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Night of the Hunter

There are unforgettable performances in daytime television, many of them etched in fable or memory. Who among us who witnessed it the first time it aired will ever forget Judith Light during Karen Wolek's testimony in which she revealed she was a hooker on One Life To Live?  How about Kim Zimmer as Reva declaring herself the slut of Springfield or Beverlee McKinsey's Alexandra and her lethal evisceration of Roger at the country club on Guiding Light? Almost everyone involved in the aftermath of BJ's death on General Hospital was awesome. There was Mary Fickett's brilliance in the aftermath of Ruth's rape by Ray Gardner on All My Children. And who could forget Douglass Watson's titanic performance when Iris (Carmen Duncan) revealed to Mac she was behind the attempted takeover of Cory Publishing on Another World?  There are untold dozens of scenes, including quite a few in recent years that have been mesmerizing in their own right.

For my money, one of the most electric performances on daytime drama for all time was rendered by Academy Award winner Kim Hunter in her final episode on The Edge of Night as faded film star Nola Madison.  For your consideration, I have posted the meatiest scene — the episode's second act, featuring the confrontation between Nola and rival Margo — at the top of this entry, but the two brilliant scenes that follow are at the end of this entry with some additional background after the jump.

While other soaps in the 80's and 90's would attract Hollywood stars from earlier eras for long term gigs (Farley Granger & Claire Bloom, As the World Turns; Richard Egan, Julie Adams & Rory Calhoun, Capitol; Dame Judith Anderson, Santa Barbara), it would be fair to say that most those great talents and others were largely relegated to strong supporting roles designed to lend an air of prestige to their shows with their own fleeting storylines, but these actors were clearly props for their respective shows' younger featured stars.

Before them all, Hunter burst onto Edge in multiple balls to the wall front burner storylines that played like the soap opera equivalent of a prequel to Sunset Boulevard: Nola's entire family had temporarily relocated to Monticello to shoot a low budget horror movie called "Mansion of the Damned." The producer of the movie and Nola's husband, Owen (Bruce Gray), fell in love with police detective Deborah Saxon (Frances Fischer, most famous as Rose's mother in Titanic).  Paige and Brian Madison (ATWT's and Gossip Girl'sMargaret Colin, Stephen McNaughton) were Nola and Owen's children who were in love with each other, not knowing that Brian was actually the son of Nola's movie producer Eddie Vaughn and the sibs were not blood relations at all. The "Mansion of the Damned" movie set was plagued by disasters, attempted murders and death.

In the middle of it all was Hunter's Nola, mixed up in all of these plots including her own rivalry with Margo for the attentions of Margo's husband, gigolo Eliot Dorn, and the poisoning/gaslighting of Dr. Miles Cavanaugh (Joel Crothers). By the time it was all over Margo had been murdered, Owen had left his marriage, the truth had come out about Paige & Brian, Eliot had sidled up to Nola, Draper Scott (Tony Craig) had been wrongly convicted for Margo's death and "Mansion of the Damned" was completed.

Kim Hunter's performance throughout was stunning. Head writer Henry Slesar shrewdly wrote Nola as a combination of Stella Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire (for which Hunter won the Oscar) and Norma Desmond: drunk, neurotic, jealous, egotistical, vengeful, lonely, sad, murderous, tragic and ultimately broken.

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Even more astonishing, before Eileen Davidson went on to acclaim for playing five roles on Days of Our Lives and Erika Slezak's Viki's multiple personalities split into a baker's dozen, Hunter played three characters on Edge: Nola; an old woman named Martha Cory who was poisoning everyone in sight (actually Nola in a disguise that would have made makeup legend Rick Baker jealous); and Hester Atherton, the main character in the movie-within-the-show. For her efforts, Ms. Hunter was nominated for a Best Actress Daytime Emmy award in 1980, beaten by Judith Light.

For over two and half decades, the episode presented here has been one of my all-time favorites.  Watch a young, dashing Lee Godart (Kent Bogard, AMC) as disgusted playboy Eliot Dorn. Watch the brilliant Ann Williams, one of the most talented and underrated actresses of daytime past, as Margo Huntington Dorn go toe to toe with Hunter.  Listen to crackling dialogue filled with subtext, and the perfect musical score echoing Streetcar yet summing up Nola with a few well placed cues.

Most of all, keep your eyes on Hunter, who dominates every frame, going from mildly tipsy to staggering drunk to slightly detached insanity, yet never losing her wit or intelligence. Hunter does bravura work in an episode that was a brilliant denouement to one of Edge's most confounding murder mysteries and magnificent send-off for one of the series most memorable characters and actresses. Enjoy!