Martha Hyer was an actress who played cool beauties but longed to let her hair down
Martha Hyer, who has died aged 89, starred in many overwrought melodramas of the sort that the Hollywood studios cranked out in the 1950s, winning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role as a snobbish and sexually repressed schoolteacher seduced by Frank Sinatra in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958).
Some felt the nomination was surprising (Shirley MacLaine was considered a more deserving nominee for Best Actress). None the less her performance was memorable for a scene in which her elaborate blonde hairdo, held stiffly in place by hairspray and pins, comes undone in Sinatra’s hands, tumbling down over her shoulders, symbolising her erotic liberation from middle class respectability.
Martha Hyer’s physical resemblance to Grace Kelly (albeit with elements of Diana Dors) led her to be typecast as the ice-cool society beauty — as seen, for example, in Audrey Hepburn’s 1954 romance, Sabrina, in which she played the glamorous fiancée of playboy David Larrabee (William Holden), and in Houseboat (1958) in which she played diplomat Cary Grant’s rich sister-in-law. But with few other opportunities to let her hair down, either literally or metaphorically, by the early 1960s Martha Hyer’s career had started to fade. She was considered for the role of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) but lost out to Janet Leigh.
“I would like very much to convince people that I can be something more than a well-dressed sophisticate,” she told an interviewer. “I go from one picture to the next getting wealthier and wealthier, but I’d like to do it with the hair down — either as a nymphomaniac or an alcoholic. I want to be a problem.”
She had her opportunity in 1963 when she was booked for the part of Janine Denton, the Hollywood call girl who becomes a film star in Edward Dmytryk’s The Carpetbaggers (1964), a tawdry, though commercially successful, melodrama, based on a novel by Harold Robbins, whose principal attraction lay in watching Martha Hyer appearing before George Peppard’s wife and daughter with nothing on but a mink stole.
But it was not the comeback she was hoping for.
By this time, Martha Hyer had bought into the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, giving interviews in which she boasted of her collection of fur coats and claimed to have run out of wall space for her collection of French Impressionist paintings: “It’s very embarrassing when you are forced to hang an original Renoir in the bathroom,” she observed.
But her spendthrift ways caught up with her and in her 1990 memoir Finding My Way, Martha Hyer admitted overspending so badly that she ended up in debt to loan sharks.
Martha Hyer was born on August 10 1924, in Fort Worth, Texas, the daughter of a judge who would participate in the prosecution of Second World War criminals at Nuremberg.
After taking a degree in Drama from Northwestern University, she joined the Pasadena Playhouse, where she was spotted and signed to a contract by an RKO talent scout.
After making her screen debut in The Locket (1946), she found small roles as a cowgirl in low-budget westerns, before her role in Sabrina led to her being typecast as the “other” Grace Kelly.
In 1951 she married the producer/director Ray Stahl, whom she met on the set of Oriental Evil (1951) and who directed her in The Scarlet Spear in 1954 — the same year the marriage ended. Her roles in 1960s films such as Bikini Beach (1964) Picture Mommy Dead (1966) and House of 1,000 Dolls (1967, described by one critic as “quite possibly the sleaziest movie American International Pictures ever made”), were seldom enthusiastically received, though some, such as Sidney Pink’s Pyro (1964) have acquired belated cult status on DVD. In this she played the title role of the vengeful mistress with a liking for matches (“the strange desire that feeds on her cannot be quenched by love alone!”) opposite Barry Sullivan.
In 1966 she married the director Hal Wallis. Although she remained with him until his death in 1986, she complained that he had sought to limit her spendaholic habits. Yet he clearly failed because by the 1980s she was so badly in debt that, desperate for a loan of $1 million, she delivered a Monet, a Gauguin, and two Frederic Remingtons to con men as collateral. The works belonged to her husband, who knew nothing about the loan and wound up in a legal dispute with the gallery that eventually acquired them.
After her husband’s death, Martha Hyer — who became a born-again Christian in the late 1980s – moved to Santa Fe where she lived a quiet life and shunned the spotlight.
Martha Hyer, born August 10 1924, died May 31 2014