Joan Geraldine Bennett (February 27, 1910 – December 7, 1990) was an American stage, film and television actress. Besides acting on the stage, Bennett appeared in more than 70 motion pictures from the era of silent movies well into the sound era. She is possibly best-remembered for her film noir femme fatale roles in director Fritz Lang's movies such as The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945).
Bennett had three distinct phases to her long and successful career, first as a winsome blonde ingenue, then as a sensuous brunette femme fatale (with looks that movie magazines often compared to those of Hedy Lamarr), and finally as a warmhearted wife/mother figure.
In 1951, Bennett's screen career was marred by scandal after her third husband, film producer Walter Wanger, shot and injured her agent Jennings Lang. Wanger suspected that Lang and Bennett were having an affair, a charge which she adamantly denied.
In the 1960s, she achieved success for her portrayal of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on TV's Dark Shadows, for which she received an Emmy nomination (1968). For her final movie role, as Madame Blanc in Suspiria (1977), she received a Saturn Award nomination. In her 'New York Times' obituary she was said to be "...one of the most underrated actresses of her time".
She was born in the Palisades section of Fort Lee, New Jersey, the third of three daughters of actor Richard Bennett and actress/literary agent Adrienne Morrison. Her older sisters were actressConstance Bennett and actress/dancer Barbara Bennett, who was the mother of Morton Downey, Jr.
Part of a famous theatrical family, Bennett's maternal grandfather was Jamaica-born Shakespearean actor Lewis Morrison, who embarked on a stage career in the late 1860s. He was of English, Spanish, Jewish, and African ancestry. On the side of her maternal grandmother, actress Rose Wood, the profession dated back to traveling minstrels in 18th century England.
Bennett first appeared in a silent movie as a child with her parents and sisters in her father's drama The Valley of Decision (1916), which he adapted for the screen. She attended Miss Hopkins School for Girls in Manhattan, then St. Margaret's, a boarding school in Waterbury, Connecticut, and L'Hermitage, a finishing school in Versailles, France.
On September 15, 1926, she and John M. Fox were married in London. They were divorced on July 30, 1928 in Los Angeles. They had one child, Adrienne Ralston Fox (born February 20, 1928, later named Diana Bennett Markey, then Diana Bennett Wanger)
from the trailer for Disraeli
Bennett's stage debut was at age 18, acting with her father in Jarnegan (1928), which ran on Broadway for 136 performances and for which she received good reviews. By age 19, she had become a movie star through such roles as Phyllis Benton in the mystery/thriller talkie Bulldog Drummond starringRonald Colman, which was her first important role, and Lady Clarissa Pevensey opposite George Arliss in the biopic Disraeli (both 1929).
She moved quickly from movie to movie throughout the 1930s. Bennett appeared as a blonde (her natural hair color) for several years. She starred in the role of Dolores Fenton in the United Artists musical Puttin' on the Ritz (1930) opposite Harry Richman and as Faith Mapple, his beloved, opposite John Barrymore in an early sound version of Moby Dick (1930) at Warner Brothers Studios.
Under contract to Fox Film Corporation, she appeared in several movies. Receiving top billing, she played the role of Jane Miller opposite Spencer Tracy inShe Wanted a Millionaire (1932). She was billed second, after Tracy, for her role as Helen Riley, a personable waitress who trades wisecracks, in Me and My Gal (1932).
from the trailer for Little Women
On March 16, 1932, she married screenwriter/film producer Gene Markey in Los Angeles, but the couple divorced in Los Angeles on June 3, 1937.They had one child, Melinda Markey (born February 27, 1934).
Bennett left Fox to play Amy, a pert sister competing with Katharine Hepburn's Jo in Little Women (1933), which was directed by George Cukor for RKO. This movie brought Bennett to the attention of independent film producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a contract and began managing her career. She played the role of Sally MacGregor, a psychiatrist's young wife slipping into insanity, in Private Worlds (1935) with Joel McCrea. Wanger and director Tay Garnett persuaded Bennett to change her hair from blonde to brunette as part of the plot for her role as Kay Kerrigan in the scenic Trade Winds (1938) opposite Fredric March.
from the trailer for The Woman in the Window
With her change in appearance, Bennett began an entirely new screen career as her persona evolved into that of a glamorous, seductive femme fatale. She played the role of Princess Maria Theresa in The Man in the Iron Mask(1939) opposite Louis Hayward, and the role of the Grand Duchess Zona of Lichtenburg in The Son of Monte Cristo(1940) opposite Hayward.
During the search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Bennett was given a screen test and impressed producer David O. Selznickto such an extent, she was one of the final four actresses along with Jean Arthur, Vivien Leigh and Paulette Goddard. Selznick eventually cast Vivien Leighin the coveted role.
On January 12, 1940, Bennett and Walter Wanger were married in Phoenix. They were divorced in September 1965 in Mexico. They had two children together, Stephanie Wanger (born June 26, 1943) and Shelley Wanger (born July 4, 1948). The following year on March 13, 1949, she became a grandmother at age 39, similar to her co-star Elizabeth Taylor who became a grandmother at the same age (she and Taylor also shared a February 27 birthday, and each gave birth to one of their children on their birthdays).
Combined with her sultry eyes and husky voice, Bennett's new brunette look gave her an earthier, more arresting persona. She won praise for her performances as Brenda Bentley in the crime/drama The House Across the Bay (1940), also featuring George Raft, and as Carol Hoffman in the anti-Nazidrama The Man I Married, a film in which Francis Lederer also starred.
She then appeared in a sequence of highly regarded film noir thrillers directed by Fritz Lang, with whom she and Wanger formed their own production company. Bennett appeared in four movies under Lang's direction, including as Cockney prostitute Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt (1941) opposite Walter Pidgeon, as mysterious model Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window (1944) withEdward G. Robinson, and as vulgar blackmailer Katharine "Kitty" March in Scarlet Street (1945), another film with Robinson.
Bennett was the shrewish, cuckolding wife, Margaret Macomber, in Zoltan Korda's The Macomber Affair (1947) opposite Gregory Peck, as the deceitful wife, Peggy, in Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (also 1947) opposite Robert Ryan and Charles Bickford, and as the tormented blackmail victim Lucia Harper in Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment (1949) opposite James Mason. Then, easily shifting images again, she changed her screen persona to that of an elegant, witty and nurturing wife and mother in two classic comedies directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Playing the role of Ellie Banks, wife of Spencer Tracy and mother of Elizabeth Taylor, Bennett appeared in both Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).
She made a number of radio appearances from the 1930s to the 1950s, performing on such programs as The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, Duffy's Tavern, and the anthology seriesLux Radio Theater.
With the increasing popularity of television, Bennett made five guest appearances in 1951, including an episode of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's Your Show of Shows.
from the trailer for Father's Little Dividend
For twelve years, Bennett was represented by agent Jennings Lang. She and the onetime vice-president of the Sam Jaffe Agency, who now headed MCA'sWest Coast television operations, met on the afternoon of December 13, 1951, to talk over an upcoming TV show.
Bennett parked her Cadillac convertible in the lot at the back of the MCA offices, at Santa Monica Boulevard and Rexford Drive, across the street from theBeverly Hills Police Department, and she and Lang drove off in his car. Meanwhile, her husband Walter Wanger drove by at about 2:30 p.m. and noticed his wife's car parked there. Half an hour later, he again saw her car there and stopped to wait. Bennett and Lang drove into the parking lot a few hours later and he walked her to her convertible. As she started the engine, turned on the headlights and prepared to drive away, Lang leaned on the car, with both hands raised to his shoulders, and talked to her.
In a fit of jealousy, Wanger walked up and twice shot and wounded the unsuspecting agent. One bullet hit Jennings in the right thigh, near the hip, and the other penetrated his groin. Bennett said she did not see Wanger at first. She said she suddenly saw two livid flashes, then Lang slumped to the ground. As soon as she recognized who had fired the shots, she told Wanger, "Get away and leave us alone." He tossed the pistol into his wife's car.
She and the parking lot's service station manager took Lang to the agent's doctor. He was then taken to a hospital, where he recovered. The police, who had heard the shots, came to the scene and found the gun in Bennett's car when they took Wanger into custody. Wanger was booked and fingerprinted, and underwent lengthy questioning.
"I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger told the chief of police of Beverly Hills. He was booked on suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder. Bennett denied a romance, however. "But if Walter thinks the relationships between Mr. Lang and myself are romantic or anything but strictly business, he is wrong," she declared. She blamed the trouble on financial setbacks involving film productions Wanger was involved with, and said he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The following day Wanger, out on bond, returned to their Holmby Hills home, collected his belongings and moved. Bennett, however, said there would not be a divorce.
On December 14, Bennett issued a statement in which she said she hoped her husband "will not be blamed too much" for wounding her agent. She read the prepared statement in the bedroom of her home to a group of newspapermen while TV cameras recorded the scene.
Wanger's attorney, Jerry Giesler, mounted a "temporary insanity" defense. He then decided to waive his rights to a jury and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Wanger served a four-month sentence in the County Honor Farm at Castaic, 39 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, quickly returning to his career to make a series of successful films.
Meanwhile, Bennett went to Chicago to appear on the stage in the role as the young witch Gillian Holroyd in Bell, Book, and Candle, then went on national tour with the production.
Bennett made only five movies in the decade that followed, as the shooting incident was a stain on her career and she became virtually blacklisted. Blaming the scandal that occurred for destroying her career in the motion picture industry, she once said, "I might as well have pulled the trigger myself." Although Humphrey Bogart, a longtime friend of Bennett's, pleaded with the studio on her behalf to keep her role as Amelie Ducotel in We're No Angels (1955), that movie proved to be one of her last.
As the movie offers dwindled after the scandal, Bennett continued touring in stage successes, such as Susan and God, Once More, with Feeling, The Pleasure of His Company and Never Too Late. Her next TV appearance was in the role as Bettina Blane for an episode of General Electric Theater in 1954. Other roles include Honora in Climax! (1955) and Vickie Maxwell in Playhouse 90 (1957). In 1958, she appeared as the mother in the short-lived television comedy/drama Too Young to Go Steady to teenagers played by Brigid Bazlen and Martin Huston.
She starred on Broadway in the comedy Love Me Little (1958), which ran for only eight performances.
Despite the shooting scandal and the damage it caused Bennett's career, she and Wanger remained married until 1965. She continued to work steadily on the stage and in television, including her guest role as Denise Mitchell in an episode of TV's Burke's Law (1965).
Bennett received star billing on the gothic daytime television soap opera Dark Shadows, which attracted a major cult TV following, for its entire five year run, 1966 to 1971, receiving an Emmy Award nomination in 1968 for her performance as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, mistress of the haunted Collinwood Mansion. Her other roles on Dark Shadows were Naomi Collins, Judith Collins Trask, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard PT, Flora Collins, and Flora Collins PT. In 1970, she appeared as Elizabeth in House of Dark Shadows, the feature film adaptation of the series. She declined to appear in the sequel Night of Dark Shadows however, and her character Elizabeth was mentioned as being recently deceased.
Her autobiography, The Bennett Playbill, written with Lois Kibbee, was published in 1970.
Other TV guest appearances include Bennett's roles as Joan Darlene Delaney in an episode of The Governor & J.J. (1970) and as Edith in an episode ofLove, American Style (1971). She starred in five made-for-TV movies between 1972 and 1982.
Bennett also appeared in one more feature film, as Madame Blanc in Italian director Dario Argento's horror thriller Suspiria (1977), for which she received a 1978 Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
On February 14, 1978, she and retired publisher/movie critic David Wilde were married in White Plains, New York. Their marriage lasted until her death.
Celebrated for not taking herself too seriously, Bennett said in a 1986 interview, "I don't think much of most of the films I made, but being a movie star was something I liked very much."
Star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame
at 6300 Hollywood Blvd.
Bennett died at age 80 from a heart attack at her home in Scarsdale, New York. She is interred in Pleasant View Cemetery, Lyme, Connecticut,with her parents.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work in Motion Pictures, at 6310 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood.