A classically trained actress with extensive stage experience, Beatrice Straight made her mark on film late in her career, but did so with indelible performances that made the most of her keen intelligence and aristocratic manner. A member of the now legendary Group Theater from its inception, Straight won a Tony award for Best Actress in 1953 for her performance as Elizabeth Proctor in "The Crucible." She also worked frequently in television, beginning in the medium's early live broadcast era and appearing consistently in TV movies and series until the end of the 1980s. She had appeared in just four feature films before she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Louis Schumacher in Sydney Lumet's "Network" (1975). Straight held the record for the briefest performance to win an Oscar - a scant five minutes and 40 seconds of screen time. Regardless, in a dazzling display of acting prowess, Straight portrayed the full gamut of the devastated Schumacher's emotions in a single, intense scene in which her husband, (William Holden), confesses to an affair. The Oscar win brought Straight greater recognition, but also typecast the versatile actress for the first time in her career. From that point, she predominantly played severe matriarchal roles, such as the brittle Dr. Lesh in "Poltergeist" (1982). Having honed her craft in a long and celebrated stage career, Beatrice Straight established a remarkable screen presence as a character actress with finely drawn performances that were as powerful as they were rare.
Beatrice Whitney Straight was born on Aug. 2, 1914 in Old Westbury, NY, the daughter of investment banker Willard Dickerman, a business associate of J.P. Morgan who provided the initial financing for the long-running political magazine The New Republic, and Dorothy Payne, whose family was one of New York's wealthiest and most socially prestigious. When Dickerman died of influenza on the front lines of WWI, her mother married English agronomist Leonard Elmhirst and raised Straight in both London and New York. An early interest in theater led to extensive acting training with legendary teachers including Michael Chekov, and the Group Theater's Robert Lewis. Straight was a member of the Group Theater from its founding, and her classmates included Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Patricia O'Neal. She made her first appearance on Broadway at the age of 21 in the 1935 production of "Bitter Oleander," and over the following two decades she rose to the top of her profession with a series of critically-acclaimed performances, including Lady MacDuff in Michael Redgrave's 1948 production of "MacBeth," and steadfast puritan Elizabeth Proctor in the 1953 production of "The Crucible," for which she won a Tony award for Best Actress. Straight began acting in television in the medium's early live days on such series as "Somerset Maugham Theater" (CBS, 1950-51; NBC, 1951) and "Lights Out" (NBC, 1946-1952). In 1952, she also broke into feature films playing a devoted widow mourning Michael Rennie in "Phone Call from a Stranger."
Straight worked almost constantly on television throughout the 1950s and '60s in seminal series like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS, 1955-1960; NBC, 1960-62), "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64) and "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973), as well as in the 1953 broadcast of "King Lear" starring Orson Welles (CBS). Her work in film was more sporadic, however. Despite the positive reception of her performance in "Phone Call from a Stranger," it was four years before she would appear on the big screen again. "Patterns" (1956), starring Van Heflin and written by Rod Serling, featured Straight as young engineer Heflin's worried wife. That same year, she also appeared in "The Silken Affair" (1956), a lackluster British comedy starring David Niven. It was another three years before she appeared as Mother Christophe in "The Nun's Story" (1959), starring Audrey Hepburn. The latter film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, but there would be another long absence from the movies before Straight returned in "The Young Lovers" (1964), starring Peter Fonda, and another eight before she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Network" (1976). It was the briefest performance to ever win an Oscar, with just under six minutes of screen time, but the economy of the performance was perhaps its greatest strength, showcasing Straight's startlingly genuine spectrum of emotions in a single scene in which her husband, played by William Holden, confesses to an affair with a younger woman.
Having garnered popular attention after such a long and varied career, the then 62-year-old Straight found herself typecast for the first time, playing imperious, often emotionally brittle older women. She had embodied that type on television on "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" (NBC, 1975-79) playing the Queen Mother of the Amazons, and in her first starring role in a television series, playing the matriarch of a wealthy California family on the short-lived "King's Crossing" (ABC, 1982). She also began to accept more roles in film, though her selection of material was strictly limited by her desire to work solely with producers, directors, and actors of the highest caliber. "The Formula" (1980) starring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, Franco Zeffirelli's "Endless Love" (1981) and Sydney Lumet's "Power" (1981) were among the few to satisfy Straight's stringent criteria. Easily her best-known role from that later period was the prickly but comforting paranormal investigator Dr. Lesh in the Steven Spielberg-produced horror film "Poltergeist" (1982). In 1985, she delivered a powerful performance as another imperious matriarch, Rose Kennedy, in the miniseries "Robert Kennedy and His Times" (CBS, 1985). After a final feature appearance playing Goldie Hawn's mother in the psychological thriller "Deceived" (1991), Straight retired from acting at the age of 77. She died on April 7, 2001 in Los Angeles from pneumonia, following a period of declining health due to Alzheimer's disease.
By John Crye