Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Cheshire Cotten in Petersburg, Virginia, 15 May 1905. Education: Studied at Hickman School of Expression, Washington, D.C. Family: Married 1) Lenore Kipp Lamont, 1931 (died 1960), one stepdaughter; 2) the actress Patricia Medina, 1960. Career: 1929—occasional drama critic for Miami Herald while selling paint and later advertising space in Miami; 1930—engaged by Belasco Theatre as understudy and assistant stage manager in New York; 1931—actor with Copley Square Theatre; worked in summer stock; 1932—Broadway debut with small screen role in Absent Father ; 1936—joined Orson Welles's Federal Theater project; 1938—joined Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theater; 1939—critical acclaim for role opposite Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway; 1941—film debut in Citizen Kane ; 1942—seven-year contract with David O. Selznick after Mercury players forced to leave RKO; 1948—contract sold to Warners; 1949—began to freelance for other studios; 1950–53—contract with 20th Century-Fox; 1953–54—returned to Broadway for starring role in Sabrina Fair ; 1955–56—host on TV series The 20th Century-Fox Hour ; 1956–57—host and occasional actor on TV series On Trial , later The Joseph Cotten Show , produced by his own company, Fordyce Productions; 1963–64—host on TV series Hollywood and the Stars , and appeared in TV mini-series Aspen , 1977. Awards: Best Actor, Venice Festival, for Portrait of Jennie , 1949. Died: In Westwood, California, 6 February 1994.
Citizen Kane (Welles) (as Jed Leland); Lydia (Duvivier) (as Michael Fitzpatrick)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles) (as Eugene Morgan); Journey into Fear (Norman Foster) (as Graham, + co-sc)
Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock) (as Uncle Charlie); Hers to Hold (Ryan) (as Bill Morley)
Gaslight ( The Murder in Thornton Square ) (Cukor) (as Brian Cameron); Since You Went Away (Cromwell) (as Lt. Anthony Willett); I'll Be Seeing You (Dieterle) (as Zachary Morgan)
Love Letters (Dieterle) (as Alan Quinton)
Duel in the Sun (King Vidor and others) (as Jesse McCanles)
The Farmer's Daughter (Potter) (as Glenn Morley)
Portrait of Jennie ( Jennie ) (Dieterle) (as Eben Adams)
The Third Man (Reed) (as Holly Martins); Under Capricorn (Hitchcock) (as Sam Flusky); Beyond the Forest (King Vidor) (as Dr. Lewis Moline)
Walk Softly, Stranger (Stevenson) (as Chris Hale); Two Flags West (Wise) (as Col. Clay Tucker); September Affair (Dieterle) (as David Lawrence)
Half Angel (Sale) (as John Raymond); Peking Express (Dieterle) (as Michael Bachlin); The Man with a Cloak (Markle) (as Dupin)
Untamed Frontier (Fregonese) (as Kirk Denbow); Gone to Earth (Powell) (as narrator); The Wild Heart (Powell and Pressburger—revised version of Gone to Earth , shortened) (as narrator); The Steel Trap (Andrew L. Stone) (as Jim Osborne); Othello (Welles) (as Senator)
Niagara (Hathaway) (as George Loomis); A Blueprint for Murder (Andrew L. Stone) (as Whitney Cameron); Egypt by Three (Stoloff) (as narrator)
Special Delivery ( Von Himmel gefallen ) (Brahm) (as Jonathan Adams)
The Killer Is Loose (Boetticher) (as Sam Wagner); The Bottom of the Bottle ( Beyond the River ) (Hathaway) (as P. M.); Nobody Runs Away (Parker—short)
The Halliday Brand (Joseph H. Lewis) (as Daniel)
Touch of Evil (Welles) (as Detective); From the Earth to the Moon (Haskin) (as Victor Barbicane)
The Angel Wore Red (Nunnally Johnson) (as Hawthorne)
The Last Sunset (Aldrich) (as John Breckenridge); The Karma (for U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare) (as narrator)
Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich) (as Drew)
The Great Sioux Massacre (Salkow) (as Maj. Reno); Krakatoa (Izard) (re-edited version of 1933 film) (as narrator)
The Oscar (Rouse) (as Kenneth H. Regan); The Money Trap (Kennedy) (as Dr. Horace Van Tilden); Gli uomini dal passo pesante ( The Tramplers ) (Sequi and Antonini, English-language copies: Band) (as Temple Cordeen)
Some May Live ( In Saigon, Some May Live ) (Sewell) (as Col. Woodward); Brighty of the Grand Canyon (Norman Foster) (as Jim Owen); Jack of Diamonds (Taylor) (as Ace of Diamonds); I crudeli ( The Hellbenders ) (Corbucci) (as Jonas); Comancho blanco ( White Comanche ; Rio Hondo ) (Briz, English-language copies: Kay)
Petulia (Lester) (as Mr. Danner); Split Second to an Epitaph (Horn—for TV); Gangster '70 (Guerrini)
The Lonely Profession (Heyes—for TV); Cutter's Trail (McEveety—for TV); Keene
The Grasshopper (Paris) (as Richard Morgan); E venne l'ora della vendetta ; Do You Take This Stranger? (Heffron—for TV); Assault on the Wayne (Chomsky—for TV) (as Admiral); Ido zero daisakusen ( Latitude Zero ) (Honda) (as Capt. Craig McKenzie); Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fleischer) (as Henry Stimson); City beneath the Sea ( One Hour to Doomsday ) (Irwin Allen—for TV)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Fuest) (as Dr. Vesalius); La figlia di Frankenstein ( Lady Frankenstein ) (Mel Welles) (as Baron)
The Devil's Daughter (Szwarc—for TV) (as Judge Wetherby); The Screaming Woman (Smight—for TV); Lo scopone scientifico ( The Scientific Cardplayer ) (Comencini) (as George); Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga ( Baron Blood ) (Bava) (as Becker/the Baron); Doomsday Voyage (Vidette) (as Capt. Jason)
Soylent Green (Fleischer) (as William Simonson); A Delicate Balance (Richardson) (as Harry)
Timber Tramps (Garnett); F for Fake ( Vérités et mensonges ; About Fakes ; Nothing but the Truth ) (Welles); Il giustiziere sfida la citta (Lenzi)
The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (Kulik—for TV); Un sussurro nel buio ( A Whisper in the Dark ) (Aliprandi)
Twilight's Last Gleaming (Aldrich) (as Arthur Renfrew); Airport '77 (Jameson) (as Nicholas St. Downs II)
Screamers ( The Island of the Fish Men ; L'isola degli uomini Pesci ) (Martino and Miller) (as Prof. Marvin); L'Ordre et la sécurité du monde (Martino and Miller); Caravans (Fargo) (as Crandall); Return to Fantasy Island (McGowan—for TV)
Trauma (Beattie); Churchill and the Generals (Gibson—for TV); Concorde affaire ( S.O.S. Concorde ) (Desdato)
Guyana: Cult of the Damned ( Guyana: Crime of the Century ) (Cardona Jr.) (as Richard Gable); Heaven's Gate (Cimino) (as the Reverend Doctor); The Hearse (Bowers) (as Walter Pritchard); Survivor (Hemmings) (as priest); Casino (Chaffey—for TV) (as Ed Booker)
Delusion ( The House Where Death Lives ) (Beattie—produced in 1980)
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere , New York, 1987.
Interview in The Hollywood Reporter , 19 February 1980.
Interview with Allan Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), Octo-ber 1987.
Higham, Charles, The Films of Orson Welles , Berkeley, 1971.
Kael, Pauline, The Citizen Kane Book , New York, 1971.
McBride, Joseph, Orson Welles , London, 1972.
Memo from: David O. Selznick , edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.
Bowers, Ronald, The Selznick Players , New York, 1976.
Cotten, Patricia Medina, Laid Back in Hollywood: Remembering , Los Angeles, 1998.
Current Biography 1943 , New York, 1943.
Obituary in New York Times , 7 February 1994.
"Joseph Cotten," Stars (London), no. 22, Spring 1995.
* * *
Self-effacing to the point of never drawing attention away from his healthy-egoed leading ladies, Joseph Cotten was an indispensable part of forties romantic hagiography. When Cotten stared soulfully at a woman, his eyes revealed a man consumed by his feelings—not to the point of traditional derring-do or fancy declarations of love, but to the level of psychological breakdown. The term lovesick could have been coined for him. With the burgeoning fascination with psychoanalysis (given impetus by Spellbound ), Freudians could study Cotten as the era's prime symbol of emotional defeat and sublimation. If only one of his roles ( I'll Be Seeing You ) featured an actual victim of shell-shock, many of his other opuses ( Love Letters , Since You Went Away , The Magnificent Ambersons , Portrait of Jennie ) could be considered studies of a love-shocked martyr in thrall to elusive women on pedestals. That above list includes some of the period's most winsome classics and one masterpiece, Welles's studio-mauled Ambersons , in which Cotten loses his lady fair while regretting the progress he has implemented, aware that his mechanical forward-strides have destroyed his beloved Isabelle's family. Even in his debut film, Citizen Kane , always complaisant Cotten is a fence-sitting wag content to criticize and conjecture regarding someone else, but not forcefully pursuing his own goals. In the mythology of Hollywood, the reactive Cotten is a Cupid-struck Sisyphyus forever pushing his own heart up that hill. Usually proving that the good guy finishes, if not last, at least lovelorn, Cotten spends World War II waiting for Claudette Colbert to have a weak adulterous moment in Since You Went Away but surrender never comes. In Portrait of Jennie (a movie immeasurably enhanced by its dreamy score and iridescent black and white cinematography), the unrequited suitor Cotten does not have a ghost of a chance with his spectral love object. But real or otherwise, all this leading man's dream girls turn out to be figurative if not literal phantoms.
The downside of Cotten's ineffectuality is that his innate decency is never backed up by action. Thus, while typifying all the cherished virtues of modern times in the adult sagebrusher Duel in the Sun , Cotten is helpless to save his heart's desire, Pearl, from the call of the wild represented by his compunction-free brother, Lewt. Complexly, the scenario of this Western epic makes it crystal clear that Cotten is a catalyst in the film's tragic ending. Hawking the necessity of goodness is not enough when villains run helter-skelter in the devil's employ.
After his peak period, watch-and-wait Cotten's lack of willfulness takes on a more pejorative coloration. In two fifties classics of cuckoldry, he is cast as the middle-aged good provider who is less slow-burning than burned out. Unable to curb his wife's infantile pining for a flashy lifestyle in Beyond the Forest , Cotten is Stoicism incarnate but playing second banana to Bette Davis's mood shifts ends up being a career misstep into character roles. Visibly older by the time he visits Niagara to punish the bombshell wife he craves but cannot satisfy, Cotten's screen alter ego finally takes steps, but homicide brings the spineless spouse no vengeful joy.
On one previous occasion—the high point of Cotten's acting career—Hitchcock divined the underside to Cotten's sober nobility and cast him, atypically, as a man of confident action. In Shadow of a Doubt , Cotten's Uncle Charlie pursues women not for their beauty but for their pocketbooks. Contemptuous of humanity in general, this terminator of wealthy widows kills for fun and profit. Pitilessly zeroing in on the killer's self-loathing, Hitchcock and Cotten characterize cold-blooded Uncle Charlie's strangleholds as a reaction to his basic impotence. It is as if each killing was a shameful admittance of lack of character.
Sadly, for a career that includes the superb postwar thriller The Third Man and roles or cameos in five Welles classics, Cotten seemed to give up on stardom with the same lack of coyness his characters suffered from. He was lucky to average two good movies a decade from the fifties onward. In addition to a memorable appearance as the Reverend Doctor failing to inspire a graduating class in Heaven's Gate , Cotten was supremely swinish as a greedy plotter in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte , and stomach-churningly class conscious as an overprotective father in Petulia . Perhaps it is merciful to overlook those decades of perfectly intoned line deliveries that he palmed off as performances and concentrate on his glory days as a luckless Lothario forever reaching for the unattainable woman. Falling short or pulling fatefully back, Cotten is remembered as the hero-in-stasis, a man whose goodness ultimately proved ineffective in his pursuit of happiness.