September 11, 2007 in Nation/World

Actress Jane Wyman, Reagan’s ex-wife, dies at 93

Adam Bernstein Washington Post
Associated Press photos photo

Associated Press photos Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan hold their 9-month-old daughter, Maureen, at their Hollywood, Calif., home in 1941.
(Full-size photo)

Jane Wyman, who won an Academy Award as best actress for “Johnny Belinda,” in which she did not speak a word, and who starred in the soap opera “Falcon Crest” while her ex-husband Ronald Reagan was in the White House, died Monday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She gave her age as 90, but other biographical sources say she was 93.

In a career spanning six decades and more than 80 films, Wyman earned Oscar nominations for “The Yearling” (1946), as the backwoods wife of Gregory Peck; “The Blue Veil” (1951), as a nursemaid viewed over many decades; and “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), as a blind woman romanced by a playboy (Rock Hudson) who accidentally killed her saintly husband.

Taken together with the Oscar-winning “Johnny Belinda” (1948), in which she played a deaf-mute rape victim, her role choices “established her as a stimulant to tears” for a generation of moviegoers, film scholar David Thomson once wrote.

Wyman had spent a decade unhappily appearing in light comedy parts before she saw “Johnny Belinda” as her path to dramatic success. To star in “Johnny Belinda,” Wyman spent days with a young, deaf-mute woman. Learning the woman’s gestures was not enough, Wyman said at the time.

“Even after weeks of (screen) tests … something was missing,” she said.

“Suddenly I realized what was wrong. I could hear. I could act deaf but it lacked a realistic feeling and that showed in my face.”

Director Jean Negulesco had the solution: to seal Wyman’s ears with wax. She also isolated herself from other cast members, saying it was a “terrifying time. The silence was new, frightening.”

For the effort, she earned her only Oscar and became a top star after 15 years of struggle for better roles.

While making “Johnny Belinda,” she ended her eight-year marriage to Reagan, then a B-list actor starting his political career in the Screen Actors Guild. Initially attracted to his modest and mild demeanor, Wyman said they grew apart as she focused more on her fast-moving career and he on his political interests.

They had a daughter and adopted a son. Another child died in 1947, soon after birth, and Wyman left for New York.

She announced to a reporter her dissatisfaction with the marriage but neglected to tell Reagan, who tried to win her back.

In 1952, Reagan married actress Nancy Davis.

While Reagan was president in the 1980s, Wyman played wine country matriarch Angela Channing on the prime-time CBS soap opera “Falcon Crest.” She forbade reporters to ask about her ex-husband.

She said she felt she had long proved herself as an actress and celebrity in her own right, and walked away from those who questioned her about subjects she considered off-limits.

After divorcing Reagan, she twice married and divorced film studio composer Fred Karger.

A daughter, Maureen Reagan, died in 2001.

Survivors include a son, radio talk show host Michael Reagan of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and two grandchildren.

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