Elaine Stewart

Elaine Stewart obituary in “The Guardian”.

“Guardian” obituary:

The seductive brunette Elaine Stewart, who has died aged 81, may have lacked that ineffable essence that makes up star quality, but she had enough allure to attract attention in several glossy Hollywood movies in the 1950s, both in leading parts and noteworthy supporting roles. Among the best of the latter were her brief though memorable appearances in two films directed by Vincente Minnelli.

She was both bad and beautiful in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) as Lila, a wannabe film star, hoping to make it by sleeping with Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), the studio head. When told that Shields is a great man, Lila responds, “There are no great men, buster. There’s only men.” The scene which lingers most in the mind is when Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), who has just triumphed in a Shields movie, leaves a party to be with him at his Hollywood mansion. While she is embracing Shields, Lila’s shadow looms over them. Then Georgia notices Lila at the top of the stairs, barefoot, wearing a slinky dress, a martini glass in hand. “I thought you said you were going to get rid of her quick,” says Lila. “The picture’s finished, Georgia. You’re business, I’m company.”

Her sequence in Brigadoon (1954) begins with a violent cut from the picturesque Scottish village in the Highlands to a bustling Manhattan bar where Stewart, as Gene Kelly’s Park Avenue fiancee, is chatting away about the wedding and shopping. Kelly, whose inner ear is listening to the music to which he had danced with a Scottish lass (Cyd Charisse), doesn’t hear a word the self-absorbed Stewart is saying. A stark contrast is created between the two women: the dream girl and the real thing. Ironically, unlike Kelly, Minnelli was pleased to get away from the feyness and painted scenery of the wilds of Scotland to revel in the noisy bar where the metropolitan Stewart is quite at home.

She was born Elsy Steinberg in New Jersey, one of five children of German-Jewish parents. After a few jobs, she was taken on in her late teens by the Conover modelling agency in New York, which worked with the leading magazines of the day. She was soon getting photo layouts, one of which caught the eye of producer Hal B Wallis at Paramount, who cast her as a sexy navy nurse in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy Sailor Beware (1952). Stewart made the most of her one scene when she brushes off a pass by Martin, who is told, “When it comes to sailors, she’s colder than a deep freeze.” However, a few minutes later she is seen, to Martin’s astonishment, to be kissing Lewis.

The sequence was enough to land her an MGM contract, and she was offered a few decorative bit parts, culminating in The Bad and the Beautiful. In 1953, she got leading roles opposite Mickey Rooney (A Slight Case of Larceny), Ralph Meeker (Code Two) and Richard Widmark (Take the High Ground!). She is touching in the last of these, her meatiest role, as a neurotic war widow who comes between army sergeants played by Widmark and Karl Malden.

In a very full year, Stewart was also seen losing her head as Anne Boleyn in Young Bess, and was the subject of a Life magazine cover story entitled Budding Starlet Visits the Folks in Jersey. Despite the fact that Stewart had passed the “budding starlet” phase, it was typical of the way she was often characterised.

In 1954, on loan from MGM, she starred in The Adventures of Hajji Baba, a piece of Hollywood exotica, playing, rather more erratically than erotically, an oriental princess being escorted across the desert by John Derek (in the title role) to marry a powerful prince. When told she is extremely innocent, the 24-year-old Stewart replies, “Whose fault is that? Here I am 17 and unwedded. My sisters and cousins were married at 14! I have wasted three years and I will waste no more!”

Having lost a role in The Opposite Sex (1956) to Joan Collins, Stewart left MGM to take on a two-picture deal with Universal, who changed her hair colour to quicksilver blonde. As she told a fan magazine, “To go with my hair, all my jewellery is silver. I have a new silver Mercedes to drive and a silver poodle named Clicquot. I use silver nail polish and eat off silver dishes. And I sleep in a silver bed.”

In the film noir The Tattered Dress (1957), Stewart is seen in the sensational credit sequence having her dress ripped by her lover, then driving home drunk to her jealous husband. The New York Times’s critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote that “Stewart is provocative enough … to distract an avowed misogynist.” She was a little more restrained in Night Passage (1957), in which she tries to stir up past longings in James Stewart on a mission for her wealthy husband. The best of her last few parts was as a treacherous gangster’s moll in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), which she made after posing nude for Playboy magazine.

Stewart had a short marriage to the actor Bill Carter and, in 1964, married the television producer Merrill Heatter. She retired for a while to start a family, then made a comeback in the 1970s as a host on two TV gameshows, Gambit and High Rollers, on which her husband was executive producer.

Stewart is survived by Merrill and their son, Stewart, and daughter, Gabrielle.

• Elaine Stewart (Elsy Steinberg), actor; born 31 May 1930; died 27 June 2011

The “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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