Thursday, February 11, 2010

Missing Matriarchs

Only a few weeks after the soap world lost James Mitchell, who enjoyed a 30 year run on All My Children, comes the news that another long-time soap player has died. Her passing started me thinking about the changes these soap operas have undergone over the decades, specifically in the way certain stock female roles have all but disappeared.

Though known exclusively for her 42 years on Days of Our Lives, Reid had a bit of a stage career elsewhere. She played Ophelia opposite Maurice Evans's Hamlet, and Roxanne opposite Jose Ferrer's Cyrano. On film, she appeared opposite Rock Hudson in 1966's Seconds, whose director, William Frankenheimer, called her one of his favorite actresses. Her soap career stretches back into the early 50s, when she starred in an early TV drama called Portia Faces Life. The program was only 15 minutes long, but she left the show claiming she would never work in soaps again, as the work was too hard. It wasn't long before she went back on her word; she spent three years on As The World Turns and another year on Edge of Night before landing the role of Alice Horton on Days of Our Lives, a role she played until her retirement a few years ago. She was paired with film star Macdonald Carey, and together they were the moral center of the show.

Frances Reid was one of the last survivors of the dying breed of soap opera matriarchs who were once central to the genre. Back in the day, these shows were always created around a strong, middle aged maternal character whose adult children caused the drama of the series. But these characters such as Alice Horton were themselves never ambiguous about their moral choices; in most cases, they married only once, and if they married twice, it was only after being widowed. No messy divorces for them, no child custody dramatics, no long lost children popping up out of nowhere. Those plot twists of the soap genre never seemed to touch these matriarchs, whose sole function was to be the moral compass by which the other characters' failings were measured.
Every soap had one of these iron butterflies, and indeed, most soaps were created around them. Actress Charita Bauer comes immediately to mind, who began playing Bert Bauer on The Guiding Light when the show was still on radio; she kept the role when the program transitioned to television in 1952, and remained the show's matriarch until her death in 1985. Another World had its Mary Matthews, Ryan's Hope its Maeve Ryan, All My Children its Ruth Martin, all women of impeccable moral fibre who attempted to teach their children the rewards of true love and clean living. But these characters grew to be purely advisory roles, and as such, were rarely central players in their shows' ongoing plotlines.
But times changed, and eventually, so did the soaps. Matriarchs today, if you can find them, are aggressive manipulators who become actively involved in their children's lives. No sitting around drinking tea and dispensing wisdom for these old gals. Susan Flannery's Stephanie Forrester is an excellent example of the modern matriarch (her soap, The Bold and the Beautiful, is, at the age of 23, the youngest of the surviving soaps). These are career women who leap right in and meddle in their children's affairs without invitation, something Frances Reid's Alice Horton would never have done.
Nor would Nancy Hughes over on As The World Turns. Helen Wagner is now playing the last surviving matriarch of the old school soap; she has played her role since the first episode of her show in 1956. In fact, she uttered the very first line of dialogue on As The World Turns ("Good morning, dear." Riveting stuff, eh?)and, at age 91, continues to show up to advise the youngsters. I'm sure I will write a bit more about this dainty dinosaur when I ruminate on the demise of As The World Turns, which is going off the air in September, in the midst of its 54th year. For now, I guess I'll just say those old matriarchs held an important position in the structure of their individual programs, a position absent in today's shows. Personally, I wouldn't mind spending a Christmas Eve with Frances Reid's Alice Horton, hanging those personalized ornaments on the tree, and basking in the warmth of that familial (if artificial) glow.