Hollywood Legend Linda Darnell

By: Mike McCrann
11.3.2011

"What I got don't need beads." Linda Darnell in A Letter to Three Wives

Linda Darnell was one of the most gorgeous movie stars of all time, and for a decade she was one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood. She became a movie star at 20th Century Fox at age 16, Tyrone Power was one of her most frequent costars, and she inherited the most coveted role of the decade in Forever Amber. Sadly, her life was also a tragedy. She had three unhappy marriages and a long affair with famed director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra), and though he gave her the two best roles of her career he would not divorce his wife to marry her. Linda Darnell died at age 41, and by then her personal life was in shambles, her career over.

Monetta Darnell was born in Dallas, Texas. Pushed by her stage mother, she became a model and made it to Hollywood when she was only 15 years old and living alone. However, 20th Century Fox said she was 19 and she was immediately cast as Tyrone Power's leading lady in a number of films, including Brigham Young and the classic The Mark of Zorro. Darnell was a naturally gifted actress and she was the perfect partner for the equally beautiful Power.

This early period of big budget A-list productions was followed with a few year's worth of B movies and it looked like Darnell's career was on the wane. Then in 1944 Look magazine named her as one of the four most beautiful women in Hollywood, causing Darryl Zanuck and 20th to do a double take. She was loaned out for Summer Storm where she played an evil seductress. It was the first unsympathetic role of her career and the critics noticed. Finally in 1945 Zanuck cast her as small town gold digging tramp in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel; suddenly, she became a smash hit and a new sex symbol, following up this film with two more sexy sirens - Chihuahua in John Ford's great western My Darling Clementine and Tuptim in the first version of Anna and the King of Siam (musicalized on stage and film later as The King and I). Darnell's career was now on the upswing.

After dating a number of Tinsel Town celebs Darnell married cinematographer Pev Marley who was 20 years her senior. The marriage was rocky and many believed her future alcohol problems started with this ill-suited marriage. The couple even adopted a child late in this marriage even though Darnell had various affairs with Howard Hughes and, more importantly, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

In 1947 Darnell thought she had struck the mother load when she inherited the role of Amber in the film version of Forever Amber. Forever Amber was the decade's best selling book— its lusty heroine bedded every man she could find in Restoration England— and every actress in Hollywood wanted the role. Vivien Leigh declined it and unknown British actress Peggy Cummins was given the part. After five weeks shooting and over a million dollars spent, production was halted because Cummins was now considered too young for the role. Production was halted and director Otto Preminger wanted Lana Turner to take the role, but Zanuck refused and put Darnell in the part. With her hair dyed reddish-blonde Darnell waded through the role as best she could. When the film finally opened in late 1947 it made a fortune but received scathing reviews. Cleaning up the plot and character, poor Amber was reduced to just having a child out of wedlock and becoming the mistress of a king. Darnell was only adequate in the role and now it looked as though Darnell had blown her chance at super stardom.

Then in 1948 two great directors would give Darnell two great roles. For Preston Sturges she made Unfaithfully Yours with Rex Harrison; she got good reviews but the film did not make any money. At this watershed year in Darnell's career she met the man who would not only be the love of her life but also the savior of her stalled career: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was just starting his triumphant role as an Oscar-winning director. Long married to an unstable wife, he had affairs with numerous actresses including Judy Garland. Mankiewicz started an affair with Darnell (it would last nearly six years) and cast her as Lora Mae in A Letter to Three Wives. This comedic masterpiece not only won Mankiewicz Oscars for Best Script and Director but gave Linda the best role in the film and her career. Playing one of the three wives (Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern were the other two, above with Darnell), Darnell played a brassy dame from the other side of the tracks who holds out for marriage with tycoon Paul Douglas. Darnell was tart, beautiful, and eventually moving as the gorgeous dame who gets what she wants and then has to earn it. Darnell received rave reviews for her performance. Time stated: "Miss Darnell, who can be a temptress without even trying, has never shown so strikingy that she can be an actress as well." Many thought Darnell should and would receive an Oscar nomination but it did not happen.

In 1950 Mankiewicz gave Darnell her last really wonderful role in the racial drama No Way Out, with Sidney Poitier in his film debut and Richard Widmark playing the twisted bigot. Darnell gave probably her finest performance as the white trash ex-wife who is the only white character in the film to have her racial views changed. Darnell and the film received great reviews but in 1950 a film about racial prejudice was not going to be a great crowd-pleaser.

At 27 Darnell's career was now pretty much over. Fox dumped most of its contract players and Darnell was adrift. Her marriage was over and her affair with Mankiewicz ended, especially after he gave Ava Gardner the title role in The Barefoot Contessa; Linda had expected the part. A few more good films followed (Second Chance  with Robert Mitchum was the best), but two more bad marriages, alcohol, and a wrecked career pretty much ended Darnell's life. In 1965 while visiting a former secretary she was burned to death when the house caught fire. Ironically, it happened while Darnell and her friend stayed up to watch Linda's 1940 film Star Dust on TV.

Linda Darnell never became a superstar but when given a great part and director she showed that she could be as fine an actress as any of her more famous contemporaries. If you want to see her at her very best, rent or buy A Letter to Three Wives. She is magnificent, and the gorgeous Darnell really didn't need beads.

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