From the Archives: Jane Greer; Star of Film Noir ‘Out of the Past’
Jane Greer, the actress remembered as the brainy, beautiful bad girl who liked to murder people and who has often been called the queen of film noir, has died at the age of 76.
Greer, a sultry brunet with luminous, suggestive eyes who was also dubbed Miss Cleopatra, died Friday of cancer at her Bel-Air home, her son Steven Lasker said Sunday.
Outstanding in such films as “Out of the Past” with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas and “The Big Steal” opposite Mitchum, Greer made 24 pictures and is still lauded at genre retrospectives. In the late 1940s, she was rated by Time magazine along with Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner among Hollywood’s six most promising actresses.
The icy Greer, something of a Hedy Lamarr look-alike, might have been a far bigger and more durable star but for a mentor turned obstacle named Howard Hughes.
It was the eccentric billionaire and onetime film producer Hughes who brought her to Hollywood and had her coached in acting--only to keep her shelved with no screen test and no movies to make. She sued and paid $7,572 to end the contract, then joined RKO with some success—only to have Hughes buy the studio.
“He wanted to own people—he collected them,” she said earlier this year. Hughes definitely did not want her to marry, she said, but she did that twice—at age 19 to crooner Rudy Vallee, 23 years her senior, for a few months, and then to attorney and producer Edward Lasker for nearly two decades.
Told that she was happy with Lasker and had a son, Hughes, the new owner of RKO, retorted that she would never work. She got paid, Greer said in 1999, but “it kiboshed my career.”
However limited, that career became a classic, particularly in her role as Kathie Moffatt in “Out of the Past,” who destroyed Mitchum the soiled hero, dealt well with Douglas the heavy, did dastardly deeds and then dutifully died in a car crash at the end.
“In those days, because of censorship,” Greer told The Times in 1984, “you had to die at the end if you killed people.”
Aware that believability is essential to acting success, Greer said, “I was believable because although Kathie was . . . a liar and a killer, she looked soft and innocent. She had long hair, was very glamorous and had an air of mystery about her.”
Largely out of work by her late 30s like other actresses of the era who found no parts for older women, Greer was all but startled by her rediscovery two decades or so later. One of her sons (in addition to jazz musician Steven, she raised noted screenwriters Alex and Lawrence Lasker) came home from his film class at UCLA and said, “Mother, you’re the queen of film noir!”
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ ” She had never heard the term for the shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled films in which she excelled.
Greer soon found out big-time. Director Taylor Hackford met her at a retrospective screening of “Out of the Past” and began talking about a remake he was planning titled “Against All Odds.”
He cast Greer as the elegantly evil owner of a pro football team, the mother of her original character, Kathie, played by Rachel Ward in the film released in 1984.
The older woman nearly stole the show. One critic raved: “She is still beautiful and with those amazing eyes as blandly treacherous as ever.”
Among Greer’s other films were less memorable fare, including her 1945 debut, “Two O’Clock Courage,” followed by “George White’s Scandals,” “Bamboo Blond” and “Sinbad the Sailor.” More impressive films include “They Won’t Believe Me,” the 1952 version of “The Prisoner of Zenda” opposite Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, and as Lon Chaney’s second wife opposite James Cagney in “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
She also appeared sporadically on television, including such series as “Zane Grey Theater,” “Bonanza,” “Quincy,” “Falcon Crest,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Twin Peaks” and notably in Louis L’Amour’s “The Shadow Riders.”
Bettejane Greer won baby contests in her native Washington and was modeling by the age of 12. Her looks plus a serviceable contralto voice earned her jobs as a teenager singing with Ralph Hawkins’ big band, with Enric Madriguera’s orchestra in Washington’s Latin Club Del Rio and later on the radio with Vallee.
Greer often said that a bout with Bell’s palsy, which partially paralyzed her face when she was 15, was a useful tool for acting. The facial exercises she used to overcome the illness taught her about facial expression of emotion, which she put to perfect use in film noir.
With her mother working as a writer in the War Department’s public information office, Greer became one of three young women hired to model Women’s Army Corps uniforms in newsreels and Life magazine. Hughes liked what he saw and brought her west.
The actress legally shortened her name in 1945 after buying out her Hughes contract, calling Bettejane “a sissy name . . . too Bo-Peepish, ingenueish for the type of role I’ve been playing.” She was first billed as Jane Greer in the 1945 film “Dick Tracy, Detective.”
Greer later devoted herself to charity work, primarily benefiting retarded children.
Greer is survived by her twin brother, Don; her three sons; and two grandchildren.
A private memorial service is scheduled Sept. 9 on what would have been her 77th birthday. The family has asked that memorial donations be sent to SHARE Inc., P.O. Box 1342, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.
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