Multimillionaire Howard Hughes was one of the world’s biggest celebrities.
Giant gorilla Mighty Joe Young was one of its biggest apes.
Five-foot-2 Terry Moore could handle both of them. The diminutive actress — a sort of cowgirl Fay Wray opposite a stop-motion anthropoid in “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1952) and a longtime girlfriend of the reclusive Hughes — might have been known as “Little Miss Dynamite,” if singer Brenda Lee hadn’t claimed the nickname.
At 84, Moore’s still a dynamo.
She recently finished work in New Orleans on an episode of “True Detective,” a cop drama for HBO starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Yet she’s happy to talk about her storied past as well as her active present. Another case in point: Last weekend, she was at the Memphis Film Festival, held this year in Robinsonville, Miss., about 40 miles south of the Tennessee city.
A celebration of classic cinema and vintage television and a Mid-South tradition for almost four decades, the festival in recent years has returned to its cowboy roots. Under the leadership of festival chairman Ray Nielsen and Albuquerque, N.M.-based Boyd Magers, publisher of the Western Clippings newsletter (visit westernclip pings.com), the event has boosted attendance and attracted visitors from all over the world by spotlighting the Western genre.
Although known for “Mighty Joe Young” (which begins as a sort of Africa-based monster Western, with Ben Johnson as Moore’s cowboy love interest) and such horseless movies as “Peyton Place” and the musical “Daddy Long Legs” with Fred Astaire, Moore was a regular on a short-lived NBC Western series, “Empire” (1962-63).
Moore was dubbed “Hollywood’s Sexy Tomboy” in 1953 by Life magazine. But though she gained fame for her love life and looks as well as her acting, she disdains the so-called stars of tabloid TV and reality television.
“I resent those people who become stars with no talent whatsoever,” Moore said in an interview a few days before the festival. Moore said she hones her acting chops by attending weekly workshops with such former Actors Studio colleagues as Martin Landau.
“Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have both made porno tapes, and people idolize them,” she said, yet in the 1950s, “Ingrid Bergman was put out of the country for getting pregnant by a married man.”
Asked if she’s glad today’s invasive high-tech tabloid press and social media weren’t around in the 1940s, when she lived with Hughes, Moore said: “Honey, when I was with Howard Hughes, there was no way they would have found us. We’d just get on a plane and fly away.”
Moore says “Man on a Tightrope” (1953), directed by the legendary Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”), might contain her best acting. She also cherishes the comedy “The Return of October” (1948) with Glenn Ford, directed by Joseph H. Lewis (“Gun Crazy”).
“I was 18 years old, he was 32, and he’d been to the war and back — he was a huge star, a grown-up star, so that was very exciting.”
Recent years have brought sadness, however. She was distressed to learn of the May 7 death of Ray Harryhausen, 92, who handled most of the special effects in “Mighty Joe Young,” placing Moore in shots with the title giant gorilla, which Harryhausen brought to life via stop-motion animation.
“I just adored that man,” she said. And: “I was in shock when Esther Williams died” (June 6, at 91). “She was a dear friend of mine.”
As an actress, however, Moore — who now lives off Santa Monica beach with her pet bichon frise, Booboo — always has been acutely aware of the passage of time.
For example, in “My Gal Sal” (1942), Moore played Victor Mature’s daughter. In “Gambling House” (1950), she played his wife.
“He said, ‘Yes, and 10 years from now, you’ll be my mother.’”
John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.