MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And today, we remember the actress Jane Wyman who died early today. She was a Hollywood staple for several decades and was married to Ronald Reagan in the 1940s.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: She was tall, slender and blonde. He was tall, dark and handsome. Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan first met when they were both under contract at Warner Brothers and stared in the 1938 comedy "Brother Rat."
(Soundbite of movie "Brother Rat")
Mr. RONALD REAGAN (Actor; Former U.S. president): (As Dan Crawford) What do you major in at your school?
Ms. JANE WYMAN (Actress): (As Claire Adams) Well, I've always been interested in science and I spend most of my time in a chemistry laboratory.
Mr. REAGAN: (As Dan) Chemistry. That's funny.
Ms. WYMAN: (As Claire) Why?
Mr. REAGAN: (As Dan) Well, Bing majors in chemistry. That's my other roommate.
BLAIR: They were Hollywood's golden couple, says Edward Z. Epstein, who co-wrote a biography of Jane Wyman.
Mr. EDWARD Z. EPSTEIN (Co-author, "Jane Wyman"): They were on all the fan magazines' cover. He was in his Army uniform and she was in her Hollywood getup, you know, a fur stole and a smile. That's how they went to premiers and they were the perfect couple.
BLAIR: Jane Wyman was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Early on, she was a talented singer and dancer. Her mother was German. When her father - a civil servant-died when she was a teenager, Wyman moved to Hollywood. She appeared in a chorus and a handful of music pictures. For years, Wyman was in a slough of B movies. But in 1947, she was nominated for an Oscar for best actress in a leading role for "The Yearling."
Wyman's real breakthrough came when she played a deaf-mute girl from a small town in Nova Scotia in the 1948 movie, "Johnny Belinda." A local doctor takes interest in her and teaches her sign language.
(Soundbite of movie "Johnny Belinda")
Mr. LEW AYRES (Actor): (As Dr. Robert Richardson) You are right. You're learning very fast. Pretty soon, you and I will be able to talk.
BLAIR: Later in the film, Belinda is brutally raped.
Jane Wyman was in her 30s when she played the teenage Belinda. Film historian and critic David Thompson said it is still a standup performance for what she did with her eyes.
Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Film critic): This girl's soul was naked through the eyes. And she does a very concentrated performance, if you know what I mean. She trusts that the action is playing to her all the time and all she has to do is keep her eyes up and then let the idea of these horrible things happening to her come through. And the audience is going to adore her. And of course, that's what happened.
BLAIR: Jane Wyman received an Oscar for her performance in "Johnny Belinda," and around the same time, divorced Ronald Reagan.
Edward Z. Epstein.
Mr. EPSTEIN: He was crazy about her. And he was devastated when she divorced him. And that happened - as it always does with Hollywood stories - as her career went through the roof and his was languishing.
BLAIR: Years later, when her ex-husband ran for president, Jane Wyman never spoke to the press about their marriage, preferring to keep those details private. She did, on the occasion of his death, say America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man.
Jane Wyman had a second career in TV in the 1980s, as the conniving matriarch in the nighttime drama, "Falcon Crest," which ran for about nine years on CBS. In the serie's final episode, it's Wyman who delivered the coda.
(Soundbite of TV show "Falcon Crest")
Ms. WYMAN: (As Angela Channing) It seems like only yesterday. I think of all the people who have passed through these vineyards. There's Chase, Maggie, Cole.
BLAIR: Jane Wyman was that rare Hollywood actress who could do a little bit of everything and did - from the wisecracking sidekick to the tragic romantic lead. She also had a chance to sing on screen.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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