Vintage Hunk: Van Heflin

By: Mike McCrann

Van Heflin was a wonderful actor and a handsome man. He had one of the greatest voices of any actor from Hollywood's Golden Age, won an Academy Award, and starred in a number of memorable movies. Unfortunately, he was usually the co-star of a bigger female star: Two of Lana Turner's best performances were opposite Heflin; Joan Crawford gave an Oscar-nominated performance in Possessed that was immeasurably helped by her Heflin being the object of her insanity; and Van Heflin was Judy Garland's leading man in her first grown-up role Presenting Lily Mars. Even still, this character actor was very sexy in a buttoned-down way and would consistently work over the next decade.

Emmett Evan Van Heflin Jr. was born in Oklahoma in 1910. After attending the University of Oklahoma, he began his acting career on Broadway. His film debut was in the Katharine Hepburn flop A Woman Rebels. He would later co-star with Hepburn in the Broadway smash hit The Philadelphia Story, playing the role of the reporter that would win James Stewart an Oscar in the film version.

Signed to an MGM contract (but not allowed to repeat his stage role), Heflin had a few supporting roles and then hit it big winning the 1942 Best Supporting Oscar for his role as an alcoholic lawyer in Johnny Eager. Lana Turner and Robert Taylor were the sexy stars but Heflin stole the show, and things should have improved radically in his career. But MGM did not know what to do with him. Heflin was handsome but not a sexy leading man like Gable or Taylor. So instead he was given the lead in Tennessee Johnson playing beleaguered President Andrew Johnson, and as Judy Garland's leading man in Presenting Lily Mars where the film's emphasis was totally on Judy.

Some of Van Heflin's best parts were away from MGM. He starred in the classic film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers opposite Barbara Stanwyck and new comer Lizabeth Scott at Paramount, but it was the two ladies and newcomer Kirk Douglas (his film debut) who had the more histrionic parts. One of Heflin's truly great roles was playing the cad who drives poor Joan Crawford to to insanity and murder in Possessed. Heflin was very convincing as the studly ladies man, and you could see why Joan went loony without his love.

Van Heflin was the perfect leading man for Lana Turner. In 1947's epic Green Dolphin Street both Turner and co-star Donna Reed are madly in love with him. When he drunkenly writes a letter from New Zealand proposing to the wrong sister all hell breaks loose. Turner goes down under and survives not only a cold Heflin, but a massive earthquake and native unrest, while poor Donna Reed becomes a nun after being rejected (she thinks) by him. Green Dolphin Street was MGM glamour all the way and the costume drama was a huge hit. Heflin would then star with Turner again in The Three Musketeers, though as forth-billed as Athos. And yet Heflin gives a truly first-rate performance as the man who was married to the evil Lady de Winter (Turner) and loves her to the end. Despite all the MGM smaltz and a grinning, hammy Gene Kelly, Heflin stands out in his moving scenes with Turner. He knows she must be executed for her evil deeds but he still loves her, and these two actors are the best parts of this robust film.

However, at this point Van Heflin's film career was turning more and more to character roles. He was Jennifer Jones' poor country doctor husband in Vincente Minnelli's wonderful Madame Bovary, and Susan Hayward's love in the civil war drama Tap Roots. He played the gentle rancher in the classic Shane but it was Alan Ladd in the title role, a great murdering cop who will do anything to get sexy Evelyn Keyes in Joseph Losey's cult classic The Prowler, and an excellent actor in the Glenn Ford western 3:10 to Yuma.

Van Heflin died in 1971 at age 60. He had a heart attack while swimming in his pool. Married twice with three children, Van Heflin purposely stayed out of the limelight, and not having any Hollywood scandals or wild affairs probably kept him from super star status. But Van Heflin was a truly gifted actor. If you want to see him at his best check out The Three Musketeers and watch his scenes with Turner. Nobody else who played this part in all the countless remakes can touch Van Heflin. As he did with every part, you totally believed in his character and just listening to his melodious voice was a true pleasure.