Thespian Betty Field was born in Boston on February 8, 1916, the daughter of a salesman and his wife. Ancestors on her father’s side were Mayflower colonists Priscilla and John Alden. Her parents divorced while she was still young and Betty eventually learned to speak Spanish while traveling with her mother to various Spanish-speaking countries during her childhood. Mother and daughter settled in Newton, Massachusetts, after the mother remarried. Betty’s passion for the theatre was sparked during her early teens and by 1932 she was enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. She made her professional debut in a 1933 summer stock production of “The First Mrs. Fraser” and soon was cast in stage roles elsewhere. She even found work in a London theater production of “She Loves Me” in early 1934.
Rather plaintive in appearance with flat but highly distinctive tones, Betty’s Broadway debut came about as an understudy in the comedy “Page Miss Glory” in November of 1934, courtesy of George Abbott, in which Betty also had a minor role. Therafter she performed frequently in the comedy mold, and in the service of Abbott, with such delightful plays as “Three Men on a Horse (1935), “Boy Meets Girl” (1936) “Room Service” (1937) and “The Primrose Path (1939), and earning fine reviews for the last two.
After seeing her performance on stage as Henry Aldrich’s girlfriend Barbara in “What a Life” (1938), Paramount executives utilized her services when they transferred What a Life (1939) to film. The studio not only liked what they saw but signed her to a seven-year contract. Throughout the 1940s Betty appeared in a variety of leading ingénue and co-star roles. The important part of Mae, the farm girl, in John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men (1939) starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney was an early highlight, although it didn’t provide her the necessary springboard for stardom. Part of the problem was that the rather reserved actress tended to shun the Hollywood scene (she still lived quietly with her mother).
While performing for Abbott again on Broadway in “Ring Two” (1939), Betty met the show’s playwright Elmer Rice and the couple married in 1942. Their three children, John Alden, Judith and Paul, would appear on occasion with their mother on the summer stock stage. Betty also enhanced husband Rice’s plays “Flight to the West” (1940) and “A New Life” (1943), which were designed especially for her.
Betty offered consistent, quality work even when the movies she appeared in met with less-than-stellar reviews. She was afforded the opportunity to work with some of Hollywood’s finest leading men, including Fredric March in Victory (1940) and Tomorrow, the World! (1944), John Wayne in The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Robert Cummings in Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Joel McCrea in The Great Moment (1944). Tops on the list was her heart-tugging performance as the anguished daughter victimized by father Claude Rains in the classic soaper Kings Row (1942).
She purposely did not renew her Paramount contract at this point and, following another sterling performance in The Southerner (1945), took a long break from camera work. Back on Broadway, she appeared in such distinguished plays as “The Voice of the Turtle” and her husband’s “Dream Girl” (Rice also directed) for career sustenance. She won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for the latter in 1946. Her Hedvig in Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” was also critically lauded.
An isolated return to Paramount to play what should have been a career highlight ended up a major disappointment,. While her Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1949) had mixed reviews (some felt she was miscast and not glamorous enough for the part), the movie itself (which was extensively trimmed) and her underwhelming co-star Alan Ladd were also cited as problems. Still a marquee value on Broadway, however, she displayed great range in such fare as “Twelfth Night”, “The Rat Race”, “Peter Pan” (taking over for Jean Arthur), “The Fourposter” (she and Burgess Meredith replaced Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn) and “Ladies of the Corridor”
Betty’s soulful features took on a hardened, careworn veneer by the time she returned to Hollywood in the mid-1950’s. Nevertheless, she had a “Field” day as a character player appearing in a number of drab, dressed-down roles. She lent credence to a number of fascinatingly flawed small-town moms and matrons in films, among them cream-of-the-crop hits Picnic (1955), starring Kim Novak, Bus Stop (1956) with Marilyn Monroe and Peyton Place (1957) headlining Lana Turner and Hope Lange. The stage plays “The Seagull”, “Waltz of the Toreadors”, “Touch of the Poet” and “Separate Tables” also accentuated this newly mature phase of her career.
TV took up a large percentage of Betty’s time in the 1950s and 1960s with a number of showcase roles. She continued at a fairly steady pace but without much fanfare (as she preferred). Divorced from Rice in 1956, she married and split from lawyer and criminologist Edwin J. Lukas before settling down permanently with husband/artist Raymond Olivere in 1968. Betty’s swan song in films was a small, featured part in Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) as a floozie type, looking noticeably older than she was. Mixing in such stalwart, brittle roles on stage as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie” and Birdie in “The Little Foxes”, she made one of her last theater appearances in the difficult role of the mother in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on “Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” in 1971.
Betty suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in Hyannis, Massachusetts in 1973, just as she was about to leave and film The Day of the Locust (1975). Cast in the flashy role of “Big Sister”, an evangelist, her part was taken over by Geraldine Page. At age 57, Hollywood lost a somewhat undervalued talent who enjoyed the work more than the stardom that often accompanied it.
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