The daughter of the famous New York theater and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes, Barbara Bel Geddes began working as an actress at New York’s Windsor Theater when she was just nineteen. She played small theaters in Connecticut and New York and worked with a USO tour before establishing herself first in the New York theater community and later in the Hollywood film industry. As a stage, film, and television performer, Bel Geddes won the admiration of critics as a bright and charming actress of emotional depth, a skillful performer of complex roles.
After appearing in many popular productions, Bel Geddes was offered the most important part of her career. She became the first woman to act the part of Maggie the Cat in the 1955 production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on Hot Tin Roof. The show received glowing reviews and Bel-Geddes’s performance as Maggie earned accolades throughout the theater community. Her interpretation of the volatile and complicated Maggie was described as “magnificent . . . vital, lovely and frank.”1 She was praised for her remarkable work in the play’s first act, which consists almost entirely of Maggie’s monologue. The play, for which Williams received a Pulitzer Prize, has become one of the most important of twentieth-century American literature.
When Bel Geddes appeared in plays that were not well received by critics, she was often singled out for praise. Most critics found her work compelling and convincing, in spite of a second-rate script. In Robert Anderson’s Silent Night, Lonely Night with Henry Fonda, a play that received only lukewarm reviews, critics noticed Bel Geddes’s portrayal of a betrayed wife as a strength of the production. “Even in a mood of grief, she is sunny and beautiful,” Brooks Atkinson wrote of her performance, “she speaks her lines with a reticent inflection that is disarming.”2
Also an accomplished film actress, Bel Geddes appeared in I Remember Mama with Irene Dunn in 1948 and the 1950 Elia Kazan noir film Panic in the Streets with Zero Mostel. She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1959 as Midge, the steadfast Girl Friday to Jimmy Stewart’s emotionally troubled private detective.
Like many popular theater actresses of her generation, Bel Geddes is best remembered for a television role and not the theatrical performances that made her famous. As Miss Ellie, the matriarch of a wealthy oil family on the popular 1980s nighttime soap opera Dallas, Bel Geddes earned an Emmy Award for Best Actress.