At this point in time, most of the Golden Age stars have passed on. Some died tragically young, like Marilyn Monroe, Veronica Lake, or Rita Hayworth, while others led relatively long lives and luckily some are still thriving, such as the iconic Lauren Bacall. This piece will be a dedication to one of the lesser known woman of the Golden Age: Audrey Totter.
Audrey Totter was born in Joliet, Illinois December 20th 1917. She began her career acting in radio productions and soon after signed a contract with one of the biggest studios of the era, MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). She had a steady acting career during the 1940s until the late 1950s, when her career began to taper off through no fault of her own. Because of the decline in popularity of darker roles during the 1950s her popularity waned quickly with the studio and her contract with them expired. Nevertheless, she continued taking roles in films throughout the 1950s and by the 1960s was mostly relegated to small television roles. Today she is most known for being one of the most iconic “femme fatales” of the era. If one is a fan of the original wave of film noir (1944-1960), then you have probably seen one of her films.
Among her numerous appearances in Film Noir was a small role she held in the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. She was also seen in the relatively innovative, if slightly gimmicky, film Lady in the Lake which became known for its heavy use of first person POV shots. She was truly given the opportunity to shine in films such as Tension, where she played a cruel and greedy femme fatale who leaves her meek but good natured husband for a rich snob. In true femme fatale fashion she is cruel but her purpose is not unreasonable. Her look of contempt and disgust in Tension is so perfectly executed and amusing for the audience; she solidified her status as an icon with one performance.
However, she was not limited to “bad girl” roles. Her presence, whether malevolent or benevolent, was always a great addition to the films. In films like The Set Up, Totter played the more innocent woman who struggles to understand and support her aging boxer boyfriend (played by Robert Ryan). In one of the first “women in prison” films, aptly, called Women’s Prison, she played one of the inmates who endure the cruelty of the overbearing warden. Always spirited in her acting, and always able to conjure some of the best performances in her films, Totter was an actress with great potential who managed to leave her indelible mark on Hollywood even though she was effectively short changed by the system.
In 1999, during an interview with the New York Times, she commented on the “type casting” in femme fatales roles she was subject to. “The bad girls were so much fun to play. I wouldn’t have wanted to play Coleen’s good-girl-parts” (Coleen Gray was a fellow starlet of her time who was usually type cast as the virtuous girlfriend/wife).
Overall, Audrey Totter’s willingness to embrace what she was given and to persevere through life itself imbue her legacy with a beautiful spirit of fortitude. She was one of the standard bearers for my most cherished genre/style of filmmaking and she remained proud of her work all the way to the end. Sadly she was also one of the last ones to survive and she left the world only eight days before she was to turn 96. With the accumulated knowledge and fandom of Noir that was cultivated with the help of the internet and home video, her Noir-spirit endures.