Van Heflin never became a big star because he was too honest an actor. His range was too wide, so that he didn’t get typed during his most fruitful period, the 1940’s, and he was able to convey weakness and cowardice and general softness too well and too vividly; his lack of vanity probably worked against him. Raised in Oklahoma, Heflin began acting in the theater, and Katharine Hepburn championed him early on (he played Mike Connor on stage with her in The Philadelphia Story, but the starrier Jimmy Stewart got the movie role). In the early forties, he was signed to a contract at MGM and was assigned leads in second features and supporting roles in bigger films. Heflin recalled that the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, “once looked at me and said ’You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” He was usually on the outside of films looking in, never more affectingly than in the ballroom crash-up in Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), where Heflin’s Charles goes from awkward wallflower to drunken rube in precise, helpless stages.
In his youth, Heflin was attractive in a rugged way, but he had unruly curly hair, and his smallish eyes, nose and mouth sat too close together under his large forehead. There was something sexy about his low, craggy voice, and Heflin knew it; he relaxed into his voice slowly as if it were an old, plush easy chair made for dispensing sour, clever lines. Heflin won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Johnny Eager (1942), but it was only after the war that he briefly came into his own as a character actor able to play womanizers or dim husbands with equal conviction. As he aged and put on a bit of weight, the good parts grew scarcer; there’s almost nothing worth noting in his sixties work, though he did bring a ragged urgency to the first Airport (1970) movie that shames its commercial slickness. He died of a heart attack shortly after Airport, and he’s in danger of being forgotten; there’s never been a Heflin biography. He wasn’t flashy. He served his roles, first and foremost. And he left behind a deeply felt body of work.
1. Johnny Eager (1941): As the vulnerable, slow-drinking Jeff, a stooge to an unlikable Robert Taylor (playing a gangster) and a luscious but inept Lana Turner (playing a sociology student!), Heflin is too complex a presence for this glossy MGM stinker to comprehend; he plays his drunken sidekick role with such masochistic detail and serious self-contempt that his scenes with Taylor are like something out of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). The film isn’t able to support what Heflin is trying to do (though it does at least give him the ending instead of Turner), and it remains a classic example of Hollywood superficiality. Taylor and Turner are conventionally attractive but can’t act to save their lives; they get to be the leads, while Heflin is forced to the sidelines. On the edges of the film, he is one hundred times more interesting, disturbing and truthful than both of the stars put together, and surely this should be a film about Heflin’s Jeff. For anyone who’s bothered to see it, it is entirely his film, in memory, at least.
2. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): After serving in World War II, Heflin jumped into a complete change of pace: as Sam Masterson, a slangy tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks, he is in total command of his Bogart-type role and seems to be having the time of his life opposite his ideal acting partner, Barbara Stanwyck. When he gets badly beaten up so that he’ll leave town, this barely fazes Sam: “I don’t like to get pushed around,” says Heflin, simply and forcefully, with no fake toughness. For genuine movie toughness, it’s hard to top the moment when he looks over weakling Kirk Douglas, in his film debut, and says, “Don’t try it, sweetheart,” as Douglas reaches for a gun. It’s an outrageous part, really, and Heflin just squeaks by with it, in the process proving just how versatile an actor he is.
3. Possessed (1947): Being sexy is being confident, and confidence is acting. Heflin had “worked on” his acting to such an extent that he could really get away with anything, including the destructive charm of David Sutton, an engineer and world-class jerk who literally drives needy Joan Crawford right out of her mind in this heavy melodrama. Heflin is likably sly and even sympathetic at first, reacting uneasily to Crawford’s all-consuming obsession with him. David makes the mistake of being amused by her demands and tantrums, not realizing just how sick she is, and as the film goes on, we see that he’s a genuinely heartless, slightly sadistic drunk and ladykiller, which complicates the story. Even Crawford’s rich stepdaughter (an exquisite Geraldine Brooks) can’t contain David’s waywardness; drinking steadily, he idly stares at a hatcheck girl’s legs while Brooks offers her whole life to him. If Crawford’s Louise is every man’s nightmare, Heflin’s wastrel David is every woman’s.
4. Act of Violence (1948): A star conscious of his image would never have played the lead role in this noir thriller, but Heflin was never afraid of the lower depths. As a smiling family man with a pretty young wife (Janet Leigh), Heflin is believably contented and lovable in his first scenes. Then Robert Ryan’s vengeful soldier limps back into his life, and his self-composure cracks to pieces all too quickly; what’s revealed is a sweating, squirming worm who was reduced to being a stoolie for the SS when he and his fellow soldiers were confined in a concentration camp. Telling Leigh how he got his men killed just so he could eat, Heflin reaches a level of self-disgust so total that you feel there can be no way out of it, and as he runs down an empty tunnel, hallucinating scenes from the camp, he completely falls apart, in close-up, very upsettingly. There’s no separation between Heflin and his role here; there can be no technique in a scene like this. You either dare to feel it, or you don’t, or you fake it. Heflin is never fake, or actorly, or distanced. He gives each role everything he has.
5. Shane (1953): Unshaven and sunburnt, Heflin really looks like a rancher in this over-directed, cryptic George Stevens western. This is a solid man, a good man, a man who stands up for what he believes in, but this is also a man who needs another man’s help: Alan Ladd’s neatly pretty little gunman Shane. If you want to talk about great acting, look at the brief shot of Heflin when he gazes at his wife (Jean Arthur) dancing with Shane and realizes that feelings have developed between them. That knowledge lasts for a split second, and it comes across as a helpless twinge on Heflin’s face before he banishes this perception back down to the basement of his being, where it came from. Though it is a fine film and performance, Shane finally fixed Heflin as the limited, basically unexciting spouse. There would be no more Sam Mastersons or David Suttons in his future, only smaller roles in films that weren’t worthy of him. “I always try to leave a lasting impression,” Heflin tells a little boy, a bit sarcastically, in Possessed, as if he knows he’s too sensitive, too self-effacing and too realistic to get the girl, or the press, or the acclaim. Underappreciated in his time, Heflin’s work has stood up far better than some of his more famous co-stars like Ladd and Robert Taylor, and his career and life as an actor deserves more serious attention.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.