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Scott Larson

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Miss Ellie (1922-2005)

When the movie My Fair Lady came out, much was made of the fact that Julie Andrews, who played Eliza Doolittle on the stage, was replaced by the hot marquee name of Audrey Hepburn in the film version. But what about Barbara Bel Geddes? She saw no less than Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Reynolds take over characters that she had played on the stage (in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Sleeping Prince a.k.a. The Prince and the Showgirl, and Mary, Mary, respectively).

Bel Geddes was so respected as an actor that it is surprising to look back and see how few films she actually appeared in. But, of course, that doesn’t take into account her stage or, more importantly, her television work. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her third film, I Remember Mama. She had the main female role (as Richard Widmark’s wife and Tommy Rettig’s mother) in one memorable thriller, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets. She played opposite Henry Fonda in her first film, The Long Night, in which her character tried to convince a fugitive to turn himself in. She also played opposite Danny Kaye in the 1959 biopic of jazz trumpeter Red Nichols, The Five Pennies. And she had third billing in one outright classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In that one, she played the thankless friend and erstwhile love interest, Midge, to Jimmy Stewart’s former police officer, Scottie. For the most part, she was overshadowed by Kim Novak’s beautiful mystery woman and Stewart’s tangle of psychological issues.

Bel Geddes was also a regular collaborator with Hitchcock on his 1950s television show. Her most memorable appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the one in which she did in her husband with a leg of lamb and then served the murder weapon to the detectives investigating the crime.

After all is said and done, however, we all know that Barbara Bel Geddes will always be remembered for a single role, the one she played for all but one of the 13-year run of the television primetime soap Dallas. For a long time I was embarrassed that I actually watched quite a few episodes of Dallas. But now, well, I still am. But, fortunately, it became such a pop culture phenomenon that I eventually could justify the apparent waste of time as “research.” In truth, my story is a familiar one to students of unhealthy addictions. I started experimenting with Dallas viewing with friends, and then I was hooked, with a monkey on my back. I didn’t even own a television set during the early years of the series’ run, but I was in the habit of unwinding after work on Friday evenings by visiting my neighbors, and they watched it. By the time I had moved from the suburbs into Seattle, I realized that I had a Dallas problem. As long as I was watching it with someone else, I could delude myself into thinking that I was merely a social Dallas watcher. But by the time I had bought my own television and began watching it by myself, I knew that I had a problem. There was nothing socially redeeming at all about the series, but I still had an unfathomable need to find out whether it would be J.R. or Bobby who would ultimately wind up with Ewing Oil.

My neighbors and I generally heaped derision on the character of Miss Ellie. Not having grown up in Texas, none of us could work out such riddles as why a very mature woman would have a name like “Miss Ellie” or why such a woman would go to pieces over the prospect of any of her middle-aged sons moving out of the house. (Now that I’ve lived a few years in the west of Ireland, it all now actually makes sense.) As one of the few actual nice characters on the series, she did provide a necessary injection of heart into the nasty proceedings. (In one of its more amusing corrections lately, The New York Times, which has apparently turned over its editing responsibilities completely to computers, noted that it had erred in a cutline accompanying her obituary: “A picture caption referred incorrectly to the character she played. It was Miss Ellie, not Ms. Ellie.”)

In some strange ways, Miss Ellie’s life sort of paralleled Bel Geddes’s. She came from a prominent family. (Her father and stepmother were architect and stage designer Norman Bel Geddes and costume designer Edith Lutyens-Bel Geddes.) She married twice. (Her first onscreen husband, Jim Davis, died during the series’ run. The late Howard Keel played her second husband.) And, like her onscreen character, she underwent breast cancer surgery. We feared that, when Bel Geddes left Dallas at the end of the 1983-1984 season for “health reasons,” she was on her way out. (Shades of Bea Benaderet in Petticoat Junction.) But rather than kill off Miss Ellie or move her off-screen, it was decided to bring in veteran actor Donna Reed to replace her and hope that nobody noticed that Miss Ellie suddenly looked and sounded completely different. This was weird, but not as weird as writing off a whole season of the series (not this one, another one) as a dream. What was also weird was that Bel Geddes was back again the very next season (and for four more after that) but very shortly thereafter Donna Reed (who had attempted to use the courts to stay as Miss Ellie) was dead.

Though she never won an Oscar or a Tony (although nominated twice), she did win an Emmy (out of three nominations) for playing Miss Ellie. That is appropriate enough. After all, it is the role she spent more time playing than any other and, thanks to television reruns, the one that is most enduring. And she certainly must have been grateful for the role. Having left acting years before, according to London’s Independent, to nurse her dying second husband, she was penniless by the time the offer of a role on Dallas came along.

-S.L., 18 August 2005

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