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Joan Geraldine Bennett (February 27, 1910 – December 7, 1990) was an Emmy-nominated American movie actress who appeared in more than 70 Hollywood movies from the silent era to talkies, from color to the advent of television and epic movies. She may be best known and loved for her film noir movies femme fatale roles in movies by director Fritz Lang.
Joan Bennett had three distinct phases to her long and successful career, first as a winsome blonde ingenue, then as a brunette femme fatale and, finally, as a warm-hearted wife/mother figure.
Born in Palisades, N.J., she was part of a famous theatrical family with a lineage dating back to traveling minstrels in 18th century England. Her father was actor Richard Bennett, her mother, actress Adrienne Morrison, and her sisters, actress Constance Bennett and dancer, Barbara Bennett. Joan first acted onstage with her father at age 18 and by 19 had become a movie star courtesy of her roles in such movies as Bulldog Drummond (1929) and Disraeli (1929). She moved quickly from movie to movie throughout the 1930s, appearing with John Barrymore in his version of Moby Dick (1930) and playing Amy to Katharine Hepburn's Jo in Little Women (1933). Of the three Bennett sisters, Joan would achieve the greatest fame.
Contracted to 20th Century Fox, Joan Bennett appeared as a blonde ingenue in several movies including Puttin' on the Ritz in 1930 and Me and My Gal in 1932, before leaving this studio to appear in Little Women (1933). The latter movie brought Bennett to the attention of producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a contract and eventually (in 1940) married her.
Wanger managed Bennett's career, and with director Tay Garnett convinced her to change her hair from blonde (her natural color) to brunette. With this change her screen persona evolved into that of a glamorous seductive, femme fatale and she began to attract attention in a series of highly acclaimed movie noirs by director Fritz Lang. During the search to find an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Bennett was tested and impressed producer David O. Selznick. She was briefly considered to be a front runner for this part but Selznick eventually turned his attention to Paulette Goddard, who was then rejected in favour of Vivien Leigh.
In the 1940s Bennett appeared in four movies directed by Fritz Lang with whom she and Wanger had formed their own movie company. Three of these movies, Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1945), and Scarlet Street (1945) established her as a movie noir femme fatale and leading Hollywood actress. She also worked with noted directors Jean Renoir in The Woman on the Beach (1947) and Max Ophüls in The Reckless Moment. Other highlights of the more mature phase of her career include the role of Spencer Tracy's wife and Elizabeth Taylor's mother in both Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).
Scandal & later years
In 1950, Bennett changed agents. In 1951 Wanger shot and injured Bennett's new MCA agent, Jennings Lang (1915-1996), with whom she had allegedly begun an affair. The resulting scandal hurt her career much more than Wanger's, according to the double standards toward women of the time. Wanger's attorney, Jerry Giesler, mounted a "temporary insanity" defense and Wanger served a four-month sentence at the Castaic Honor Farm two hours' drive north of Los Angeles, quickly returning to his movie career to make a string of intelligent hit movies. Bennett, meanwhile was forced to flee to Chicago to appear in theater, and later in television because the scandal was too great a stain on her movie career and the movie studios were already floundering in the 1950s as it was. Though Humphrey Bogart, a longtime friend of Bennett's, pleaded with the studios on her behalf to keep her role in We're No Angels following the shooting scandal, that movie proved to be one of Bennett's last. Wanger and Bennett remained married until 1965.
Bennett continued to work steadily in theatre and television and was a cast member of the television series Dark Shadows for its entire five year run, from 1966 until 1971, receiving an Emmy Award nomination for her performance therein. Bennett also appeared in a few more movies, most notably the cult horror thriller from Italian director Dario Argento's Suspiria. In the last decades of her life, she was married to David Wilde, a Yale graduate and movie critic. Bennett died from a heart attack in Scarsdale, New York at the age of 80, and was buried in Pleasant View Cemetery, Lyme, Connecticut.
Joan Bennett was survived by 4 daughters (Diana Fox, Melinda Markey, and Shelley and Stephanie Wanger) and 13 grandchildren.
Bennett has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for services to Motion Pictures, at 6310 Hollywood Boulevard.
- Screen Snapshots (1932)
- The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935)
- Hollywood Party (1937)
- Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 6 (1942)