Oscar Profile #523: Ray Milland

Born January 3, 1907 in Neath, Glamorgan, Wales, UK, Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones, known professionally as Ray Milland, was the son of a steel mill superintendent and his wife. He trained as an equestrian on his uncle’s horse breeding farm and later joined the Household Cavalry before becoming an actor.

Turning to acting, Milland’s rise was slow but steady. He made his British film debut in an uncredited role in 1928’s Moulin Rouge. In 1929, he had an uncredited role in the classic Piccadilly, his first credited role in The Lady from the Sea, and his first starring role in The Flying Scotsman which brought him to Hollywood under a nine month contract with MGM.

In Hollywood, Milland met Muriel Webster, a student at USC where he was taking some classes. They married in 1932 and remained married until his death, having had two children. Except for a high-profile role as Charles Laughton’s nephew in Payment Deferred, the actor’s early Hollywood career wasn’t advancing, so he returned temporarily to England while his wife stayed home to continue her studies.

Back in Hollywood in 1934 under contract to Paramount, the actor had solid supporting roles in 1934’s Bolero, We’re Not Dressing, and Charlie Chan in London on loan-out to Fox. His career advanced with 1935’s The Gilded Lily in which he was third billed behind Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. It was, however, his loan-out to Universal for their megahit 1936 Deanna Durbin film, Three Smart Girls, that convinced Paramount to give him his first romantic lead in 1937’s Easy Living opposite Jean Arthur.

biggest hit to date came with 1939’s adventure classic, Beau Geste alongside Gary Cooper and Robert Preston. He was in three 1940 hits, Irene opposite Anna Neagle, The Doctor Takes a Wife opposite Loretta Young, and Arise, My Love opposite Colbert who he again co-starred with in 1941’s Skylark. 1942 saw him in two major hits, Reap the Wild Wind and The Major and the Minor. In 1944, he had major successes with The Uninvited and Ministry of Fear. The following hear he won an Oscar for The Lost Weekend.

Post-Oscar, Milland had successes with 1947’s Kitty, 1948’s The Big Clock, 1949’s Alias Nick Beal, 1950’s A Life of Her Own, 1951’s Close to My Heart, 1952’s The Thief, and 1954’s Dial M for Murder.

Later films included 1955’s Lisbon, 1955’s Three Brave Men, and 1957’s The River’s Edge. In the 1960s he played lead roles in horror films, most notably 1963’s X: The Man with X-ray Eyes, He emerged as a character actor sans toupee in 1970’s Love Story. He continued in character roles for the remainder of his life, most notably on TV where he earned an Emmy nomination for the 1976 mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man.

Ray Milland died on March 10, 1986 at 79.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Legend has it that Ray Milland was top-billed in the film’s initial posters over John Wayne and Paulette Goddard in the film’s initial release but that he and Goddard were reduced to third and fourth billing with Wayne and initially sixth billed Susan Hayward given top billing in the film’s 1954 re-release. Untrue, Milland was given top billing on screen but Wayne was given top billing in posters in 1942. Hayward, however, was promoted to second billing in the 1954 re- release over Milland and Goddard, with Raymond Massey, Robert Preston, and Charles Bickford listed below the title of this smash hit seafaring classic.

THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), directed by Billy Wilder

Milland had misgivings about taking the role for which he would win an Oscar but did so because he trusted Wilder who had directed him the comedy The Major and the Minor three years earlier. Never a heavy drinker in real life, the actor spent a night in Bellevue’s drunk ward in research for the film. Quite daring in its time, the film still holds up today as one of the most devastating films about an alcoholic ever made with Milland giving the performance of his life. Terrific supporting work from Jane Wyman as his girlfriend, Phillip Terry as his brother, and Howard Da Silva as a sympathetic bartender.

THE BIG CLOCK (1948), directed by John Farrow

One of four films Milland made for director Farrow in his immediate post-Oscar years, this is easily the best, a film noir masterpiece reuniting the three stars of 1932’s Payment Deferred, Milland, Charles Laughton, and Maureen O’Sullivan. It would be remade as 1987’s No Way Out with Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, and Sean Young. The remake would be about politics, the original was about the publishing business with Laughton’s venal publisher purportedly a take on Time Inc.’s Henry Luce. George Macready, Rita Johnson, and Elsa Lanchester co-star.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings star in Hitchcock’s film version of the hit 1952 Broadway play starring Maurice Evans, Gusti Huber, and Anthony Dawson. John Williams, who won a Tony for his portrayal of the police inspector, is the only player to reprise his role for the film. Hitchcock allegedly wanted Cry Grant for the role of the husband plotting his wife’s murder, but Warner Bros. Felt he wouldn’t be believable in such a role. Milland, however was. Both Milland and Robert Cummings got their early breaks in Deanna Durbin musicals though neither were known for their singing.

LOVE STORY (1970), directed by Arthur Hiller

His career as a leading man having dried up, Milland took off his toupee for the first time on screen to play Ryan O’Neal’s stiff but loving old-money father in this box-office smash hit tearjerker. Erich Segal adapted his Oscar nominated screenplay to novel form which became a runaway bestseller building up interest in the film’s release. Nominated for seven Oscars including Bet Picture, Director, Actress (Ali MacGraw as the dying heroine), and Supporting Actor (John Marley as MacGraw’s salt-of-the-earth father), the film’s TV debut in 1972 was the highest rated film broadcast of all tiem.

RAY MILLAND AND OSCAR

  • The Lost Weekend (1945) – Oscar – Best Actor

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