Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wyman vs Reagan or Johnny Belinda vs the SAG

As most Americans over 50 know, before he was the 40th United States president, Ronald Reagan was a mostly B, sometimes A-grade Hollywood actor. They also know that before his wife Nancy was first lady of the land (and the state of California before that), he was married to Oscar winning legend Jane Wyman. The gossip rags and movie magazines in the 1940's treated Reagan and Wyman as the darlings of Tinsel Town, calling them the perfect Hollywood twosome. But in 1948, the dream couple had separated and the next year their divorce would become final. Many have claimed that the couple's problems stemmed from Reagan's film career decline while his wife's was rapidly on the rise, but this issue only exacerbated the already festering ones in the union.

Reagan and Wyman met when they were both young, new contract players at Warner Brothers studios. In 1938, they were both cast in the military cadet film Brother Rat. Although they were very much attracted to one another, they were very different in personality. Reagan was a midwestern boy next door, affable, handsome and outdoorsy. Wyman was in the process of divorcing her second husband at the age of 21. She was pert, bubbly' had a cute button nose and loved to nightclub. They wed in 1940 and began their marital life in romantic bliss. Both popular and outgoing, their careers were thriving but on different levels. Reagan's star looked the brightest. He was a second lead in A pictures like Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis and had a key role as "the Gipper" in the successful football flick Knute Rockne, All American (1940). While Wyman worked steadily at Warners, it was usually as the blonde girlfriend of the film's heroine or a wisecracking chorus girl. In 1941, they had a daughter, Maureen, and in 1945 they adopted a son Michael. The perfect Hollywood couple had become the perfect Hollywood family and it wasn't just for the cameras, they were a sincerely stable family unit.

Ronald Reagan's interest in politics went way back. He became involved with the Screen Actor's Guild, or SAG, in the late 1930's. SAG was, and continues to be, a Hollywood labor union. His friendly personality and natural inclination to the political workings of the union gained him a place on its Board of Directors in the early 1940's. During World War II, he did his stint in the Army Air Force, working state side due to nearsightedness. After the war, differences between the Reagans began to accelerate. As Reagan's film career went, he never really reclaimed the momentum he started to gain before the war with his dramatic role in the 1942 classic Kings Row. Pre-war stars were returning to their studios to join new ones who had established themselves during those years. With no definitive roles lined up for him at Warners, Reagan had to wait it out. He became even more involved in SAG activities and was home less and less. When he was home, he would talk non-stop to Wyman about the political goings on at the Guild. On the phone with SAG concerns, at SAG meetings, discussing SAG business. Wyman, besides being bored out of her gourd, felt neglected. Her career on the other hand had seen a tremendous boost in the years immediately after the war. She was loaned out to Paramount to make The Lost Weekend (1945) in a very dramatic role opposite Ray Milland, who won an Oscar as a hopeless alcoholic. She followed it up with another loan out as the mother in MGM's The Yearling (1946), a part which she could better sink her teeth into and one that gained her a first of several Best Actress Oscar nominations.

In 1947, the marital spiral continued downward. In June, while shooting what Reagan called one of his least favorite films, That Hagen Girl, with an adult Shirley Temple, he developed acute viral pneumonia. Wyman was several months pregnant at the time. His malady became so severe he had to be hospitalized and was literally fighting for his life. Jane went into premature labor and was rushed to another Los Angeles area hospital. On June 26, she gave birth 3 months prematurely to a daughter, who she named Christine. The child died the next day. With Reagan gravely ill in another hospital, Wyman had to face the tragedy and trauma alone and as well had to return home alone. She became deeply despondent and withdrawn. Reagan recovered and upon his convalescence resumed shooting of That Hagen Girl. Between completing the film and his increased activities with the Screen Actors Guild (he had been voted in as president of SAG earlier that year), he was away from home even more.
A depressed and reserved Wyman threw herself into her latest role, and what a role. Johnny Belinda told the story of a poor deaf mute girl in Nova Scotia. It was a compelling part, in which the actress immersed herself. Filming was shot on location in Northen California and Reagan would visit the set regularly but as Wyman was growing as a performer, she was growing away from her husband and his obsession with the SAG and politics in general. There was talk of an intimate relationship between Mrs. Reagan and her Johnny Belinda co-star, Lew Ayres. Wyman denied the allegation but at the very least the two had become very close friends. After filming wrapped on Belinda, she went to New York alone to think and when she returned to California, she and Reagan separated, much to his dismay. There were attempts at reconciliation but by summer 1948, she had filed for divorce. Reagan continued to carry a torch for his wife even as she grew farther away from him. Her performance in Johnny Belinda was nominated for an Oscar while his career was in further decline. He quipped about her success to columnist Hedda Hopper: "If it comes to a divorce, I think I'll name Johnny Belinda as the correspondent." The comment was vague, leaving one to wonder if he meant the film itself or his wife's co-star Lew Ayres.

In March of 1949, Wyman did indeed win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Belinda and in July received her final divorce decree from Ronald Reagan. She was awarded custody of Maureen and Michael and child support in the amount of $500 per month. Reagan took the divorce very hard. He continued as the president of the Screen Actors Guild until 1952 at which time he had already met and married small time actress/ big time Reagan supporter, Nancy Davis. Wyman went on to more Oscar nominations and parts in polished Douglas Sirk melodramas. Both actors reached high levels of success, just not with each other.


  1. What an interesting departure from your recent run of movie reviews. The tale of diverging Hollywood careers causing marital discord is an oft-told tale in film history but this one stands out. One aspect you left out was that Reagan was very full of himself and used have regular viewings of "Kings Row" at their homewhen the couple had dinner parties. Wyman was quoted as saying that having to endure multiple viewings was one of the causes of their break-up! "I just couldn't bear to watch that damn Kings Row one more time" I couldn't agree more--once was enough.

  2. Johnny Belinda is one of my top 10 favorite films. I really adore Jan Wyman. As time goes on I hope that she will be remembered for her fine acting performances aand not only as the former wife of President Reagan.

  3. Good Review of the wyman/reagan years Rupert. I am afraid I wouldn't want to be married to Reagan either, sounds to me he didn't give Wyman too much attention like he did his second wife, which everyone says is a true love story. I think Wyman is a great actress. I think Reagan was good in Kings Row. I love learning about the stars and I didn't know much about the marriage of the two. Thanks for the info my friend! hehe

  4. Another good article with information I did not possess. Sounds like my own marriage in many ways, very young, madly in love, absolutely no personality traits or tastes in common. I always like Reagan, you could hardly help liking the man just because he was lovely to look at, outgoing, darling young man. Whether you liked his politics or not is a different question. Sad story about the marriage, but then Hollywood isn't known for life-long committed relationships.

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  6. Great post. I've never know much about Ronald Reagan's marriage to Jane Wyman. It was fascinating to learn more about those years in his life. Thanks for doing this writeup.

  7. Johnny Belinda was a fine film and there are only really a couple of good Reagan films and King's Row has to be the highlight. When Ronnie divorced Jane he made a film with blonde bombshell, Myrna Dell. When Ronnie was going to visit her on the set, Myrna had the movie's stills photographer get her a bunch of Ronnie's photos, which she put all over the mirror in her dressing room so that when he arrived he knew she was keen, and they dated for a time...

  8. Johnny Belinda is one of my favorites. Watching it gave me a greater appreciation of Jane Wyman's acting. Marriage is tough when each person is reaching for the stars at the same time. In Hollywood it is tougher. Nice post.

  9. These two people to me showed their class. You notice in the years to come, neither of the would ever say anything acrimonous about the other. Ever.



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