Jan Sterling

Jan Sterling
Jan Sterling

Jan Sterling, who has died aged 82, made her name playing hard-bitten blonde floozies, but beneath the surface she always betrayed a certain fragility. Although Sterling had no qualms about posing for cheesecake photographs, there was a reticence about her personality; nor was she a conventional beauty, one of her eyes being higher than the other, and she had a rather elongated, melancholy face. For one role, she shaved off her eyebrows, which never grew back, so she was required to pencil them in for the rest of her career.

By far her best role was in Billy Wilder’s sardonic Ace In The Hole (1951), in which she was the sluttish, opportunistic wife of a man trapped in a cave, a situation ruthlessly exploited by sensation-seeking journalist Kirk Douglas. When asked to pose for a news photo praying for her husband’s safety, she replies: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” But she recognises Douglas as even more unscrupulous than she. “I’ve met some hardboiled eggs in my time, but you – you’re 20 minutes,” Sterling comments wryly


At the time, Sterling was one of Paramount’s resident broads, playing sharp-tongued gangsters’ molls in both Union Station (1950) and Appointment With Danger (1951). In fact, her film career began (excepting a walk-on in Tycoon, 1947, credited as Jane Darien) in Warners’ Johnny Belinda (1948) as the town tramp, married to the rapist of a deaf-mute girl.

In contrast, in real life, Sterling was extremely refined, having been born Jan Sterling Adriance into a socially prominent and wealthy New York family. After being educated in private schools, she studied acting at Fay Compton’s drama school in London. She made her Broadway debut in 1938, aged 15, as an English schoolgirl in Ian Hay’s Bachelor Born.

There followed other roles in British plays such as JB Priestley’s When We Were Married (1939), and she played the stage-struck ingénue in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (1946). But the part that led to her Hollywood contract was that of dumb blonde Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1949), having taken over from Judy Holliday. Her co-star was Paul Douglas, whom she married the same year. (Sterling had divorced British actor Jack Merivale.)

In films, Sterling was seen as a tough jail bird in Caged (1950) and Woman’s Prison (1954), and as the witty guardian of a cat that has inherited $30 million in Rhubarb (1951). In Flesh And Fury (1952), she’s a gold digging, night-club singer who latches on to boxer Tony Curtis, before he dumps her for a nice girl.

In 1954, Sterling was Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress in The High And The Mighty as a touching mail-order bride with a questionable past, one of the passengers on a threatened plane. The following year, Sterling, as a jealous killer, competed ably with Joan Crawford in Female On The Beach, and was superb as Robert Mitchum’s estranged, saloon-owner wife in the western Man With The Gun, trying to hide her fears for his safety. In The Harder They Fall (1956), she was again a concerned wife, this time of sports columnist Humphrey Bogart (in his last film), worried about his involvement with a crooked syndicate.

The year before, Sterling and Douglas had gone to England, he to make Joe Macbeth and she to co-star with Edmond O’Brien as the lovers defying Big Brother in the first screen adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The original version ends with O’Brien and Sterling being shot, while for the US release, they reform and become loyal to Big Brother!

At the time, Sterling was several months pregnant, while her husband was fighting a losing battle against alcoholism. Her film roles deteriorated, apart from her sympathetic portrayal of a longshoreman’s widow in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957). After Douglas died of a heart attack, aged 52, in 1959, Sterling took a few years off.

She then returned to the stage, notably in The Front Page (1970) and Come Back, Little Sheba (1974), as the wife of an alcoholic.

On television, Sterling played Mrs Herbert Hoover in the mini-series Backstairs At The White House (1976). In the late 1970s, Sterling settled in London, where she had a long-lasting liaison with director Sam Wanamaker.

Her son, Adams Douglas, died three months ago.

· Jan Sterling, actor, born April 3 1921; died March 26 2004


The Guardian obituary by Ronald Bergan.




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