Although the role of the baroness in “The Sound of Music” was far from Eleanor Parker’s best movie work, her death at the age of 91 on Monday might have passed without much mention if she had not appeared in the 1965 best picture Oscar winner.
“The Sound of Music” has become one of the most beloved films in the history of Hollywood, so everyone involved got a bump from it that has lasted almost 50 years.
Parker had a long and distinguished movie career before the hit musical, but because she preferred to play a wide variety of roles — in nearly every genre — the actress didn’t leave behind a vivid movie star persona, as many of her peers did.
The Associated Press obituary quoted a 1988 interview in which Parker said, “I’m primarily a character actress. I’ve portrayed so many diverse individuals on the screen that my own personality never emerged.”
The quality of Parker’s work was recognized early on, with three best actress Oscar nominations between 1950 and 1955, but she was a chameleon rather than a star personality so the actress never had vehicles built around her the way that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did.
Parker started her rise just when the studio contract system was ending, so she didn’t have the advantage of the PR that studios like MGM and Columbia could have churned out for her a decade earlier.
Even when the quality of the movies that Parker appeared in began to decline she always came through with lively, professional work.
A few years before she was cast in “The Sound of Music,” the actress replaced Lana Turner in “Return to Peyton Place,” the 1961 sequel to the 1957 smash “Peyton Place.” Parker was a lot more amusing to watch as the long-suffering Constance Mackenzie, whose love for her daughter Alison (Carol Lynley) is serious tested when the young woman writes a sexy bestseller based on what she learned growing up in Peyton Place.
What makes the 1961 sequel so much fun is that it is a semi-accurate account of the trouble writer Grace Metalious faced in her New Enagland home town when her original novel came out.
Constance supports her daughter against the angry townspeople, but she is put to the test when the town’s reigning biddie (Mary Astor) is so appalled by Alison’s novel that she pushes the school board to ban it from the library and to oust Constance’s husband (Robert Sterling) from his job as principal.
“Return to Peyton Place” is dated and full of ridiculous euphemisms for the sex that everyone is so stirred up about, but Parker and her wonderful co-stars, and the prudes vs. libertines storyline, are still irresistibly entertaining.
In The New York Times obit, Parker was quoted in a 1950s interview about her career in movies: “Things have a way of working out right for me. I maintain that if you work, believe in yourself and do what is right for you without stepping all over others, the way somehow opens up.”
“I even got my three wishes granted,” she added in the same interview. “To be in pictures, to give Mother a mink coat and buy the folks a house.”