Since Nancy Reagan’s death this past week, much has been written on her life at the White House as the wife of President Ronald Reagan. Of course that is where the focus should be since Mrs. Reagan did more to return glamour and class to the White House than perhaps any other first lady in the last 100 years.
Much as been written also of the love story of Ronald and Nancy, which made them one of the most devoted couples to grace the presidency, ranking alongside John and Abigail Adams and James and Dolley Madison. These were husbands and wives who loved each other so much that they rarely spent time apart from each other. Wonderful inspirational love stories all three.
But before there was a Nancy Reagan there was a Nancy Davis, an actress who although never was a major star, nevertheless was pretty successful and starred in several motion pictures. She had talent as an actress, a believable naturalistic quality that came across in most of her roles, even though the pictures themselves weren’t exactly Academy Award contenders.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, she went into acting after college and won several parts in Broadway shows in the 1940’s. After passing a screen test she moved to California and signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1949. She appeared in eleven feature films, usually typecast as a "loyal housewife," "responsible young mother," or "the steady woman." Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Caron and Janet Leigh were among the actresses with whom she competed for roles at MGM. Tough competition to be sure.
Nancy Davis' film career began with small supporting roles in two films released in 1949, “The Doctor and the Girl” with Glenn Ford and “East Side, West Side” starring Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason. She played a child psychiatrist in the film noir “Shadow on the Wall” (1950) with Ann Sothern and Zachary Scott; her performance was called "beautiful and convincing" by New York Times critic A. H. Weiler. She co-starred with James Whitmore in 1950's “The Next Voice You Hear...,” playing a pregnant housewife who hears the voice of God from her radio.
She was considered for the part of Karen Richards in “All About Eve” (1950), but Celeste Holm, who went on to receive a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance, was cast instead. Next she appeared in “Night Into Morning” (1951), of which she has said was her favorite screen role, a study of bereavement starring Ray Milland. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that Davis "does nicely as the fiancée who is widowed herself and knows the loneliness of grief," while another noted critic, The Washington Post's Richard L. Coe, said Davis "is splendid as the understanding widow."
MGM released her from her contract in 1952; and she sought a broader range of parts, but also married a guy called Ronald Reagan, of which she said, “Being his wife was the role I wanted to play.” After her first child was born she starred in the science fiction film “Donovan's Brain” (1953); and then she made “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), in which she played nurse Lieutenant Helen Blair and appeared in a film for the only time with her husband. Her last picture was “Crash Landing” in 1958, which also starred Gary Merrill.
After her final film, she appeared for a brief time as a guest star in television dramas such as the Zane Grey Theatre episode "The Long Shadow" (1961), where she played opposite Ronald Reagan, as well as Wagon Train, and The Tall Man, until she retired as an actress in 1962.
Interestingly, her acting career might not have ended if she had accepted a role she was offered many years later, after she had left the White House. Director/writer/actor Albert Brooks asked her to play the part of his mother Beatrice Henderson in “Mother” (1996). Nancy really wanted to come out of acting retirement to play the role, but declined because she couldn't bear to be away from husband and former president Ronald Reagan, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The role eventually went to Debbie Reynolds.
Nancy Reagan was 94 when she died. Her biggest role was of First Lady to President Reagan. No one could have played it better.