Jane Wyman was an Academy Award-winning actress whose long and distinguished film and television career was nearly overshadowed by her real-life role as the first wife of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan.
After arriving in Hollywood from St. Louis in the mid-1930s, Wyman learned her craft as a contract player before getting a chance at the major roles that would secure her reputation as a star. She won her Oscar playing a deaf-mute rape victim in 1948's "Johnny Belinda" and was nominated for her performances in "The Yearling" (1946), "The Blue Veil" (1951) and "Magnificent Obsession" (1954).
In the 1950s, the early days of television, she staked out a career in that medium with her own half-hour dramatic anthology show. And years after her film career waned, she became familiar to millions more television viewers as the matriarch-you-love-to-hate in the long-running 1980s nighttime soap opera "Falcon Crest."
Still, hardly ever was Wyman's name mentioned in print without also referring to the second of her three husbands.
At the time they met in 1938, Ronald Reagan was an actor under contract with Warner Bros. After a well-publicized courtship, they wed Jan. 26, 1940, at Wee Kirk O' the Heather Church at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
The couple had two daughters, one of whom died after a premature birth. The other, Maureen Reagan, died of melanoma in 2001 at age 60. They also adopted a son, Michael, before divorcing in 1948.
With her brown eyes, turned-up nose and signature dark hairdo — a pageboy with bangs — Wyman was a familiar face to millions of fans and a prominent member of Old Hollywood. Her co-stars ranged from Gregory Peck in "The Yearling" to the young Rock Hudson, whose first starring role was opposite Wyman in "Magnificent Obsession." She also starred with Hudson in "All That Heaven Allows," which was the inspiration for writer-director Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" in 2002.
In the lighthearted 1951 film "Here Comes the Groom," Wyman and co-star Bing Crosby sang a duet of the Oscar-winning song "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."
Wyman's last major film was with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in "How to Commit Marriage" in 1969. The remainder of her acting career was primarily in television, highlighted by her starring role on "Falcon Crest" on CBS. The role gave Wyman an opportunity to break away from her nice-girl image and play a female power broker intent on ruling over her family of winemakers at whatever cost.
Wyman got her start in films in the chorus of a 1932 Busby Berkeley movie beside other then-unknowns including Betty Grable and Paulette Goddard. After a string of films in which she was "third from the right in the front row of the chorus," she graduated to B movies playing, as Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper once said, "brassy dames whose most incisive piece of repartee was, 'Oh, yeah?' " She changed her name to Wyman when she went under contract at Warner Bros. in 1936.
Like many actresses of the day, the light-haired Wyman at first bleached her hair Jean Harlow blond, but she later dyed it dark brown in order to be taken more seriously. She finally got noticed by Billy Wilder, who cast her opposite Ray Milland in the melodrama "The Lost Weekend" (1945), about a would-be writer on a boozy weekend in New York City. At last she had gotten the kind of role she had always wanted, and she didn't waste her opportunity. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1946.
In 1948, Wyman was cast in "Johnny Belinda" as a deaf-mute farm girl who is raped. To help her better play her character, she plugged her ears during filming, and at home she rarely spoke, preferring to use sign language, according to her son's 1988 memoir, "On the Outside Looking In."
"I learned the all-important thing: A deaf person hears with her eyes, just as a blind person sees with his ears," Wyman told Hedda Hopper.
Points of interest
|1946||Best Actress||The Yearling||Nomination|
|1948||Best Actress||Johnny Belinda||Win|
|1951||Best Actress||The Blue Veil||Nomination|
|1954||Best Actress||Magnificent Obsession||Nomination|