Hollywood never runs out of starlets, and even the list of actresses who made it big during Hollywood’s Golden Age is longer than you think. Some have attained the status of goddesses, while others are more likely relegated to the shadows of our memory. Here’s a light on five great leading ladies whose careers were just as illustrious as those who remain household names.
Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, thanks to her stage parents, was a precocious beauty contestant who was discovered at the age of fourten, and started appearing in silent films in 1920; she appeared twice (and had an affair) with silent movie star John Barrymore. Astor made a successful transition to sound films and appeared in superior films like the melodrama Red Dust, the Sinclair Lewis adaptation Dodsworth, the swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda, and the romantic comedy Midnight (costarring with Barrymore again). Only after about a hundred films, however, did she essay her signature role, that of femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnnessy, in The Maltese Falcon, which earned her a legendary status.
Unfortunately, personal crises (including multiple divorces, alcoholism, a suicide attempt, and a heart condition) slowed her career, and she eventually balked at playing older women. (She was said to have encapsulated the typical movie star career as follows: “Who’s Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who’s Mary Astor?”) But she kept busy appearing on TV in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Gardner, born in the rural South, nonetheless grew up to be one of Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses, though she appeared in mostly inconsequential potboilers and never really seemed to have enjoyed her career. She was still kind enough to give us her performances in the film noir adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers (Burt Lancaster’s debut film), the musical Show Boat, and the end-of-the-world drama On the Beach, her first film as a free agent after an unusually long seventeen-year studio contract.
Due to her dark, sultry beauty (she was part Native American), she played many exotic roles, though she was just as likely to portray a noblewoman as an adventuress. Her last good work was the one-two punch of the excellent political thriller Seven Days in May (with Lancaster and his frequent costar Kirk Douglas) and the Tennessee Williams adaptation Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton. Unfortunately, her later career consisted of appearing in the likes of the disaster epic Earthquake and, on TV, the evening soap opera “Knots Landing.”
Teenage hoofer Rita Cansino was plucked from her father’s stage act to work in Hollywood, but it took a couple dozen small parts, for many of which she was credited merely as a dancer, before they changed her hairline and her last name, and her career took off. She won a supporting part in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings, played opposite James Cagney in The Stawberry Blonde, then costarred with Fred Astaire in You Were Never Lovelier.
Her two most memorable roles, however, are as the title temptress, Glenn Ford’s rekindled old flame, in the smoldering melodrama Gilda, and as the femme fatale in the stylish film noir The Lady from Shanghai, written and directed by and starring Orson Welles. Hayworth, whose luscious legs were featured in many posters for movies she appeared in, worked in film for another quarter century before the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease ended her career.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Tierney started out as a stage actress, though she was snatched up for films before she had a chance to become a Broadway star. She first hit the big time in the romantic comedy Heaven Can Wait, then followed that part up with the title role in the celebrated mystery Laura.
Tierney was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of a pathologically jealous woman in Leave Her to Heaven, and was equally comfortable in the W. Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor’s Edge and the light romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, filmed back to back. She also appeared in consecutive noir classics Night and the City and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and other highlights include the mistaken-identity comedy The Mating Season and the sharp political procedural Advise & Consent, the latter a triumphant comeback after her hospitalization for depression.
Small-town girl Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner hit Hollywood at seventeen, but it took ten years and two dozen forgettable movies before she hit her stride in the noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. She was already a star, dubbed the Sweater Girl for her voluptuous figure (she was also the origin of the Hollywood myth of the starlet discovered at Schwab’s soda fountain), but Turner was also an actress of underrated talent.
Meanwhile, her personal life was a mess: Turner, an alcoholic, married eight times (twice in a row to one man) for anywhere from six months to four and a half years, had numerous affairs, and was abused by her gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. One night, her teenage daughter stabbed Stompanato to death to protect her mother — though rumors persist that young Cheryl took the fall because, as a minor, she’d get off easy.
Turner also appeared in The Three Musketeers, opposite Gene Kelly, the Hollywood morality tale The Bad and the Beautiful, with Kirk Douglas, and the 1950s melodramas Peyton Place and Imitation of Life. She continued acting, on and off, on the big and small screens, into her seventies before succumbing to cancer.