Donna was a wo-man. (Yeah, I said it). Though beautifully blessed when it came to her looks, she was far from a pin-up, glamour girl. What she offered was an astute candor and an awareness of herself that created in her characters a solid, feminine force. She relayed deep emotion, and she subtly insinuated her vulnerabilities, but she was too shrewd and self-assured to portray herself with anything less than 100% command. More earthy than Bergman and less savage than Gardner, she came off like a regular, every day human who just happened to land in a Hollywood film and accidentally inject it with a little authenticity.
Her rationality, romantic cunning, and depth of feeling opposite James Stewart's volcanic rebuffs and ultimate disintegration in Wonderful Life leveled the playing field between them and rendered what was essentially a contemporary but still very fantastical Christmas Carol concept into a raw and sympathetic opus to family and love. She gave the film the sturdy roots from which could grow the honesty of devastating personal saga while epitomizing the beauty that still somehow thrives through human rubbish and heartbreak. Any other actress would have been too saccharine, too soft, or too immature to balance George Bailey's often raving lunacy and selfishness and call him back home to herself. Donna was home. She was the 'wonderful' of Bailey's life story that made the statement IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE true.
Of course, though IAWL remains her most lasting film, Donna's career was much more than 1 drop in the Holiday Bucket-- though this single offering continues to resonate. An Academy Award winner for her portrayal of the cynical and sapient prostitute in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and a Golden Globe winner for her work on THE DONNA REED SHOW, she consistently utilized and reinvented her strongest qualities in each project to convey the varying shades of nuance of each performance. While the nuclear family role model, she was actually a political activist and anti-nuclear, anti-war protester. However, instead of ruffling feathers, the Iowan farm girl's intuition and openhearted generosity made her a comfort and an inspiration to women across the country-- and even the world. It was her strength that was appealing, but it was her indication of submerged frailty that earned loyalty. She was a powerful example of what one could independently have, do and be as she progressed through both her life and career with savvy, elegance, and absolute self-respect.
Starting her career with the wholesome, bright, girl-next-door badge emblazoned across her breast, she was able to transcend stereotype and bring more intrigue to the table, which is why her work in the Dr. Gillespie films or THE COURTSHIP OF ANDY HARDY were easily left behind for more head-turning, mature roles in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. Holding her own against the most intimidating and larger than life actors of her day-- John Wayne, George Sanders-- she struck gold when cast in the aforementioned iconic Xmas classic, though it took her years to realize it-- it was a flop at the time. She continued working consistently in television and film for the remainder of her life until succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 64, but she left behind a remarkable legacy of class and distinction but, most importantly, heart, which is why we continue to love her and be 'melted' by her every holiday season.