December 28th, 2008

R.I.P. Ann Savage

I am deeply saddened to report that Ann Savage passed away on Christmas Day. She was 87, and her health had taken a recent significant downturn, so this wasn't completely unexpected...but we really thought we'd have more time with her.

I'm sorry I didn't get to know her personally, but I feel quite well acquainted with her through her work, and (to quote the title of one of her films) what a woman. Most fans (of which she had many - she was unfailingly kind and charming) know her because of this character:

Yes, that's Vera from Detour, as she looks when we first see her - a sickly, windblown, badly-dressed harpy, descending with fury on the luckless Al. Time recently named Vera one of the 25 best villains ever, and it's not hard to see why. Ann threw herself into the role with her usual conviction; at a time when it was nearly unthinkable in Hollywood to cast this much against type, Ann wasn't afraid to look (and sound) ugly.

But make no mistake, it was a performance, and a brilliant one at that, because Ann usually played elegant, beautiful, and very sexy women. Here she is from a western (Satan's Cradle) that she made late in her career:

Not only was she gorgeous enough to have had a dual career as actress and pin-up model (she was right up there with Betty Grable in terms of her popularity with our overseas boys in WW2), but her talent was astonishing. My favorite film of hers is actually a 1946 western called Renegade Girl, in which she plays a woman who forsakes a romance with a handsome Union captain to become leader of an outlaw gang, all while hunting down the man who killed her family. It could well be the first serious feminist western, and she's amazing in it. There's a moment where one of the bad boys makes the mistake of thinking she'll marry him, and the dismissive disgust she puts into her rejection of him has made that a favorite line around our house.

My book about her (which is being co-written with her manager, Kent Adamson) has now become more important to me than ever. I would love for it to help in the rediscovery of the rest of Ann's career. Films like Renegade Girl and Apology for Murder and Klondike Kate are deserving of new audiences (and, in the case of the latter, a DVD release). She's often called "the Queen of Poverty Row", but even those who proffer that title probably haven't seen much beyond Detour, and you can't really appreciate that performance until you realize how completely and utterly different it is from anything else she played. I'll go past the Queen of Poverty Row to suggest that she's one of cinema's great unsung heroines, so I need to sing well in this book. Guy Maddin understood her career well enough to cast her as his mother, giving her a last great role in his brilliant My Winnipeg, and I'm thankful that Ann lived long enough to receive some of the acclaim for her work in the film.

There will probably be services held in February, to coincide with what would have been Ann's 88th birthday; in the meantime, she's being interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, next to her beloved husband Bert and her equally beloved mother. Hollywood Forever is where the annual Dia de los Muertos festival is held, and I'm thinking that in 2009 an ofrenda to honor Ann might be in order. There's so much wonderful material I could use I'm not even sure where to start, but I've got ten months to decide.

Farewell, Ann. You've left us, but your work hasn't. I'll be doing my part to see to it that your talent finally receives the full recognition it so deserves.