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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Nina Foch: The ultimate "Noir Girl" can still talk trash

October 8, 2008 |  9:30 am

Ross2_2 When Nina Foch recently went back and watched her breakthrough B-movie classic, "My Name Is Julia Ross," she was, well, astounded. "I hadn't seen the film in years," she told me. "I saw this tall, skinny girl with her back to the camera, with this ridiculously tiny waist, and she finally turns around and I went, 'Oh, my God — that's me!' "

Now 84, Foch is one of the few survivors of Hollywood's golden age of film noir, which is being celebrated by a new 12-film series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive called "Cool Drinks of Water: Columbia's Noir Girls of the '40s and '50s." Foch stars in two of the series best thrillers Wednesday night, Joseph H. Lewis' "My Name Is Julia Ross" and Rudolph Mate's "The Dark Past," which gives Foch a chance to rub elbows with William Holden and Lee J. Cobb.

Film noir created bigger stars than Foch, but no one had a more fascinating career. After seven years of making what she bluntly calls "crappy B-movies" at Columbia Pictures, she flew the coop, playing Cordelia in "King Lear" on Broadway, landing parts in "An American in Paris" and "Spartacus" and working regularly in TV, doing everything from "Playhouse 90" and "Your Show of Shows" to "Bonanza," "I Spy" and "Mod Squad." She's been an acting teacher for years at USC, where her class, "Directing the Actor," is a must for aspiring writer-directors. Her students have included Randal Kleiser (who's working on a documentary about her), Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, John McTiernan, Amy Heckerling and Stephen Sommers.

She has little patience for all of us film-school geeks who romanticize the film noir era. It was barely a cut above factory work, with studios like Columbia churning out movies like cars on an assembly line. "It's extraordinary how fast we made them," she recalls. "You'd shoot an entire picture in 10 or 12 days. We worked six days a week. There was no turn-around time back then, so you'd work into the evening, go home for six hours and then come back to work again." She laughs. "The movies were called noir because no one had the time to light anything."

She was 19 when Harry Cohn signed her to a contract to Columbia, where she made nearly all of her B-movies. "I wasn't very happy at Columbia," she says. "I didn't like Harry Cohn and his ilk. They wished I was prettier, had luscious lips and big tits, but I didn't. But when you were under contract to a studio, you were stuck."

"My Name Is Julia Ross" is a favorite with critics today. In a recent introduction to this series, our film critic Kenny Turan praised the film's "terrifying air of disturbing mystery," saying it "packs more than would seem possible into its taut 65-minute running time." Even though Foch tends to be dismissive of her work at Columbia, film lovers are more appreciative. "She's really the reason we did these films," says Andrea Alsberg, who curated the series. "Nina is this tall, cool drink of water. She's not a dame, like Gloria Grahame. She's got class. 'Julia Ross' is a great, Hitchcockian thriller. And it's Nina that brings it alive. It's only 65 minutes, but you want to look at her the whole time."

The other film on the double bill, the 1948 thriller "The Dark Past," put Foch on screen opposite two other rising stars, William Holden and Lee J. Cobb. She doesn't mince words about who she liked best:

"Bill Holden was a sweetheart," she says. "He was lovely to work with. I think Bill's father had made him believe that acting wasn't really a fit occupation for a man, which gave him great unhappiness. But we got along fine. Lee was obnoxious. He'd come in every morning and complain about the film and how awful it was. It drove Bill crazy — he'd be dying inside. But that's how Lee cranked up his motor, by bad-mouthing everything. So I'd commiserate with Bill and get his spirits up again."

Foch wasn't enamored by many of her directors. She says Joseph H. Lewis made it clear in interviews later in his career that he wasn't enamored by her either. "He said he wished I hadn't been cast in 'Julia Ross,' which I thought was pretty tacky of him to say." Foch suspects that "Dark Past's" Rudolph Mate, who was a gifted cinematographer before graduating to directing, was pushed to direct by his spouse. "I always had the feeling he was happy being a cameraman, but his wife wanted to go to A-list parties and cameramen didn't get invited to A-list parties, so she worked at getting him kicked upstairs into directing jobs."

Later in her career, Foch landed a job in "Spartacus," where she was reunited with Kirk Douglas, whom she'd known as a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But she was not impressed by Stanley Kubrick, who directed the picture. "He was a very, very small man in every sense of the word," she explains. "I didn't mind that he was rude to me — I mean, after all, who was I — but I thought it was a bit much when he was rude to Larry Olivier too. Whenever Larry would want to discuss a scene, Kubrick would look skyward, staring up in the air, as if to say, 'What is this idiot doing talking to me?' "

Foch has a thousand stories like that to tell, but let's end with how she got the best of Harry Cohn, who was always vigilant about enforcing the studio's onerous contracts. Once, in the late 1940s, Foch got an offer to do a two-hour TV special with Lillian Gish. Knowing she needed Cohn's permission, she phoned the studio chief herself. "You'd think that would be my agent's job, but he was scared to ever say anything to Harry," she recalls. "So I called him and said I really wanted to be in this show with Lillian. And I made him a great offer. I said 'Harry, you can have half of whatever I make.' I think Harry thought he was getting a good deal, so he said yes. But the joke was on him. This was the early days of TV and all they paid me was $400. But Harry got his half."

All I can say is see Foch's film-noir thrillers for yourself. Harry Cohn may not have known it at the time, but he was getting half of a helluva woman.

"My Name Is Julia Ross" and "The Dark Past" play at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. For more information, go to: