry for them for never becoming a Joan Crawford or John Barrymore. One poor actor listed the part he played in The Greatest Show On Earth as “Clown #6.” Kind of sad, isn’t it?
But then I realized that I have absolutely no idea of the quality of these actors’ true lives if I just base my conclusion on their success (or lack thereof) in their profession. They were also mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings, husbands, wives, lovers, volunteers, dear friends, and on and on. And in any of those truly important roles, they just might have been superstars.
Yes, these minor actors never became a Joan Crawford or a John Barrymore, but, let’s face it, according to Mommy Dearest (written by her daughter), Ms. Crawford would never have won an award for Mother Of One Moment, let alone Mother Of The Year, and poor John Barrymore was an alcoholic from the age of sixteen through his stuporous death at age fifty-nine.
It goes without saying (except I’m still gonna say it) that, from the day we are born, each of us is the only one who gets Top Billing in our own lives, and we then go on to play lesser roles in the lives of everyone we shall ever know, from our strong supporting roles with our immediate family members all the way down to our bit parts in the lives of people we barely know. But just playing our one character from birth until death is so much more challenging than any movie or TV role; none of us can ever be worthy of winning an academy award for best lead actor or actress.
Many actors, striving for modesty, state that they do not care about ever winning an Oscar; they claim that their only wish is to garner love and respect from their peers. Well, maybe. But in real life, that IS our ultimate Oscar: living a life that others deem worthy of their love and respect.
To end on a lighter note, let me remind you that the Academy Awards began to be called “Oscars” when Bette Davis, winning her first, took a long look at the naked statuette’s backside and declared it was identical to her ex husband Oscar’s. How delightful that the whole pomposity of that annual Hollywood pageant was deflated by her irreverence. I’ve always found self-importance to be very annoying.
Except, of course, when it’s mine.
Elliot writes: For the record, Joan won only one Oscar, Bette won two, and Katherine Hepburn four — the most any actor has won. But the person who has carried off the most academy awards? It’s Walt Disney— with a mind-boggling twenty-two!