By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It's February, and there's a screening at the county museum of a film called My Name Is Julia Ross, in tribute to director Joseph H. Lewis, auteur behind unhinged noir classics like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. As the auditorium fills, I watch a woman come down the aisle and take a seat in front. She looks to be perhaps 65, and is dressed elegantly in black slacks and draping burgundy velvet, her hair smoothly coifed. But it's something besides her chic appearance that catches my eye, something unnameable yet perfectly visible from across the room that makes me turn to my boyfriend with a nudge and a jerk of the head and say, "She's someone."
She is Nina Foch, the star of My Name Is Julia Ross, as well as the lead or featured player in more than 50 other motion pictures, some - such as An American in Paris - considered to be among the best ever. Tonight, the nameless something beams from her as she shares, in a post-screening discussion with the 97-year-old Lewis and L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson, keen observations and a salty sense of humor. It's still glowing months later at her home in Beverly Hills. She's having her picture taken, and it's a process she frets over, gently tussling with the photographer over light and shadow, angle and reflection, all despite the fact that, at 74, she is startlingly beautiful. By way of encouragement, I tell her about the museum and the nameless something. "Yes," Foch answers without skipping a beat, "but it just doesn't translate to photos!" Soon, she's turned to face my direction, and her eyes, large and bright and blue as the sky, meet mine. We smile; the camera shutter clicks. "That will be the good one," she says. "That will be real."
It seems that Foch is only really comfortable when she's doing something "real." Since the '40s, she's worked with some of the greatest actors and directors in movie history: Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, Cecil B. De Mille, William Holden, Gene Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, many, many more. She's carved out a career on the stage and on screens both large and small that's as rare for its span and variety as it is for the uniform regard in which her skill as an actress is held. Peruse the reviews for any movie she's been in and you'll find that nearly all contain nothing but praise for her performance, if not necessarily for the film. (Of her first picture, Return of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi, Variety commented "Nina Foch shows promise as girl saved from the vamp.") She is still making movies today, appearing in this year's Gwyneth Paltrow-Jessica Lange stinker Hush. (The reviews for Foch were, of course, warm.) But over the course of an interview, Foch will admit to a once-searing lack of certainty - about her talent, her beauty, her choices - and to a constant sense of searching, of looking for something real.
Born in Holland to Dutch bandleader Dirk Fock and Consuelo Flowerton, a famous World War I pinup, Foch was brought to New York when she was 3. Her parents soon divorced ("He hated my mother sufficiently, my mother hated him"). Consuelo busied herself being a renowned beauty and minor actress, told her daughter that she was "terribly awkward," and sent her to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to develop some poise. Consuelo also arranged, through her own agent, a screen test. There was a contract with Warner Bros. ("for a minute and a half") and then a move to Columbia. Foch was all of 18. "I had to do something," she says about her early entry into the studio system. "I didn't really have a home . . . I was a pitiful child, an unloved child." Not surprisingly, from the time of her very first pictures, Foch projected the things she felt she lacked as a child: unshakable poise, smoldering sensuality and a regal self-possession.
Foch insists that actors were treated much better by the studios than by the Hollywood of today, but at Columbia she endured coarse comments from the studio's notorious boss, Harry Cohn, who would tell her, "It's a shame you're not pretty, it's a shame you don't have any sex appeal." And although the regal roles continued steadily for years, garnering her fine reviews and a supporting-actress Oscar nomination in 1954 for Robert Wise's Executive Suite, they never catapulted her to leading-lady status. The only time Foch's straightforward demeanor wavers is when she speaks of the Oscar she lost to Eva Marie Saint. "I don't think my performance was that good," she says slightly tremulously, "but I felt that it wasn't fair to put Eva Marie Saint in supporting. Not that I think I would have won.
"Now if I'd been a little more ambitious," Foch muses, "and not so sure I was nothing, the unattractive daughter of a beautiful woman and a distinguished man, I could have fought harder, and I would have gotten further." But not becoming a sex symbol was probably the best thing that could have happened to her.
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