IMDb tidbit- Agnes’ death from cancer is often linked to other actors and crew members who worked on The Conqueror (1956). Including Susan Hayward, John Wayne and director Dick Powell, to name a few. The conspiracy theory behind the strong beliefs are that they were exposed while on location at the site which received heavy fallout from nuclear testing at the (then) Nevada Proving Grounds.
Fiercely private. Considered not beautiful because of her ‘hawk-like’ face. I would boldly beg to disagree. Agnes Moorehead has a beauty that transcends the quaint and lovely upturned nose. She has a regal beauty as if royalty runs in her veins, with a sage otherworldliness and a voice like a chameleon that can change its tone and tenor to fit her myriad characterizations. I wish she and hope she knew that although she was THE consummate character actress for the ages, she too was as beautiful as any other leading star with a deep & fiery magnetism that draws you in ~
Agnes had that spark in her since she was a very little Agnes, embodying, manifesting & emoting like the characters from the books she read and from the theater. Her adoring father or mother would find her re-enacting scenes in her room!
Here’s a beautifully written snapshot of Agnes Moorehead by The Red List– data base by Romuald Leblond & Jessica Vaillat
“Wanting to become a comedian from a young age – her mother had become accustomed to discovering her daughter in her imaginary world and often asked her: ‘Who are you today, Agnes?’ – Agnes Moorehead appeared regularly on Broadway stages during the late 1920s. She rapidly became a celebrated radio actress and joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air from 1940. In 1941, Orson Welles offered the ‘Fabulous Redhead’ her first film role in Citizen Kane as the cruel and bitter mother of the lead role. The part soon shaped the other roles Agnes Moorehead would be offered while they privileged heartless authoritarian or neurotic women such as the menacing aunt of Johnny Belinda, in 1948. In 1943, on the radio, the American comedian delivered one of her most legendary performances in Sorry, Wrong Number for which she created an exhausting and dynamic presentation – ‘radiant and terrifying’. In 1964, she was cast as Samantha Steven’s sarcastic and buoyant mother, in Bewitched and, although she disliked the rapid pace of television series, the show helped install the actress in the pantheon of American pop culture icons. Quite an irony for a woman who didn’t ‘particularly want to be identified as a witch.”
Agnes Moorehead went on from her imaginative childhood musings to play some of the most colorful characters on stage, radio, film, and television- perhaps her persona had been ‘shaped by Citizen Kane’ but Agnes obviously had a range of emotions and archetypes she could readily tap into as she is a natural, authentic artist… making her a cultural icon recognized by so many people & an even a new generation of avid fans!
Agnes -[commenting on the “Method” school of acting] “The Method school thinks the emotion is the art. It isn’t. All emotion isn’t sublime. The theater isn’t reality. If you want reality, go to the morgue. The theater is human behavior that is effective and interesting.” –from Charles Tranberg’s book I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead
Tranberg’s book is a wonderful read, he discusses from the beginning, the wealth of material he found at the historical society at the University of Wisconsin’s Historical Society. It is a marvelous place with marble floors worn down by years and the warm & musty smell of bygone years, the building holds the archives of so many historical documents and films. For Agnes Moorehead, 159 boxes of material to be precise. He was not just a fan of Endora but her performances on old-time radio in which she really shined. His book hints that her fire and brimstone Rev. John Moorehead with his sermons had a bit of the frustrated actor in the man, and why Aggie felt drawn to theater in the first place. He also read Shakespeare to the children. Her mother Molly was the boisterous outgoing flamboyant one who lived to be 106 and died in 1990… always saying what was on her mind, unless it was a strictly personal subject… sound familiar?
He also writes about Agnes’ spirituality and religious devoutness. That is ‘wasn’t a gimmick or publicity stunt’ she really was a devoted Christian. It might cause heads to tilt, how such a fundamentalist woman would pick a career where she would be surrounded by creative types, often gay people that would become her friends. And though she was not thrilled with the idea of playing a witch, she certainly conjured the most iconic embodiment of the vexing & colorful Endora.
“Lavender is just pink trying to be purple” she paraphrased Proust… by Quint Benedetti from his book- (My Travels with) Agnes Moorehead: The Lavender Lady: (more BEWITCHING than Endora)– he goes onto to say, “And now I can see all the hues of her personality in that statement: the royalty, the naivete, the selfhishness, the piercing intuition and sometimes the astonishing lack of it (her two marriages), the phoniness and the irrepressible humanity it contained, the coldness and the longing to be warm and sometimes the warmth, the insecurity and the yearning to be loved, the human simplicity touching greatness. Agnes Moorehead in a way did what so many actor and actresses never did. She left her mark on society both as an actress and as a person.” Benedetti knew Agnes Moorehead for ten years and was her personal assistant for five of those years.
In her long & unforgettable career – Agnes Moorehead’s film debut as Charles Foster Kane’s picture of stoic motherhood, the bitter and icy cold Mary Kane.
She went on to play the emotionally tortured Aunt Fanny in what Charles Transberg rightly refers to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as ‘a mangled masterpiece’ I would give anything to see the footage that RKO hacked to pieces… and the ending that should have been, where Fanny is playing cards in the boarding house with the other old maids. The more nihilistic coda that RKO feared would turn the public off in the midst of WWII.
Agnes Moorehead as the heartless & cruel Mrs. Reed who sends young Jane away to Thornfield in Jane Eyre-aside from mothers, aunts spinsters & old maids, Moorehead performs her first evil character! in director Robert Stevenson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre (1943).
Stage: Agnes began touring in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (1951) & revival 1973, Gigi 1973 co-starring with Alfred Drake.
Selected Radio:– Mercury Theater founded with Orson Welles- Mysteries in Paris, The Gumps, The New Penny, The March of Time (1967-38), The Shadow (1937-39), The Mercury Theater of the Air (ensemble) The Campbell Playhouse, The Cavalcade of America (1938-41), Mayor of the Town
(1942-49), Suspense (1942-1960.) And of course, in 1945 she played the women-in-peril-(in bed) Mrs. Stevenson in the CBS radio mystery program Suspense- Sorry, Wrong Number, which became “radio’s most famous play.”
According to Charles Tranberg, Agnes was offered a supportive role in the film version starring Barbara Stanwyck, saying that she wisely turned it down, coming to understand that she would always be considered a ‘character actress’ and not a leading lady. This would influence her decision to focus more on the stage, beginning with her affiliation with the acclaimed Don Juan in Hell and later her very popular one-woman show.
On December 10, 2008 Celebrating Moorehead’s 108th anniversary on Turner Classic Movies- Moira Finnie writing for Movie Morlocks published a wonderful interview with Tranberg when asked if Agnes enjoyed both the mediums of radio and stage, he answered “I think she liked the challenges offered by all he mediums she worked on. The stage because it’s proximity in front of an audience. Radio because she had to create a complex characterization without being seen and could use her voice in many different ways. Film because it offered her the opportunity to visualize a characterization. Television because of its intimacy.”
Moira Finnie’s piece is wonderfully insightful and witty. While watching David O Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1945) “It struck me for the hundredth time that the presence of Agnes Moorehead in many classic and not so classic films was often what gave a movie a spine.”
“She proved her versatility throughout her career. She arranged her aquiline features accordingly to convey a believable briskness, sometimes comforting, sometimes disapproving. She most often appeared as a pragmatic presence in many films that have etched themselves on our collective memory.”
Moira Finnie aptly says it perfectly, honing in on the essence of what truly makes Agnes Moorehead such a powerful performer, “The actress could shift her characterizations easily from vinegary disapproval to warmly compassionate to richly detailed portraits of good and evil women.”
Selected Films– Citizen Kane 1941 (Mary Kane), The Magnificent Ambersons 1942 (Fanny), The Big Street 1942 (Violet Shumberg), Journey into Fear 1943 (Mrs. Mathews), Jane Eyre 1944 (Mrs.Reed), Since You Went Away 1944 (Mrs. Emily Hawkins), Dragon Seed 1944 (Third Cousin’s Wife), The Seventh Cross 1944 (Mme. Morelli), Mrs Parkington 1944 (Baroness Aspasia Conti), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes 1945 (Bruna Jacobson) Dark Passage 1947 (Madge Rapf) The Lost Moment 1947 (Juliana Borderau), Summer Holiday 1948 (Cousin Lily), The Woman in White 1948 (Countess Fosco), Johnny Belinda 1948 (Aggie MacDonald-nominated best supporting actress) The Great Sinner 1949 (Emma Getzel), Caged 1950 (Ruth Benton progressive Prison Warden), Captain Blackjack 1950 (Mrs. Emily Birk), Fourteen Hours 1951 (Christine Hill Cosick) , Showboat 1951 (Parthy Hawks), Magnificent Obsession 1954 (Nancy Ashford), All That Heaven Allows 1955 (Sara Warren), The Left Hand of God 1955 (Beryl Sigman), The Revolt of Mamie Stover 1956 (Bertha Parchman), Jeanne Eagels 1957 (Nellie Neilson), Raintree County 1957 (Ellen Shawnessy), The Story of Mankind 1957 (Queen Elizabeth I), Night of the Quarter Moon 1959 (Cornelia Nelson), The Bat 1959 (Cornelia van Gorder) Pollyanna 1960 (Mrs. Snow), Twenty Plus Two 1961 (Mrs. Eleanor Delaney) How the West Was Won 1962-(Rebecca Prescott), Who’s Minding the Store? 1963 (Mrs. Phoebe Tuttle), The Singing Nun 1966 (Sister Cluny)
Nominated four times for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948), and of course as Velma in director Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
It is the vitriolic, cantankerous yet loyal & righteous companion Velma to Bette Davis’ tragic Southern Gothic has- been belle Charlotte that won my heart. Moorehead brought to life a raw and rugged plain quality of humanness that touched me so deeply, as did Davis’ incredible performance.
How impressed I was with her pantomime in The Invaders credited as ‘The Woman’ in Rod Serling’s sociological anthology fantasy series Twilight Zone… Moorehead had no dialogue in the episode yet she demonstrated so much art and emotion from her ‘primal woman’s body language.
She did win a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress -Laurel Award 2nd place for Top Supporting Performance for Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964.
For many people, she will be remembered as Endora, Samantha, and Darrin Steven’s (the fabulous Dick York) caustic ill-provoking mother-in-law from the netherworld. who hands down the legacy of being Bewitched… from 1964-1972. Initially, Moorehead had turned down the role of Endora, and it wasn’t until Elizabeth Montgomery herself asked the actress to join the cast, never expecting it to last more than one season!
Moorehead did her string of horror films in the 70s that featured many fine actresses who had played fine ladies in their day, only to find Grand Dame Guignol roles waiting for them on the other side of fabulous fame…
What’s The Matter With Helen 1971 Curtis Harrington’s wonderful horror of personality psycho-drama where Aggie plays an Aimee Semple McPherson-type character called Sister Alma co-starring with friend Debbie Reynolds and the incomparable Shelley Winters!
And then there’s always the campy & gruesome Dear Dead Delilah 1972 she plays Delilah Charles, and appeared in Night of Terror 1972 a tv movie of the week… & Frankenstein: The True Story 1973.
Some very special clips of the immortal Aggie!
The much talked about ‘boiler scene’ Agnes as Aunt Fanny from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Mary Kane the picture of stoic motherhood in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)
Agnes as Baroness Conti in Mrs. Parkington (1944)
Agnes as Aggie MacDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948)
Agnes as Warden Bond with poor Eleanor Parker in prison noir classic Caged (1950)
Agnes as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder in The Bat (1959)
Agnes as Madame Bertha Parchman in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
Agnes as Mme. Morelli in The Seventh Cross (1944)
Agnes as the indomitable Velma Cruthers in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Agnes as The Primal ‘Woman’ in a short clip -The Invaders ep. of The Twilight Zone 1961
Agnes as the vexing but always colorful Endora in television’s popular series Bewitched
13 thoughts on “What a Character! Blogathon 2015: Agnes Moorehead- The Lavender Lady”
OH my, I loved this post! Agnes Moorehead was one hell of a classy woman. She was a favorite in my family and my parents ( and grandparents ) passed that love down to me and my sister. Whenever I see an article on her I always feel as though someone is writing about one of my own family members. Marvelous post – and you’re quite right, she was hardly an ugly woman. I thought she looked particularly beautiful as she got older ( especially in The Bat ). Agnes and her husband owned a 320 acre farm in Cambridge Ohio in the late 1940s where she grew alfalfa and raised pigs. She must have liked Ohio because she was buried in Dayton. Debbie Reynolds wrote an interesting piece in her autobiography about how Agnes’ lawyer attempted to steal her fortune after her death. How sad.
DEAR DEAD DELILAH has long been a late night favorite, and the lengthy exposition served the excellent cast quite well, the gruesome second half satisfying any devoted gorehound. Agnes Moorehead plays an invalid with the same kind of accent she used in HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, anchoring the film with sly and marvelous precision. What struck me most about her in this film, just two years before her untimely death, was how beautiful she looked, something of a miracle considering the low budget production. My endearment for this film is contained in my IMDB review for it, sadly neglected in recent years and still lacking a proper DVD release. Director John Farris never helmed another feature, better known as an author, who also scripted the Nashville-lensed DELILAH, about the same time as the TV movie WHEN MICHAEL CALLS.
A most admirable career and actress, and you have paid her the ultimate tribute. Well done!
What a beauty! What’s not to love about Agnes Moorehead! She’s spectacular, as your photos show (love the slides!). Thanks for bringing her back into my attention. I had forgotten she started out in radio with Orsen Welles. I’m going to have to find some of those old radio shows and give them a listen on a cold November evening.
Amazingly informative post (as always!) about an actress I always knew existed but didn’t really know… if that makes sense. I think my favourite here is Caged, but there’s plenty I haven’t seen and need to! For me, her best turn was as Endora in Bewitched – I particularly liked the bouclé suits and the statement jewellery!
Lots of great info her, Jo, e.g. I didn’t know Agnes M. was a teacher in her younger years.
She was all the things you said she was – her talent, her flexible voice AND her beauty. She was utterly convincing in every role.
I first discovered her in re-runs of Bewitched as Endora. (She was my fave character.) Then, as I grew older, I gradually discovered her in classic film. What a treat she always is onscreen!
Just saw this post when looking up some info on Agnes, and yes indeed, she was quite the elegant beauty.