Gloria Stuart, who started out in the early days of talkies and returned to become the oldest Oscar nominee in Academy Awards history at the age of 87 for “Titanic,” died Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 100 and had been suffering from lung cancer.
As Old Rose, the survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, she was nominated for supporting actress for the 1997 blockbuster as well as a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award, which she shared with Kim Basinger.
In July, Stuart was feted for her centennial year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with an evening hosted by film historian Leonard Maltin. “In an industry that tends not to be sentimental, she really was the comeback kid of the 20th century,” said Maltin. Maltin noted that Stuart had returned to TV and film work long before “Titanic,” but it wasn’t until she was given the meaty role of Old Rose that the biz took notice of her again.
“She played it so well — that is the crucial point about her return in ‘Titanic.’ She didn’t just show up,” Maltin said. “She was wryly funny and appealing.”
As a blond ingenue, Stuart began her career at the Pasadena Playhouse. She was soon signed by Universal, and made her film debut in Kay Francis starrer “Street of Women” in 1932.
Stuart was remembered as an early “scream queen” for her work in “Frankenstein,” “The Old Dark House,” “The Invisible Man” and “The Kiss Before the Mirror.”
Other films included “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Time Out for Murder,” “The Prisoner of Shark Island” and “Gold Diggers of 1935.”
Stuart was also a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, which honored her in June with its Ralph Morgan Award. At the time, Frances Fisher noted that Stuart had been part of the first SAG board meeting in June 1937, 23 days after the guild signed its first contract with the studios.
Stuart told Daily Variety that she became involved with SAG for two reasons — she’d attended UC Berkeley, where she’d been impressed with Robert Oppenheimer’s leftist politics, and and she became distressed by what she saw as unfair working conditions on film sets.
“I was a contract player at Universal, so you had to be ready at 8 a.m. promptly — which meant you’d have to be in hair and makeup at 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” Stuart said. “Then you worked ’til 7 or 8 at night, so actors like me were being taken advantage of.”
Born in Santa Monica in 1910, Stuart was married twice, first to sculptor Blair Gordon Newell and then to Marx Brothers screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, with whom she had a daughter.
Stuart had an eventful and multifaceted life of which acting was just one part. She had several showings of her painting and exhibited her handmade artists’ books in 2009 in Venice, Calif. While living at the famed Garden of Allah apartments, she was part of a community of L.A. intellectuals including writers M.F.K. Fisher, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker.
After working on several films into the 1940s, she retired from the screen, opening a furniture boutique, raising her daughter and taking up painting. On her return to acting, she appeared in shows including “The Waltons,” the TV movie “Flood” and the film “My Favorite Year.”
In 1997, she was cast at Rose Calvert in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” and she served as narrator for the blockbuster film. At the time Cameron said he was looking for someone who had been out of the public eye for some decades.
“I had to have someone who’d play the latter part of the life of someone we’d recognize, Kate Winslet, so it couldn’t be someone like Katharine Hepburn,” Cameron told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “Gloria had just enough distance, and she gave this fantastic reading.”
The helmer, his wife, Suzy Amis, and a host of Stuart’s friends helped celebrate her 100th birthday in July.
After “Titanic,” she appeared in shows including “Murder She Wrote,” “Touched by an Angel” and “General Hospital” plus Wim Wenders’ “Land of Plenty.”
Stuart is survived by her daughter, author Sylvia Thompson; four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.