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.

“You have a choice,” she tells me bluntly. “You either get afraid, or you get so afraid that you're angry. It is that anger, that rage, that saved my life, I think.” It was that anger that compelled a self-described “broken blossom” to argue with Cohn for permission to go to Broadway for a year, and to offer him half her salary if he'd allow her to perform on television, a medium in which she would appear over 1,000 times and counting – a spot on ER is forthcoming this season. “Well, I knew it was the future,” she says, remembering her younger self's frame of mind. “Maybe this was it, maybe that's what I should have been doing all along.

“I should have been directing all along, that I should have been doing,” she adds, just a little ruefully. “Nobody would let me, because I was a woman.”

Which brings us to perhaps the realest part of Foch's career. After years spent on the set, on the lot and behind the scenes, she has made her experience her business. She answers the phone “Nina Foch Studio,” and you call her if you're a filmmaker who desires discreet assistance with your movie. “I prepare films with directors,” she says, in the most satisfied tone she'll take all afternoon. “That's what I do for a living.” She won't say what films she's worked on – “I'm a lot of people's secret ingredient” – but she will tell you she's part planner, part mommy, part analyst. “You can call me up in the middle of the night,” she says, as if looking forward to the ring.

“Usually, we sit in this house, and we spend the entire time working on every single beat of the script. I ask questions about the scenes, about how they're going to shoot it, about the kind of music they want. Even during the rewrite process, I work with how they're going to talk to the writers.” Her clients are almost exclusively established directors (“I'm very expensive”), but she imparts her hard-won wisdom to would-be auteurs as well, teaching directing to grad students at USC. She begins her 32nd year there this week.

Foch's students have included Ed Zwick, John McTiernan, Amy Heckerling and Mimi Leder. “These are all people who admit to me,” Foch notes, ticking them off. “Those are all people who don't need me anymore.” What she teaches her students is, above all, how to be prepared, how to take care of business so the creativity is free to roam once shooting begins. And, horrified by the “viciousness” she sees in Hollywood today, she teaches her students to be kind. “I salute the people who have the gristle to manage it,” she tells me, “to be actors in this day and age and put up with the way they're treated.”

Foch has a philosophy about life and the work and pain it takes to get where you want to be. “You know what Einstein said? 'Happiness is for cattle.' You're not supposed to be happy, you're supposed to feel that you've achieved something. But to feel happy, to feel contented, is to be dead.” If Nina Foch's perspective seems a bit harsh, well, maybe she's just being real.

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