Foch didn't need Broadway to find her perfect stage, but it would've been nice


Nina Foch, who died in December, had her share of theater successes — notably, a Broadway hit in 1947-48 in the Norman Krasna comedy "John Loves Mary," a role played in the 1949 film version by Patricia Neal — but it was in movies where Foch made her most vivid impression.

It is the theater's great loss not to have seen more of Foch, who is being honored with a tribute next month at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

Foch had the acting chops to have taken on all the great stage roles, from "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Virginia Woolf" to "Medea" — even "The Hairy Ape," if she'd been so disposed. But Hollywood hooked her early on, and as happened to some of the most shining talents in the era of the studio system, she signed with the wrong studio: Columbia Pictures, which was right for Rita Hayworth in the 1940s and Kim Novak in the '50s but wrong for Nina Foch anytime.

Columbia at the time was considered a lower-rung outpost, possessing enough muscle to turn out only a handful of A-budget projects each year, with the main focus always on its biggest boxoffice asset: beautiful Rita. Meanwhile, the studio's main goal was to churn out B-level endeavors for small-town audiences, and it was into those unforgettable knockoffs that a majority of the studio's contract players were imprisoned.

As a result, most of the early film work on the Foch credit sheet has such titles as "The Return of the Vampire," "Cry of the Werewolf," "Escape in the Fog" and "Prison Ship." (There is one genuine gem in the group, 1944's "My Name Is Julia Ross"; it's a classic of its kind.) Occasionally, Foch would be slotted into a script with higher ambitions, but for the most part, her start in film took years to overcome.

The post-Columbia period was infinitely better: She was dazzlingly good as Gene Kelly's rich benefactress in 1951's "An American in Paris," which should have brought her a supporting actress Oscar nomination at the least. She also was terrific in 1954's "Executive Suite," which did bring her Academy Award attention, an indication of her standout work in that film being that though she was working among such heavyweight scene-stealers as William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, June Allyson, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas and Louis Calhern, she was the only one in the film to rate an Oscar nom.

Later came numerous Foch performances on television as well as in major movies, including Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" and Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus." But still no "Streetcars" or "Sophie's Choices" came her way.

The fates, however, had something more lasting in mind.

In the 1970s, she began running small but soon sought-after acting classes, which extended into individual seminars that attracted some of the entertainment industry's mightiest names. Later, she joined USC's School of Cinematic Arts, delivering an advanced seminar in directing actors for film. The classes became part of the curriculum for a master's of fine arts writing program.

She also became a consultant on many films, a one-stop trouble-shooter for which many a director had reason to be eternally grateful. Thus, a large number of today's busiest and best actors, singers, directors, screenwriters and producers owe a great deal to her.

Which leads us to USC's tribute, set for 7:30 p.m. April 14 at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wilshire Boulevard. It will include clips from her screen career as well as onstage remembrances with several of her colleagues, students, friends and family members, including son Dirk de Brito.

The event is open to the public. RSVPs (to be made at will be honored on a first-come, first-served basis.

In case you weren't aware, Foch preferred her name be pronounced not "Foe-shh," like that famous boulevard in Paris, but "Faw-shh," as it rhymes with "Gosh."

Enter 'Exit,' others

On Broadway, the week's big opening occurred Thursday, when "Exit the King" debuted at the Barrymore for a limited run through June 14. It toplines Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon.

The next assignment for first-nighters: Dan Gordon's new play "Irena's Vow," launching Sunday at the Walter Kerr, starring Tovah Feldshuh and directed by Michael Parva.

On Tuesday, the new/old "Hair" debuts at the Al Hirschfeld, directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Karole Armitage.

On Thursday, it's check-in time for Neil LaBute's new play "reasons to be pretty" at the Lyceum, directed by Terry Kinney.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host of Turner Classic Movies.