The Fleeting Prestige of Jo Van Fleet

Jo Van Fleet (Catherine Josephine Van Fleet, 1915-1996) is primarily remembered for her late career roles as villainesses and meddling, complaining mother figures. She had skill and range beyond that, but some combination of her hard-edged beauty, which gave her the kind of dignity that one associates with maturity, and an apparently difficult personality, seems to have stuffed her potentially broader-ranged career into a box before its time. Whereas the first decade of her career had been a time of enormous promise.

Following her formal education at the University of the Pacific, Van Fleet moved to New York where she attended the Actors Studio, HB, and the Neighborhood Playhouse. She was considered a particular protege of Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen, with whom she appeared in The Whole World Over on Broadway in 1947, directed by Harold Clurman. She’d made her debut the previous year as Dorcas in a production of The Winters’ Tale. Van Fleet also began appearing in live TV dramas in 1949, even as she quickly climbed to the top ranks of Broadway stars in the 1950s, maintaining a close connection to her Method mentors. The short-lived The Closing Door (1949), directed by Lee Strasberg and produced by Cheryl Crawford. Next she played Regan in a musical version of King Lear (1950), directed by John Houseman, with songs and music by Marc Blitzstein. Flight into Egypt (1952) began her professional collaboration with Elia Kazan. With Kazan as director she also appeared in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953), and the films East of Eden (1955, for which she got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and Wild River (1960). Meanwhile, she won a Tony for her performance in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (1953). She was also nominated for a Tony for her turn as Eliza Gant in the stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1957-59).

1955 was Van Fleet’s best year for film. In addition to East of Eden, she had important roles in The Rose Tattoo, and the Lillian Roth bio-pic I’ll Cry Tomorrow. But ultimately it was the Hollywood grind that lowered her stock as an actress. Already in her ’40s by the time she arrived, she was frequently typecast as women more advanced in age than she actually was, which her chops as a character actress enabled. For example, she was only one year older than I’ll Cry Tomorrow’s Susan Hayward, yet she played her mother. Van Fleet was ideally suited for great dramatic roles (hello? Medea? Gertrude in Hamlet?), yet they didn’t seem to emerge. Her role as the wicked stepmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965), and her brief stint as a replacement in the 1965 revival of The Glass Menagerie were some brief, transitory reminders of what she was capable of, but mostly she became a supporting actress in such films as The King and Four Queens (1956), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Cool Hand Luke (1967), I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968), 80 Steps to Jonah (1969), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), Satan’s School for Girls (1973), and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). Her last professional years were spent mostly on guest shots on television programs like Mod Squad, Bonanza, and Police Woman.

Van Fleet’s final bow was a small role in Seize the Day (1986), an adaptation of a Saul Bellow novel starring Robin Williams. The success of the film version of The Trip to Bountiful the previous year must have come as a bittersweet reminder of what could have been (and once had been) her portion in the realm of cinematic drama, had the right opportunities continued to come her way.