Family & Companions
Quietly intense, highly talented member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, a former drama critic who went to Hollywood with the director to act (as a drama critic) in "Citizen Kane" (1941) and stayed to enjoy success on screen, TV and stage alike over the next four decades. Tall, wavy-haired and gentlemanly, with a trace of a Southern drawl and attractive if unconventional features, Cotten developed great versatility during his 1930s stage work which would serve him well in one of the most impressive strings of performances any Hollywood actor achieved in the 40s.
Older than the conventional new find at age 36, Cotten combined a mature and sometimes cynical pragmatism with an inner idealism either challenged by emotional pressures and social circumstances, or else shown to give way to scheming menace or dangerous rage. Delicate work came in his wonderful performance as a rejected inventor in Welles' brilliant follow-up to "Kane," the study of family decay "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942), and his chillingly ambiguous portrait of a kindly uncle who may be a murderer in Alfred Hitchcock's subtly unnerving "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). A sensitive lead well-suited to romance, Cotten played a shell-shocked soldier on leave tentatively courting prisoner-on-leave Ginger Rogers in "I'll Be Seeing You" (1944) and his moody poet embraced the amnesiac Jennifer Jones in "Love Letters" (1945). One of his best performances came opposite Jones in William Dieterle's "Portrait of Jennie" (1948), as a painter involved with a mysterious waif from long ago. For his work in this poignant whimsy, Cotten, the kind of effortless performer who never wins awards, was named Best Actor by the Venice Film Festival.
Characterizations calling for sturdiness found Cotten loving Merle Oberon unrequitedly in "Lydia" (1941), helping Claudette Colbert through wartime misery in "Since You Went Away" (1944) and rescuing a victimized Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (1944). The light touch Cotten displayed opposite Katharine Hepburn in Broadway's "The Philadelphia Story" (1939) returned in his work as a charming politician who supports maid-turned-Senator Loretta Young in "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947) and the determined romancer of Margaret Sullavan onstage in "Sabrina Fair" in the early 50s. He was also an effective hero in the wartime thriller "Journey Into Fear" (1943), set up by and co-starring Welles.
Working with Welles even as co-star seemed to bring out the best in Cotten, as in Carol Reed's masterful thriller of postwar black marketeering, "The Third Man" (1949), as the ingenuously American Cotten became disillusioned while skulking through the ruins of Vienna in search of an old buddy. Cotten himself may have been disillusioned during the 50s as his roles gradually declined. He still played leads, but the films were less important, the productions generally mediocre. The bizarre "Beyond the Forest" (1949) used him only as a glum sounding board for the explosive antics of Bette Davis. "September Affair" (1951) was a decent romance reuniting him with Dieterle, but "Under Capricorn" (1949) was one of Hitchcock's biggest misfires, "Half Angel" (1951) a cutesy reteaming with Young, and "Peking Express" (1951) a half-baked attempt to recreate 1932's "Shanghai Express." "The Killer Is Loose" (1955) was a solid, if minor Budd Boetticher thriller, and supporting Van Johnson in "The Bottom of the Bottle" (1956) provided one of his richer parts of that time. Cotten's best 50s part, though, came in "Niagara" (1953), Henry Hathaway's lurid but stunningly directed thriller, as the unstable husband driven crazy by the unfaithful schemings of Marilyn Monroe, in the role that clinched her stardom.
Cotten returned to the stage occasionally as the 50s progressed, and he lent his solid presence to TV's courtroom anthology "On Trial" (1956-57). His cameo as a drunken coroner was but one of many highlights of Welles's dazzling "Touch of Evil" (1958) and Robert Aldrich gave Cotten a classy if hammy villain role in "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1964). Cotten was extremely prolific during the twilight years of his career, alternating shlocky U.S. and Italian-made melodramas and horror films ("Baron Blood" 1972, not one of Mario Bava's greatest; "The Hearse" 1980) with routine TV-movies ("Cutter's Trail" 1970), bland all-star Hollywood features ("Airport '77" 1977) and occasional worthy, offbeat films ("Petulia" 1968, "A Delicate Balance" 1973). Throughout he demonstrated solid if not always exciting professionalism regardless of the material, his slightly grim, firmly set yet still delicate visage always a welcome reminder of his halcyon days of yore.
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Became assistant stage manager for David Belasco and understudied two productions: "Dancing Partner" and "Tonight or Never" in NY
Acted in stock with the Copley Theater, Boston
Broadway debut, "Absent Father"
First collaboration with Orson Welles: the Federal Theater Project production of "Horse Eats Hat"
First short film as actor, "Too Much Johnson"
Left the Mercury Theatre to appear on Broadway in "The Philadelphia Story"
Made feature film acting debut in "Citizen Kane"
Signed to seven-year contract by David O. Selnick
Directed "Peter Hunter, Private Eye", the earliest known syndicated pilot, starring Frank Albertson in the title role
TV debut in General Electric Theater production "The High Green Wall"
Went to Italy to film the Italian-American co-production "The Angel Wore Red/La Sposa Bella" toplining Ava Gardner and Dirk Bogarde
Starred in an NBC-TV one-hour remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious"
Began making films regularly in Italy with "I Crudeli/The Hellbenders" and "Gli Uomini del Passo Pesanti/The Tramplers"
Last American-made films: "The Hearse", "The House Where Death Lives", "Heaven's Gate"
Lost his voice after a stroke; regained it after undergoing therapy
Played last feature acting role in the Italian-made "Rambo Sfida la Citta/Syndicate Sadists"
Appeared as himself in the Italian-made feature documentary, "Hitchcock--Il Brivido del Genio/The Thrill of Genius"