Oscar Profile #427: Hume Cronyn

Born July 18, 1911 in London, Ontario, Canada, Hume Cronyn was one of five children whose father, Hume Sr. was a businessman and member of Parliament for London who had an observatory at the University of Western Ontario and an asteroid named after him.

After graduating from Ridley College, Cronyn switched majors from pre-law to drama while attending McGill University, continuing his studies under Max Reinhardt at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He made his Broadway debut playing a janitor in Hipper’s Holiday, the first of many Broadway productions in which he had a minor role for the next decade. He married philanthropist Emily Woodruff that same year, but the two never lived together. They were divorced in 1936.

In 1940, Cronyn met actress Jessica Tandy who had just emigrated to the U.S. from England following her divorce from actor Jack Hawkins. They married in 1942, had two children, and acted together throughout their more than 50-year marriage on stage, in films and on television. Cronyn made his film debut in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. Tandy made her U.S. film debut in 1944’s The Seventh Cross, Cronyn’s fifth film for which he received an Oscar nomination in support of Spencer Tracy.

Despite his Oscar nomination, prestige screen roles were rare for Cronyn who in 1946 was directing Tandy in Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna in Los Angeles where Elia Kazan saw the production and immediately cast Tandy as Blanche DuBois in the forthcoming Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Cronyn gave memorable performances in such films as 1946’s The Green Years and The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1947’s Brute Force, 1949’s Top o’ the Morning and 1951’s People Will Talk, after which he took a 12 year hiatus from films while he concentrated on his stage and TV work. He returned to films with 1963’s Cleopatra and was seen periodically thereafter in memorable performances in such films as 1964’s Hamlet (a filmed version of the play for which he won a Tony playing Polonius), 1969’s Gaily, Gaily, 1971’s There Was a Crooked Man, 1974’s Conrack, 1981’s Rollover, 1982’s The World According to Garp and 1985’s Cocoon.

The 1992 TV movie, Broadway Bound earned Cronyn an Emmy three years after Tandy collected her Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. He had a supporting role in 1994’s Camilla starring Tandy in her last film, released two months after her death at the age of 85.

Cronyn played the title role in 1996’s Marvin’s Room, the same year he married third wife, novelist Susan Cooper. It would be his last theatrical film, after which he occasionally appeared in such TV movies as the 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men and the 2004 remake of A Separate Peace which was released posthumously.

Hume Cronyn died on June 15, 2003 at 91.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his 1940s films was filmed on location in Santa Rosa, California. Hitchcock loved the idea of bringing terror to a small town in which Teresa Wright’s uncle (Joseph Cotton), unbeknownst to her, is a serial killer. Wright and Cotton are terrific as are Patricia Collinge and Henry Travers as Wright’s parents and Cronyn in his screen debut as their next-door neighbor. Cronyn is he film’s comic relief, a mystery buff who exchanges ideas on how to commit the perfect murder with fellow mystery buff Travers. Cronyn would made his second Hitchcock film, Lifeboat shortly thereafter.

THE GREEN YEARS (1946), directed by Victor Saville

Cronyn made many films with wife Jessica Tandy beginning with 1944’s The Seventh Cross for which he received an Oscar nomination. While she usually played his wife in their films together, in this one she plays his daughter even though in real life she was two years older than him. The film centers around Dean Stockwell as the orphaned son of an Irish Catholic father and a Scottish Protestant mother, being raised Catholic by his mother’s Protestant family consisting of Cronyn and Selena Royale as his grandparents, Charles Coburn as Royle’s father, Gladys Cooper as Cronyn’s mother and Tandy as just one of Cronyn’s children.

BRUTE FORCE (1947), directed by Jules Dassin

Cronyn, who could play nasty characters better than just anyone in his day, was at his nastiest as the sadistic chief guard who uses violence, fear and treachery to rule the prisoners in this excellent film noir starring Burt Lancaster in an equally memorable performance as Cronyn’s nemesis in what was only his second film. Although set entirely in prison, the film gives memorable turns to Yvonne de Carlo, Ann Blyth and Ella Raines, all in flashback scenes. Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Jay C. Flippen and White Bissell are also memorable, but Cronyn is the clear standout here.

COCOON (1985), directed by Ron Howard

The setting for this warm, amusing science-fiction comedy about a group of senior citizens fighting against the dying of the light in their twilight years is a Florida community where they are trespassers in a deserted swimming pool where they are mysteriously becoming rejuvenated while their friends and neighbors are dropping like flies. Cronyn and Tandy top the cast that also includes Don Ameche in his Oscar-winning role, Gwen Verdon, Wilford Brimley, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Gilford and Herta Ware as the oldsters and Steve Guttenberg, Tahnee Welch, Barrett Oliver and Tyrone Power, Jr. as members of the younger generations.

MARVIN’S ROOM (1996), directed by Jerry Zaks

Cronyn had the title role in his last theatrical film, but it was not the starring role. In fact, Cronyn doesn’t utter a word in the film in which he plays a man confined to bed for 17 years following a stroke. He is, nevertheless, a presence in the film in which the brunt of the acting is done by Meryl Streep as his estranged daughter, Diane Keaton as the selfless daughter who has been taking care of him all these years, Leonardo DiCaprio as Streep’s teenage son, Gwen Verdon as Cronyn’s flighty sister and briefly, Robert De Niro as Keaton’s doctor who has to inform her that she will soon die of Leukemia unless she finds a bone marrow donor.

HUME CRONYN AND OSCAR

  • The Seventh Cross (1944) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor

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