I was watching the Turner Classic Movie station recently and saw a short bio on actress Beulah Bondi. I have always enjoyed her work and I like learning about character actors so decided to check her out. You know, the supporting cast actors, you know their faces but what's their names?
These actors are often great artists and have very successful careers.
Miss Bondi was one of them.
Yes, although she has an extensive movie and TV filmography, most people wouldn't know her unless reminded that she was George Bailey's mom in It's a Wonderful Life, or see her very recognizable motherly face.
Oh yeah, I know her!
In Chicago IL, on May 3, 1888 Beulah Bondy was born. A shy child, she enjoyed playing pretend and started acting at age 7. Beulah's acting passion continued through grade school and her years at Hyde Park High School. She received a degree in Oratory from Valpariso University. Bondi's mother was very supportive but her father reportedly did not approve of acting so she changed Bondy to Bondi. Another story is that her agent simply said i looks better.
Bondi's professional stage debut in 1919 was in a stock company show that included Spring Byington. (Remember her?) The only role left was for a very old lady. Being a small woman with a slim gaunt face, Bondi discovered that she could convincingly play characters much older than her years.
In 1925 she accepted a role in One in the Family her first Broadway play. She played Maggie, a 72 year old servant. No problem. She made a career out of it.
She moved to film in the 1930's working alongside top stars like Sylvia Sydney and Joan Crawford and Walter Houston. Bondi played Jimmy Stewart's mom in four movies including Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I remember her role as the addled dowager in The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland and as Dorothy McGuire's aunt in the 1959 film A Summer Place.
Beulah Bondi did have at least one lead role and it is considered to be her greatest.
She starred in the 1937 film, Make Way For Tomorrow, as the abandoned Depression-era 'Ma' Cooper. Director Leo McCarey, who was better known for comedies, was determined against studio advise, to make this drama about an old couple who have fallen on hard times, lost their house and must turn to their children for help. None of them are willing or able to do much for them and they end up split up and put in separate nursing homes. Knowing this is probably a permanent situation, they have one last outing together.
I have got to rent this flick. OMG! Get the tissues!
The cast included Fay Bainter and Louise Beavers with Victor Moore as Pa Cooper.
The critics loved it, calling it a sensitive and perceptive treatment of the problems of the elderly. Bondi's performance was called inspired acting, that rings with truth and with sensitive observation that reverberates with understanding. Reviews said Bondi's Ma Cooper is a nuisance, meddlesome, exasperating, very poignant and touching.
The public hated it or didn't go to see it. It was a box office failure. It was deemed too sad, no sex and no glamour. And I'll bet, too real.
But her own personal favorite performance was as the bigoted "Ma Bridges" in 1957's, Track of the Cat, no doubt because it was so different from her own personal character and any role she had played on film.
I find it astonishing that Bondi captures not only the look but mannerisms and body language of these older characters so consistently convincingly, with such individuality, whether the character is hateful or tender all her portrayals were unique.
Her TV credits include, Playhouse 90, Zane Grey Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, Wagon Train, Alcoa Theater and many more.
Beulah Bondi was one of the first five women nominated for the new Oscar category, Best Supporting Actress. She was nominated in 1936 for the historical drama starring Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor, The Gorgeous Hussy, and two years later for the Civil War story about family relationships, Of Human Hearts.
In 1972, Bondi won an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Martha on The Waltons.
Miss Bondi who never married, died in 1981 due to injuries sustained after she tripped over her cat in her Hollywood, CA home. She was 92. Her career spanned eight decades from the 1890's to the 1970's.
Miss Bondi believes it is because her mother taught her to be "a lover of life and a student of human nature" that she has been able to act convincingly. "It is the passionate desire to know what is going on inside the hearts and minds of people," Miss Bondi adds, "that distinguishes the real actor and actress from the pseudo."