"It's tough to summarize her," said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "She wasn't a 'personality' actress, and so vehicles weren't built around her. But she was a very versatile and reliable actress who was convincing playing tough dames, which she did quite a lot, and more vulnerable women too as exemplified by 'Stagecoach,' where both strains come into play."
She displays the same vulnerability in her Oscar-winning role as the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer in "Key Largo," a film that contains what has been called one of the great moments in movie history.
It comes when her sadistic gangster boyfriend, played by Robinson, forces her to sing "Moanin' Low" in exchange for the drink she craves. She gamely manages to make it through the song. And when Robinson then coldly refuses her the drink, "because you were rotten," a latter-day critic wrote, "the sense of humiliation is heartbreaking."
"It was a terrifying moment," recalled Bren, who had assumed she would be lip-syncing someone else's voice in the scene. She had been hounding director John Huston for days, telling him that she wanted to go to the music department to rehearse the lyrics and phrasing of the song. But he kept putting her off, saying, "There's plenty of time."
When they returned to the sound stage after lunch one day, Bren recalled, "he said, 'I think we'll shoot the song this afternoon.' I said, "What?! I haven't been to rehearsal.' I said, 'Who's going to sing it?' He said, 'You are.' I said, 'No, I can't! I can't sing. I go all off-key. I have no voice. I can't do it!' He said, 'Yes, you will. You can. ' And [co-star] Lionel Barrymore said, 'You can do it.' I said, 'Oh, God.'
"So they put me in the center of the set. Everyone's sitting around looking. The crew was standing around, looking. And offstage, someone hit one note on the piano. Huston said, 'OK, go.' No accompaniment, no anything. But it was right. He was absolutely right. He was a great director, and what a joy to work with a great director."
Bren's life was struck by tragedy in the late 1970s.
In 1978, her son Charles was among 144 people killed in a collision over San Diego in what was considered the nation's worst air disaster. In 1979, her husband of 31 years died of a brain tumor.
Bren said losing her husband "was the biggest loss except for our son, who was killed. That was something you never get over. But losing my husband left me without anybody. I mean, I felt completely alone."
After Milton's death, it was Donald Bren she learned to rely on.
"He has taken care of me like Milton would have," she said. "He's taken all the worries, all the fuss and fume. Donald smoothed over everything. I cannot say enough about him as a son."
Feeling alone and adrift, Bren pulled up stakes in 1980 and moved to New York City.
"I had wonderful friends in Newport Beach and still do, but it's really a couples' town, and I had a lot of old friends in New York because I was born and raised there and kept in touch through the years."
Stepson Peter, a New York-based real estate developer, told her, "If I were a woman alone, that's where I'd go." And, recalled Bren, "I thought, 'He's right. I don't belong here anymore.' So I just sold everything and moved. I'm prone to do those things--enormous decisions and a lot of work--on the spur of the moment: An idea hits me, and I'll do it."
In New York, she built a new life as a single woman, moving into an elegant 5th Avenue apartment in the Pierre Hotel that was featured in Architectural Digest. There was the usual round of art museums, the theater, lunches with old and new friends at 21 and Le Cirque and occasional acting comebacks--playing Sally Field's mother in the 1982 romantic comedy "Kiss Me Goodbye" and an aged schoolteacher in the 1987 TV-movie "Norman Rockell's Breaking Home Ties."
After a dozen years in New York, though, Bren decided to return to California.
Wanting to lead a quieter life and be near her "dear friends," a group of women who are "absolutely like my sisters," she moved back to Newport Beach 18 months ago.
Those friends, whom she stayed close to while living in New York, include Montapert and Newport Beach interior designer Norma Meyer, who accompanied Bren to Cannes this month and has known her for 25 years. "She is one of the most sincere, natural, warm human beings that I have every known," Meyer said.
Said longtime friend Montapert: "She's probably the most gracious lady I have ever known, just an absolute dear friend, who would be there for you no matter what."
Since moving back, Bren has kept a relatively low social profile, preferring small lunches and dinners with her friends. She once served as campaign chairman of the Orange County Arthritis Foundation in the 1970s and still attends a lot of charity parties, but she's not one for working on committees. "I certainly believe in all the good work that's being done, but I'm not an organizer at all," she said.