Actress famous for a bit part in a classic movie
In the oeuvre of actress Evelyn Keyes, the role of Suellen O’Hara was a “bit part,” nothing like the leading roles she played in later films, or her real-life role as wife of directors John Huston and Charles Vidor and jazz musician Artie Shaw.
But by playing Suellen, Scarlett O’Hara’s jilted younger sister in the 1939 film classic “Gone With the Wind,” Keyes earned a place in Hollywood history that no other film could have given her.
“I got to star in my own movies,” Keyes once said, reflecting on her career. “I even had my name above the title in some cases. But what am I known for? My bit part. It’s very funny.”
Keyes, who in later years became a screenwriter and author, died of cancer July 4 at an assisted-living home in Montecito, said Allan Glaser, a producer and executor of Keyes’ estate. She was 91.
“She lived five lives in one,” said Glaser. Well into her 80s, she continued running and writing.
Shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles in 1936, Keyes was discovered in true Hollywood fashion: Someone saw her eating at a restaurant, which ultimately led to her meeting director Cecil B. DeMille, Glaser said. DeMille placed Keyes under personal contract. Producer David O. Selznick cast her as Suellen.
“Gone With the Wind” was only Keyes’ second film, but “she was a good workman; she knew what he was doing,” actress Ann Rutherford, who in the film played another sister, Careen, told The Times. “We met on the set. . . . We did almost all of our scenes together. We picked cotton together.”
Neither of them imagined that the film would become a classic. Critic Leonard Maltin in his “2008 Movie Guide” described the move as “if not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of storytelling on film.”
The titles of Keyes’ autobiography and its sequel make references to the movie: “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood” was published in 1977, and “I’ll Think About That Tomorrow” appeared in 1991.
“I wasn’t writing a book about the movies,” Keyes said of her literary work. “I was writing about survival.”
Keyes was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on Nov. 20, 1916, though some sources list later dates. She was raised in Atlanta and worked as a dancer before moving to California.
Her first movie was DeMille’s “The Buccaneer,” in 1938. Later, while under contract with Columbia, she appeared in productions including “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” with Robert Montgomery in 1941, “A Thousand and One Nights” in 1945 and “The Jolson Story” with Larry Parks in 1946. The performance she considered her best was in the 1951 film noir “The Prowler” with Van Heflin. In 1955 she appeared in “The Seven Year Itch” with Marilyn Monroe.
After appearing in nearly 50 films, Keyes left Hollywood in 1955 because “aging is a dirty word in this town,” she said in a 1991 San Francisco Chronicle article.
A certain kind of success eluded her. Other than a few parts, “I mostly did cockamamie roles,” she said. “I was the eternal starlet, the pretty thing the studios schlepped around the country to decorate publicity junkets. To become a big movie star like Joan Crawford, you need to wear blinders and pay single-minded attention to your career.”
Keyes later began a literary career, writing with a voice that was authentic and unpretentious. For three years beginning in 1984 her column, “Keyes to the Town,” appeared in The Times. Her three books include a novel, “I Am a Billboard,” published in 1971.
In her column, she wrote about the film industry, about sexism and racism during her years in Hollywood, about growing older and better, well past her days of the “eternal starlet.”
“I like being older,” she said in a 1999 Los Angeles magazine article. “I did everything, and I have no real regrets.”
Keyes is survived by a nephew, James Luter of Utah; and a niece, Nancy Keyes of California. Memorial donations may sent to Actors and Others for Animals, 11523 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601.