Nationality: American. Born: Agnes Robertson Moorehead in Clinton, Massachusetts, 6 December 1906. Education: Attended school in Reedsburg, Wisconsin; Muskingum College, Ohio; University of Wisconsin, Madison, M.A. in English and public speaking. Family: Married 1) John Griffith Lee, 1930 (divorced 1951), son: Sean;
2) Robert Gist, 1953 (divorced 1958). Career: Taught public speaking at Soldiers Grove High School, Wisconsin; radio singer in St. Louis (stations KSO and KMOX), and appeared as dancer and singer with Municipal Opera, St. Louis, for three seasons; taught dramatics at Dalton School, and studied at American Academy of Dramatic Arts, both in New York; also appeared on Broadway in Marco Millions, 1928, and other plays; 1930s—radio actress; 1937—joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theater; 1941—film debut in Citizen Kane; contracts with Warner Brothers and MGM during next few years; 1948—on stage with Orson Welles in Macbeth; 1954—toured with one-woman show An Evening with Agnes Moorehead; 1964–71—in TV series Bewitched; 1973—on Broadway in Gigi. Awards: Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942. Died: 30 April 1974.
Films as Actress:
Citizen Kane (Welles) (as Mary Kane)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles) (as Fanny Minafer); The Big Street (Reis) (as Violette); Journey into Fear (Norman Foster) (as Mrs. Mathews)
The Youngest Profession (Buzzell) (as Miss Featherstone); Government Girl (Dudley Nichols) (as Mrs. Wright)
Jane Eyre (Stevenson) (as Mrs. Reed); Since You Went Away (Cromwell) (as Emily Hawkins); Dragon Seed (Conway) (as cousin's wife); The Seventh Cross (Zinnemann) (as Mme. Marelli); Mrs. Parkington (Garnett) (as Aspasia Conti); Tomorrow the World (Fenton) (as Jessie)
Keep Your Powder Dry (Buzzell) (as Lt. Colonel Spottiswoode); Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Rowland) (as Ma Jacobson); Her Highness and the Bellboy (Thorpe) (as Countess Zoe)
Dark Passage (Daves) (as Madge Rapf); The Lost Moment (Gabel) (as Juliana)
Summer Holiday (Mamoulian) (as Cousin Lillie); The Woman in White (Godfrey) (as Countess Fosco); Station West (Lanfield) (as Mrs. Caslon); Johnny Belinda (Negulesco) (as Aggie McDonald)
The Stratton Story (Sam Wood) (as Ma Stratton); The Great Sinner (Siodmak) (as Emma Getzel)
Without Honor (Pichel) (as Katherine Williams); Caged (Cromwell) (as Ruth Benton)
Fourteen Hours (Hathaway) (as Mrs. Cosick); Show Boat (Sidney) (as Parthy Hawks); The Blue Veil (Bernhardt) (as Mrs. Palfrey); The Adventures of Captain Fabian (William Marshall) (as Aunt Jezebel); Captain Blackjack (Duvivier) (as Mrs. Birk)
The Blazing Forest (Ludwig) (as Jessie Crane)
"The Jealous Lover" ep. of The Story of Three Loves (Reinhardt) (as Aunt Lydia); Scandal at Scourie (Negulesco) (as Sister Josephine); Those Redheads from Seattle (Lewis R. Foster) (as Mrs. Edmonds); Main Street to Broadway (Garnett) (as Mildred Waterbury)
Magnificent Obsession (Sirk) (as Nancy Ashford)
Untamed (Henry King) (as Aggie); The Left Hand of God (Dmytryk) (as Beryl Sigman); All that Heaven Allows (Sirk) (as Sara Warren)
Meet Me in Las Vegas (Viva Las Vegas) (Rowland) (as Miss Hattie); The Conqueror (Powell) (as Hunlun); The Revolt of Mamie Stover (Walsh) (as Bertha Parchman); The Swan (Charles Vidor) (as Queen Maria Dominika); Pardners (Taurog) (as Matilda Kingsley); The Opposite Sex (Miller) (as the Countess)
The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray) (as Mrs. Samuel); Jeanne Eagels (Sidney) (as Mme. Nielson); Raintree County (Dmytryk) (as Ellen Shawnessy); The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen) (as Queen Elizabeth)
La tempesta (Tempest) (Lattuada) (as Vassilissa)
Night of the Quarter Moon (Haas) (as Cornelia Nelson); The Bat (Wilbur) (as Cornelia Van Gorder)
Pollyanna (Swift) (as Mrs. Snow)
Twenty Plus Two (Joseph M. Newman) (as Mrs. Delaney); Bachelor in Paradise (Arnold) (as Judge Peterson)
Jessica (Negulesco) (as Maria Lombardo)
How the West Was Won (Ford, Marshall, and Hathaway) (as Rebecca Prescott); Who's Minding the Store? (Tashlin) (as Mrs. Phoebe Tuttle)
Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich) (as Velma Cruther)
The Singing Nun (Koster) (as Sister Cluny); Alice through the Looking Glass (Handley—for TV) (as the Red Queen)
The Ballad of Andy Crocker (McCowan—for TV)
What's the Matter with Helen? (Harrington) (as Sister Alma); Marriage: Year One (Graham—for TV); Suddenly Single (Taylor—for TV); The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove (Shea—for TV)
Rolling Man (Hyams—for TV); Night of Terror (Szwarc—for TV); Dear, Dead Delilah (Farris) (title role)
Frankenstein—The True Story (Smight—for TV) (as Mrs. Blair); Charlotte's Web (Charles A. Nichols and Takamoto—animation) (as voice of the Goose)
By MOOREHEAD: articles—
Interview, in Hollywood Speaks, edited by Mike Steen, New York, 1974.
Interview with N. Bernheim and others, in Image et Son (Paris), April 1974.
On MOOREHEAD: books—
Parish, James Robert, Good Dames, New York, 1974.
Sherk, Warren, Agnes Moorehead: A Very Private Person, Philadelphia, 1976.
Kear, Lynn, Agnes Moorehead: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1992.
On MOOREHEAD: articles—
Current Biography 1952, New York, 1952.
Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1955.
Bowers, Ronald, "Agnes Moorehead," in Films in Review (New York), May 1966.
Obituary, in New York Times, 1 May 1974.
Ward, L.E., "Supporting Actresses in the Golden Age," in Classic Images (Muscatine), February 1990.
Film Dope (Nottingham), September 1990.
Jacobson, L., "Character Actors: Hollywood's Unsung Heroes Part 4," in Hollywood: Then and Now, no. 1, 1992.
Stars (Mariembourg), Spring 1994.
Angulo, J., and A. Potes, in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1996.
* * *
One might define hysteria as the response to the continual and irreversible frustration of the desire for power, authority, or (at least) personal dignity, which is why, within patriarchal culture, it is an ailment predominantly associated with women. Agnes Moorehead was one of Hollywood's most impressive spokespersons for female hysteria (whether overtly expressed or precariously and agonizingly controlled), linked in many of her most fully characteristic roles to an explicitly sexual frustration, the ignominious condition of the "spinster."
In the definitive role of her career in The Magnificent Ambersons, her Aunt Fanny—sexually repressed, tormented by physicality in all its forms, disappointed in love, her formidable energies permitted no other outlet in a world where power is by definition male—is the cinema's most eloquent realization of the term "spinster" and of its logical accompaniment of hysteria. Deviation from this prototype into heroine's friend roles (All that Heaven Allows) and even into motherhood (The Stratton Story), Agnes had her share of ignominious parts but intermittently displayed strength and intelligence in roles that position her outside direct male determination (Caged, The Revolt of Mamie Stover). An exemplary character actress, Moorehead received four Academy Award nominations, soldiered on histrionically when those she "supported" succumbed to flimsy material, and remained impossible to ignore even when going stratospherically over the top in big-budget flops such as the pseudo-Oriental turkey The Conqueror.
Before her Hollywood employment, the resonant Moorehead voice made her one of radio's most durable interpreters and the creator of the warhorse, Sorry, Wrong Number. Later as an antidote to the limitations of her contractual characterdom, she toured to great advantage onstage, particularly in Shaw's Man and Superman, with Boyer, Laughton, and Hardwicke. A Queen of all media, Moorehead tackled a diversity of parts on-screen from her debut as Citizen Kane's pragmatic mother. Unfettered by a set image, her range extended from a tightly coiled murderess taking a classic tumble out the window in Dark Passage to a comic gadfly in Pollyanna in which her heart is melted by an orphan. Although intensity was the keynote of her acting, she could be salt of the earth as in Johnny Belinda or airily upper crust as in Mrs. Parkington, a countess role which prefigured her glamorous resurgence on television's Bewitched. Fondly remembered for another television role on a Twilight Zone episode as an outer space giantess peevishly crushing U.S. astronauts, she completely conquered television with her stylishly supernatural Endora on Bewitched; her interpretation of the ultimate mother-in-law joke armed with magical powers of reprisal won her the deserved celebrity that eluded her as a premiere character star in the movies. Prior to Bewitched, she tackled one of her unlikeliest assignments as the white trash Velma in the Grand Guignol picnic, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte; it was an outrageous send-up of a fugitive from Tobacco Road, the thickest ham Moorehead ever sliced, and it should have won her the Academy Award. Always a bridesmaid in the Oscar race, Moorehea possessed a flinty versatility which even such drive-in trash as Dear, Dead Delilah could not demean. Her place in film history is guaranteed by her sterling work in her first two films, and it is for these (especially Ambersons) that she will be most vividly remembered.
—Robin Wood, updated by Robert Pardi