“I wouldn’t mind if it burned me, George.”

Now there’s some peppery nuts on screen dialogue for the pandemic age! Expertly delivered by Agnes Moorehead as Fanny Amberson in 1942’s The Magnificent Amberson’s, she breaks apart when forced to admit to her arrogant nephew, George, that she’s broke.  

Moorehead achieved celebrity status in the 1960s by portraying a witch on the TV show Bewitched. As Endora, she played mother to Samantha and MIL to mortal, Darrin. That’s where I first saw her. Sharp featured with a distinct voice, her perpetual irritation with Darrin often cued the laugh track.

Fast forward to my high school film class in the late ‘70s and a viewing of The Magnificent Amberson’s. Such a revelation to match Endora with Fanny with Agnes! 

An actor going nuts on screen is generally funny when coming from a position of strength. But for Fanny, her bust up followed the revelation she’d always be marginalized. When the film previewed, it was said that audiences laughed at her hysterics, so the scene was shortened. If true, it’s possible people laughed out of nervousness and discomfort rather than finding her responses humorous. 

In the boiler room, she’s only held together by hairpins and a corset. George forces her to stand and walk through the empty house, as if she’s merely walking off a drunk or bad high. Her breakdown is hard to watch because of the recognition that we, too, could break if found face to face with hunger, homelessness, worthlessness. The scene ends with the impression that, cajoled by George back into her right mind, Fanny has recovered from her megaton bomb blast. Alas, her condition wasn’t important to the released version of the film. Spoiler: she will never recover. In homage to 19th Century and today’s power imbalances, I’d say that if her nuts on screen scene were a drink, it’d be a champagne cocktail of sorts: 3 oz. cheap bubbly, 2 oz. orange drink, ice cubes, and a splash of burped-into-the-mouth vomit.

Jane French is a freelance writer, caregiver, and an advocate for low-income seniors. Since the pandemic shutdowns began, she learned how to make drywall spackle and cut her own hair. She was also published for the first time in Atlas + Alice. You can find her at janedfrench.com and @janefrenchwrite.

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