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Jeanne Crain, 78; Her Role in 'Pinky' Earned Oscar Nomination

December 15, 2003|Bob Thomas | Associated Press

Jeanne Crain, the winsome beauty who starred in lightweight 1940s romances and comedies such as "Margie" and "An Apartment for Peggy" and earned an Academy Award nomination as a black girl passing for white in the controversial "Pinky," has died. She was 78.

Crain died of a heart attack at her Santa Barbara home early Sunday morning, according to her son, Paul Brinkman Jr. She appeared in 64 films and many television shows during her long career, playing opposite such stars as Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and William Holden.

With her lovely features, slender, appealing figure and demure, feminine manner, she became a leading star in the wartime and postwar years. For faraway GI's, she seemed the ideal girl back home. At 20th Century Fox studio, her fan mail was second only to pinup queen Betty Grable.

Crain's 1943 movie debut followed the Hollywood cliche: She appeared in a swimming suit beside a pool in the all-star "The Gang's All Here." She was elevated to leading roles in her next films, "Home in Indiana," "In the Meantime, Darling," "Winged Victory" and "State Fair," which featured Rodgers and Hammerstein's only original score for a movie.

"Margie" (1946), an entertaining, nostalgic tale of a small-town girl in the 1920s who gets a crush on her French teacher, established Crain as an important Fox star. She followed with a musical, "You Were Meant for Me," opposite Dan Dailey, and "An Apartment for Peggy," a romance with William Holden.

"Pinky" (1949) brought Crain's only Oscar recognition, a nomination for best actress. It was a daring film at a time when Hollywood avoided racial controversy.

Lena Horne and other African American actresses sought the role, but Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck decided on a white star with box-office appeal. Pinky (a slang term for a light-skinned black) had grown up in the Deep South and gone north, where she passed for white. She returns to the home of her grandmother and faces the bitter hatred of the whites.

"I grew up without knowing anything about prejudice; my mother saw to that," Crain said in 1995. "If parents would keep prejudice and intolerance to themselves for one generation, we would have a different world ... Children, fundamentally, are democratic. They may have intense dislikes based on personal reactions to other children, but not because of race or religion."

"Pinky," which was directed by Elia Kazan, was widely praised by film critics but encountered opposition in the South. Audiences objected to a white man kissing a "light-skinned Negro" and wanting to marry her, being cognizant of her heritage. Marshall, Texas, banned the film, but the town's film censoring ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The movie's controversy enhanced Crain's popularity. She recalled that her fan letters rose to 6,000 a week, and only 1% were critical.

As for working with Kazan, she told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper that the director "knows the inner workings of the brain and he gives it to you straight. Being an actor himself, he not only tells you what he wants but he can also tell you how to do it." Kazan died in September.

Jeanne Crain was born in Barstow. Nine months later, her family moved to Los Angeles, where her father became head of the English department at Inglewood High School. A beautiful girl, she began winning leads in school plays at 14 and beauty contests at 15.

As Camera Girl of 1942 in Long Beach, she attracted the attention of 20th Century Fox and was given a routine studio contract. That was soon discarded for better terms as her career rapidly ascended.

Even with her status as one of the studio's most important stars, she remained as friendly as she appeared on the screen. She was always punctual and polite on the movie set and patient with the demands of stardom, including press interviews.

In 1945, at age 20, Crain married Paul Brinkman, who was tall and handsome enough to dabble as an actor by the name of Paul Brooks. He later became a successful businessman.

Their so-called storybook marriage hit a snag in 1956 when she filed for divorce; each charged the other with infidelity. They reconciled four months later. They had seven children.

As she matured, Crain began playing more dramatic roles in films such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz's hit "A Letter to Three Wives" and his "People Will Talk," in which she was wooed by Cary Grant. But she retrogressed as the teen daughter of Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy in "Cheaper by the Dozen" and its sequel, "Belles on Their Toes."

By 1956, Crain felt that her future at Fox was limited, and she asked for release from her contract, which had been extended for a year at a reported salary of $3,500 a week.

"I loved being at the studio," she said in an interview. "After all, I started at 15, and I grew up there. But there comes a time when an actress stays too long in the same place. People get used to having you around, and they can't think of you in a different light.

"I was grateful for having pictures like 'Home in Indiana,' 'State Fair' and 'Margie.' 'Pinky' was certainly a challenge. But then I had to do 'Cheaper by the Dozen.' I realize it was a big moneymaker, but it didn't help me to go back to pigtails."

In her retirement years, she and Brinkman spent their time at two working ranches.

He died in October. She is survived by sons Paul Jr. and Timothy and daughters Jeanine Brinkman, Lisa Binstock and Maria Brinkman. Sons Michael and Christopher Brinkman predeceased her.

Associated Press writer Bruce Haring and Times Staff Reports contributed to this article.

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