Those old faces in the new movies


January 01, 1991|By LOU CEDRONE

It's wonderful seeing those old, familiar faces on the movie screen.

It's better than seeing an old friend. Old friends carry old baggage. Old faces, returned to the screen, bring only the baggage of their films, or television appearances, and in many cases the memories are pleasant.

"Almost an Angel" isn't worth that much, but it does bring Charlton Heston back to the screen, if only in a cameo. Heston, who played Moses in "The Ten Commandments" (1965) and had an on-screen encounter with Christ in the 1959 remake of "Ben-Hur," plays God in the Paul Hogan film, a bit of inspired casting on the part of Hogan, who immediately thought of Heston and offered him the role.

Heston has done stage ("Caine Mutiny Court Martial") and television ("The Colbys," the soap) in recent years, but more recently, hasn't appeared in a major film.

Catch "Kindergarten Cop," and you'll see a maturing but still attractive Carroll Baker as the mother of the killer. In the film, Baker, maternally protective to a fault, plays a role far removed from the kind of characters she did more than a few decades back.

In 1956, Baker was "Baby Doll" in the controversial film version of the Tennessee Williams story. The Catholic Church disapproved, and at the time, it had far more power than it does today. It was a while before the film reached Baltimore.

After "Baby Doll," Baker was "Harlow" in the 1965 film biography on Jean Harlow. It was produced by Joseph E. Levine. Baker did a few more American films then went off to Italy where she became a box-office queen.

She would charge, later, that Levine had crippled her career in the United States. She returned from Italy after a time, but to minor roles in movies such as "Star 80" and "Ironweed."

In "Awakenings," the film that opens in Baltimore Jan. 11, Ruth Nelson is the old, familiar face. She began acting in 1926. In the new film, she plays Robert De Niro's mother. Her previous film was Robert Altman's "A Wedding" which was released 12 years ago.

Nelson goes back to the Group Theater, which she helped found in 1931. The producers of "Awakenings" saw her in a PBS documentary that was done on the Group Theater, called her and asked if she would like to work with De Niro. She would and did.

During World War II, Nelson was under contract to Twentieth-Century Fox where she did films such as "North Star," Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Wilson."

In the coming "Green Card," the veteran player is Lois Smith, who first attracted attention as a slovenly bar girl in the 1955 "East of Eden," one of the few films James Dean did.

Smith has worked in the ensuing years. She does a lot of stage work (a few years back, she appeared at the Olney Theater), but she does very little film work.

Appearing opposite her in the new film, as her husband, is Conrad McLaren, who may be remembered by patrons of the Garland Dinner Theater, forerunner of Toby's Musical Dinner Theater in Columbia. McLaren spent several seasons with the dinner theater.

Last year, "Pretty Woman" included a very familiar performer, Elinor Donahue, who played a saleslady. Donahue was never a movie name, but she was a television name. She has done seven series, among them, "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Father Knows Best."

Looking for more? Try "Edward Scissorhands," "The Godfather Part III" and "White Palace." The familiar face in the first is that of Vincent Price, granddaddy of the contemporary horror film. It was Price who lifted the Hammer Horror Films to a level of respectability. Before those, he appeared in the early '40s in classics such as "Laura" and "Dragonwyck."

In truth, Price has never really left us. Though his big-screen appearances have been infrequent ("The Whales of August" and "The Offspring" were among his last), he's done television spots that hold him in the public eye.

In "The Godfather Part III," the veteran actor is Raf Vallone. Vallone has been working since the late '40s when he did "Bitter Rice" with Sylvana Mangano.

In 1961, he did "Two Women" with Sophia Loren. Four years later, he did "Harlow" with Baker. He continued to do films here and in Italy until the early '80s. "The Godfather Part III" marks his first big-screen appearance in an American-produced film in more recent years.

Renee Taylor is the "old" face in "White Palace." In it, she plays the mother of James Spader. Only a few years ago (197l), she was the romantic interest in "Made for Each Other," a film she wrote with her husband, Joseph Bologna. He and she starred in the film.

Coming up is Maureen O'Hara in "Only the Lonely," a John Hughes comedy. O'Hara hasn't been seen on the large screen in 17 years, but she is always visible every Christmas, in television re-runs of the 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street," in which she played Natalie Wood's mother.

O'Hara, now 69, was frequent screen partner to John Wayne. At one time, she and Vera Miles had a virtual monopoly on the roles of "mature" women. Both were actresses who were still young but mature enough to play opposite older actors like Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda.

In "Only the Lonely," O'Hara plays John Candy's mother. In time, Candy will probably play father to much younger actors. In more time, he will probably disappear then suddenly reappear on the screen, in a small, supporting role. It will be good to see him.

Lou Cedrone review movies and the theater for The Evening Sun.

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