Remembering the Oscar-winning actress of 'The Farmer's Daughter' and 'The Bishop's Wife'

By Ty Burr
Updated September 01, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

One of her ex-husbands called her ”a steel butterfly,” and watching Loretta Young’s better performances, a viewer senses, beyond the prim elegance that became her hallmark, both ambition and a knowing, womanly passion.

Young, who died Aug. 12 in Los Angeles of ovarian cancer at 87, was a pillar of lovely rectitude on screen — while falling hard for married costars Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable (despite the actress’ lifelong refusal to confirm the rumor, even her adopted daughter came to believe she was the fruit of her mother’s affair with Gable during the filming of Call of the Wild). In the late 1930s, Young was blackballed for breaking her studio contract to go freelance — yet came back to win an Oscar for 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter. At a time when television was Hollywood’s public enemy No. 1, she was the first major star to tackle a weekly series — and The Loretta Young Show ran eight years and won three Emmys. ”If you want a place in the sun,” she once said, ”you have to expect a few blisters.” Young was simply too classy to let them show. Five films to remember her by:

Young glows with divine sensuality (an offscreen romance with costar Tracy didn’t hurt) as a rootless Depression-era waif in Frank Borzage’s heartbreaking drama.

Silly old Jack London hadn’t included a love interest in his Yukon saga. Hollywood knew better and cast Young as the dewy-eyed maiden who thaws Gable.

She’s a schoolteacher engaged to Nazi-in-hiding Orson Welles (who also directed). Half the fun is watching his ironic slyness play off her sweet lack thereof.

The ultimate role for a nice Catholic girl like Young: Married to a prelate (David Niven), she pines for his guardian angel (Cary Grant).

Even Young was stunned when she was named Best Actress for this political comedy. As she cradled her Oscar, she murmured, ”At long last!”