One of the nicer Christmas presents that film buffs received from Hollywood this year was the reappearance on the big screen of three actresses from years past. I've spent the last two weeks recommending the earlier work of Teresa Wright, who appears in "The Rainmaker," and Gloria Stuart, who is featured in "Titanic." The final member of this comeback trio has had perhaps the most distinguished career of the three, which makes it all the more unfortunate that she appears only briefly in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." If you aren't already familiar with Kim Hunter, her bit part in that film can't possibly have given you any inkling of her remarkable talents. She is one of the most respected alumni of the legendary Actors Studio and has left a legacy of significant theatrical performances along with her movie roles. For a sampling of the work of this gifted actress, look for these titles on video.
"The Seventh Victim" (1943). During the forties, producer Val Lewton created a series of moody thrillers that have rarely been equaled for sheer atmosphere. He specialized in taking B-movie plot material and elevating it to the level of art. This creepy story of contemporary devil worship is regarded by some as Lewton's very best work. Hunter stars as a young woman whose search for her missing sister leads to the discovery of a satanic cult in the heart of New York City. Hunter is excellent in her film debut, and could hardly have chosen a better vehicle in which to launch a screen career.
"Stairway to Heaven" (1946). In this wartime drama, David Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter Carter, a British pilot who is forced to ditch his plane under attack. He has no parachute, but somehow manages to jump to safety. While the plane was going down, he had spoken what he thought would be his last words with an American WAC over the radio. Now, having survived, he chances to meet the woman (Hunter), and they begin a love affair. Meanwhile, a certain heavenly bureaucrat discovers that Peter had actually been scheduled to die in the plane crash. Through a celestial clerical error, his death went unconsummated. Now a decision must be made: is it fair to snatch Peter away from a love he was never meant to know, given that the situation occurred through no fault of his?
"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951). The film version of the classic Tennessee Williams play features both Hunter and Marlon Brando in the roles they created in the original stage production. Brando, of course, plays the rude, crude Stanley Kowalski opposite Hunter as his wife Stella. Although Brando and Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois have the showiest roles, Hunter does an excellent job in the quieter role of Stella.
" The Swimmer" (1968). John Cheever's wickedly incisive portraits of upper class suburbia have only rarely been adapted for the screen. This largely forgotten little movie does an admirable job of capturing his sardonic wit and piercing eye for the telling detail. Burt Lancaster stars as a man who realizes one day while swimming in a neighbor's pool that from their house to his there is a line of contiguous properties, every one of which boasts a backyard pool. He conceives the notion of swimming his way home, traversing each pool on his way. Along the way he encounters a wide variety of friends, estranged former friends, and ex-lovers. One of the estranged friends, played by Hunter, is the wife of an acquaintance. He pretends to be cordial, but she has not forgotten that he has slighted both her and her husband in the past.
"Planet of the Apes" (1968). Undoubtedly Hunter's single strangest role was that of an ape, playing opposite Charlton Heston in the first of what would be a series of science fiction films about a society of intelligent apes. As Dr. Zira, an ape scientist, Hunter manages to give a convincing performance even through pounds and pounds of makeup.
Hunter disappeared from the screen for a few years in the fifties due to red-scare blacklisting, and has scarcely been seen in the movies since her last "Planet of the Apes" role. Maybe, if we're lucky, her next screen appearance will be more substantial than the tantalizing glimpse in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."