Sunday, December 4, 2016

Agnes Moorehead: Unsung Feminist Icon

Like just about everyone, I first experienced Agnes Moorehead because of her role as Endora on Bewitched. In fact, her name was one of the first I ever knew because it was permanently etched in a cloud of smoke in my memory: Agnes Moorehead as Endora. Who could forget that? It's been said that she grumbled quite a bit about the series and didn't want to be known just as Endora, considering the fact that she had quite an accomplished career in film, stage, and radio. However, it is because of this role that she became a household name and has continued to be well known for decades, arguably even better known than some of the leading ladies she supported in her film roles.

I was lucky to grow up in a classic film household, so I quickly learned of Agnes's roles in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Twilight Zone. One day I stumbled upon my grandmother's collection of classic radio shows on cassette, and I fell in love with the Mercury Theatre productions. (Go find Dracula and listen to it right now. Do it! I'll wait.)

A few months ago, I happened to catch a re-run of Bewitched, and something about it made me want to know all there was to know about Agnes. I found myself looking for books and interviews and trying to find any way I could to watch movies and shows I'd never seen. (Thanks to TCM and a good friend with a DVR, I'll be able to watch four new-to-me movies on Tuesday.) Somehow I stumbled upon a blog (In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood) that mentioned a blogathon for Agnes's birthday, and I decided I should come out of blog retirement to add my own thoughts.  Please head over to see the other posts on Agnes. 

While deciding on a topic, I was still searching for all the Agnes videos to be found on YouTube, and I came upon the episode of Wild Wild West on which she guest starred, called The Night of the Vicious Valentine.  In this episode, Agnes plays a woman named Emma Valentine who has used nefarious plans to kill off the wealthiest men in America. President Grant is concerned because these few men hold enough of America's wealth that their deaths will be a detriment to the economy (bonus 1967 mention of the 1%). When our good guy James West catches up with Emma Valentine, she explains to him that she wants to control Congress and ultimately make America a temporary monarchy, with herself as Queen Emma the First, and then she will slowly reintegrate the country back into a democracy once women have been given complete independence and happiness. And thus my topic landed right into my lap: Agnes Moorehead the Unsung Feminist Icon. (Anyone who knows me will testify that I am not a violent person, nor do I believe violence will fix any of our problems, but I do have to admit a temporary female monarchy to ensure female independence sounds like a good idea after certain events of the past year!)

Yes, James West is being held down by mechanical lady arms.
I do have to mention that this show is incredibly hokey and predictable, and it comes as no surprise that Emma tells West and Gordon of all of her plans, step by step, and then they use their futuristic gadgets to foil them. While entertaining and funny, it certainly isn't the greatest role that Agnes ever played.  Interestingly enough, though, she did win an Emmy for this role. According to IMDB, she was nominated six times for Endora and never won.


A second and much more important guest role for Agnes was that of Professor Amelia Webster on a show called Channing. The episode was titled Freedom is a Lovesome Thing God Wot, and if that's not enough to tell you just how erudite and high brow this show was, I don't know what else will. Perhaps this show was a tad too erudite for the times, as it only lasted one season. You can also find this episode on YouTube, and I highly recommend it. In this story, Professors Webster and Cooke (played by James Earl Jones) are in a fight over the future of a pupil. Professor Cooke is the first person of color to teach at this university, and the pupil in question is also an African American. It seems that Professor Cooke is so bitter and biased that he has become bigoted in his own way. (Remember that this was filmed in 1964, and it becomes much more intense.)

Agnes's character is a math professor, and being an intelligent woman with a career means that she must be a spinster. This role could have easily fallen into a trope of two-dimensional, bitter and smart single woman, but the way Agnes played it brought out a lot of depth and many layers of meaning. Professor Webster tries to show Professor Cooke the folly of his ways, and she reminds him that while her struggles are different, being a female academic comes with its own set of problems that she has had to work hard to overcome. She encourages him to use these struggles and problems for the good of others, rather than allowing himself to wallow in anger and bitterness and hold others back. It's a very powerful and moving episode. There was comic relief for me seeing Agnes throw back straight bourbon and several beers and use her math skills to win several games of pool, but the best moment by far was when she told the concerned (nosy) librarian, "Spinsterhood isn't a tragedy, Ruth. It's just a kind of requiem between great books." This is now my life's motto, in case anyone was wondering.

Many of Agnes's film roles were subtly feminist, too. She often played a spinster aunt or maid type of role. Maybe it was typecasting, but it's just another way the inconvenient, unmarried woman came to center stage. These were women who did not fall into the accepted societal norms of quietly marrying and raising a family. Although her characters usually don't have a lot of back story, in Agnes's four Academy Award nominated performances, she was unmarried and had no children. All four of these women were strong and independent in their own way, and while I'm not going to focus on these roles (because each would need its own post), I do recommend that you look them up. (The four films are The Magnificent Ambersons, Mrs. Parkington, Johnny Belinda, and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.)

Agnes as Aunt Fanny in the Magnificent Ambersons, one of her greatest roles
I think it can also be argued that Endora was a feminist role. The entire show of Bewitched was an allegory for the feminist movement, or gay rights, or just the power of the underdog in general. Witches were so much more advanced and free-thinking, and mortals were, well, mortals. Every episode centered around a powerful woman and her husband's struggle to accept that she was a lot more powerful than he was. Discord happened when he pushed too hard, telling his wife to hide who she was, and she refused. Endora's character seemed to be very worried about her daughter, always thinking that Samantha married down. How could she go from a society who let her be free and do anything she pleased to one where she was chained to the kitchen and the vacuum? But Endora need not have worried, because Samantha was going to be who she was and do what she wanted, anyway, and that's what true feminism is all about.

What we know of Agnes's personal life is that she was a contradiction and an enigma. She didn't want people to know who she really was because she preferred that we loved her for her work, love the fantasy and the illusion rather than be disappointed by the reality. There are some facts out there, and even more rumors, but I think it can be said that Agnes bucked tradition in her own life, as well as in her chosen roles. She earned a Masters degree well before that was commonplace for women, and she was well established in her teaching career before becoming an actress. However her life may have turned out, she was well prepared to be an independent and self-reliant woman. She married later in life, well past her college years, and she never had any children. Even with the many pitfalls or dramatic events of her own life, she was able to overcome and have a very successful career in every entertainment medium, something that very few people can say. She was obviously very talented and intelligent. Personally, I would like to believe that Endora was just Agnes turned up to 11 with a little extra makeup thrown on for good measure.

Here's to Agnes Moorehead on her 116th birthday!