Eleanor Parker was born on June 26th, 1922 in Cedarville, Ohio. She became an actress at an early age, having been offered a contract with Warner Brothers at the age of 18 after graduating from high school. Her career grew steadily during the 1940s, receiving supporting roles in films such as Between Two Worlds (1944), Crime by Night (1944) and the 1946 remake of the Bette Davis classic Of Human Bondage. A big moment in her career came for the role she received in Caged (1950), a loose “film noir”/”women in prison” film that tells of a newlywed wrongly imprisoned. She received a best actress award from the Venice film festival for her role.
For me, her greatest performance came in the 1951 William Wyler film noir, Detective Story. In it, she played the wife of the troubled and zealous detective played by Kirk Douglas. The role, if played by others, would have come off as either too melodramatic or restrained. She gives the perfect balance of perceived weakness and fear. In the film, her husband launches disgustingly misogynistic tirades against her and the interplay between Kirk Douglas and Parker is heart-wrenching but beautifully done. Though her role can be generalized as the “wronged-but good wife” or the “angelic” woman, her performance manages to exude subtlety, grace and passion. She weaves together a scene-stealing performance that highlights the brutal reality of the everyday sexism of the era. The film, though based on a stage play, is different from other perceived noirs but thanks to her excellent performance, it manages to solidify itself as one of the best film noir’s of the 1950s.
She followed this hit in a film with yet another great director of the era: Otto Preminger. The film was called The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), a film that deals rather directly, for the 1950s, with drug addiction. Her best known role is perhaps that of Baroness Schraeder from the 1965 musical The Sound of Music. Her career, thankfully, never experienced the brutal ends of such stars as Veronica Lake or Gene Tierney or even Rita Hayworth who were written off due to extensive tragic personal problems. She maintained a steady acting career until 1990, and the industry honoured her by giving her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unlike so many of her generation who were squeezed, hammered and beaten into oblivion by the demands and rigidities of the star/studio system, she survived and was able to live a relatively long life.
Out of the many stars that emerged from the 40s she was never given the “femme fatale” role and usually played “good” female characters. However, as her career grew in importance and size she would take on all sorts of roles, and had a larger diversity of character types. Her roles in Detective Story and Sound of Music are a good example of her range. Accompanied by the legendary Joan Fontaine and the amazing Audrey Totter, she passed away in December of 2013. With her great legacy of performances that have survived to this day, fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema will never forget one of its best contributors.