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The life and work of Helen Hayes

The life and work of Helen Hayes — ”The First Lady of American Theater” has an onscreen legacy that stretches back to the golden age of cinema

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The life and work of Helen Hayes

The ”First Lady of American Theater” in the age of the screen, Helen Hayes left a confounding legacy. In fact, when the actress died at 92 in Nyack, N.Y., on March 17, she was a mystery to many. At least three generations have not even been alive long enough to have witnessed her greatest achievement, as she aged 60 years in the course of 2.5 hours on stage in 1935’s Victoria Regina.

At a diminutive five feet, with plain looks and an undistinguished voice, the Washington, D.C., native seemed one of the least likely candidates for greatness. It was, she claimed, through sheer will and hard work that Hayes was able to provide the illusion of both height and classic beauty in such stage hits as Mary of Scotland (1933) and Harriet (1943). Like a select few great actors, Hayes had a preternatural ability to loom large, both physically and emotionally. It has always been, and probably will always remain, an inexplicable quality.

Despite her legendary stage work, Hayes will be best remembered for her sporadic efforts on film. With her first movie, The Sin of Madelon Claudet in 1932, she earned a Best Actress Oscar. Nearly 40 years later, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Airport. In addition, she won practically every other major award — Tony, Emmy, Grammy — and became, along with Ethel Barrymore, the only living actress to have a Broadway theater named after her.

She was, as she put it, ”the triumph of Plain Jane,” and if her greatest triumphs are lost to stage history, her screen performances are anything but plain.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) Her first role was as a single mother who runs the gamut — from madonna to whore — to secure the best for her illegitimate son. Lawdy, it’s gaudy, but Hayes gives it her all. B+

A Farewell to Arms (1932) She gave her greatest, seemingly most ingenuous screen performance as the nurse who falls tragically in love with an ambulance driver (Gary Cooper) in this luminously romantic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel. A

Anastasia (1956) Hayes’ comeback role: the dowager empress in the grand story of an amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman) who may or may not be the last of Russia’s royal Romanovs. A-

Airport (1970) Her second comeback role was as an elderly woman who just loves to stow away on airliners in the big, slick, enjoyably empty epic of the skies that started a whole new genre: the disaster movie. B+

A Family Upside Down (1978) ”Old age is not for sissies,” said Bette Davis. Hayes and Fred Astaire prove it true in a TV movie about a long-married couple separated when Astaire is placed in a nursing home after debilitating heart attacks. B