theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
She was born in 1912 on 15th August in Bramhall, Cheshire where her father, Frank, was a cotton-cloth manufacturer. Educated at Winceby House School in Bexhill, Sussex, she joined Manchester Repertory Theatre as a student, making her debut as the Maid in The Ware Case in 1930. She spent five years with the company, playing other small parts and understudying, as well as becoming assistant stage manager in 1931.
Her breakthrough performance came in 1935 as Sally Hardcastle in Love on the Dole in which she toured the country before scoring a success in London and on Broadway. She was later to marry the playwright Ronald Gow who had co-adapted the story with Walter Greenwood, author of the original novel.
George Bernard Shaw’s influence on her career was substantial. It was he who recommended Hiller for the 1938 film of Pygmalion with Leslie Howard, directed by Anthony Asquith, after seeing her as Eliza on stage at the Malvern Festival where she also appeared in Shaw’s Saint Joan. The actress was nominated for an Oscar for the film of Pygmalion but the stage remained her true love and she was careful about the parts she accepted on the big screen, saying she preferred to make films which were ‘rather special’ and had ‘stature’, and refusing to accept roles she considered dull.
She was fulsome in her praise of Shaw whom she described as ‘a most approachable and understanding person who talked to me a good deal’. Sometimes rehearsals for Saint Joan went on until the early hours: ‘Once it was three in the morning when we finished rehearsing and Shaw came up on the stage and said quietly, “If you’d like to go through that again, I’d like to listen.” We were pale grey, and he was pink and fresh and blooming.’
In 1941 she was on screen again, this time in Shaw’s Major Barbara, though she spent most of the Second World War touring the factories of Britain as Viola in Twelfth Night. She joined the Bristol Old Vic in 1946 where notable roles included Tess in Tess of the D’Urbevilles — a part she also played in the West End — and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. The end of the 1940s saw her at the Piccadilly Theatre in London as Ann Veronica Stanley in Ann Veronica, following which she took over from Peggy Ashcroft as Catherine Sloper in Ruth and Augustus Goetz’sThe Heiress at the Haymarket, adapted from Henry James’ novel, Washington Square.
In 1951 she opened with Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike and Kathleen Harrison in N.C. Hunter’s The Waters of the Moon, also at the Haymarket. ‘Wendy Hiller brings pathos to her portrayal of the frustrated Evelyn Daly, particularly in the party scene where she might easily have over-emphasised the desperation of her jealousy,’ said Theatre World’s critic in June 1951. Directed by Frith Banbury, the production ran for successfully two years.
The 1950s also saw her at the Old Vic where parts ranged from Portia in Julius Caesar, Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Helen in a modern dress production of Troilus and Cressida. After playing Josie Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway, she was back at the Haymarket at the end of the decade, taking over from Celia Johnson as Isobel in Robert Bolt’s Flowering Cherry, a part she also took to New York. She later appeared there as Miss Tina in Michael Redgrave’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers before returning to England in 1963 for Susan Shepherd in The Wings of a Dove at the Lyric.
Her career continued throughout the 1960s with work at Birmingham Rep (A Measure of Cruelty) and the Edinburgh Festival (Martha in A Present from the Past) as well as the West End (Nurse Wayland in The Sacred Flame at the Duke of York’s and Enid in The Battle of Shrivingsat the Lyric). Indeed, she continued into the 70s and 80s with notable performances as Gunhild in John Gabriel Borkman (National Theatre 1975-76) and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (Royalty Theatre 1987).
Having been Oscar-nominated for the film of Pygmalion all those years earlier, she eventually won an Academy Award for her role as Miss Cooper, the hotel manageress, in Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1958). She was nominated again for her moving performance as Sir Thomas More’s loyal wife opposite Paul Scofield in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (1966).
Another memorable appearance on screen was in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s unusual 1945 film, I Know Where I’m Going, a lyrical and romantic tale with a hint of the supernatural. She starred opposite Roger Livesey, Finlay Currie and Pamela Brown, giving a delightful portrayal of a young woman caught off guard by love. There was in her film work, says the New York Times, ‘an unmannered directness, a shyness, an aloofness from seduction, and an economy of performance which makes restraint seem like a positive value rather than an absence of passion.’ At a time when Method acting was all the rage, courtesy of Lee Strasberg, she was asked about her own method to which she replied, ‘Well, I have a bash at it and if it doesn’t go, I have another bash at it.’ This is certainly one of the best methods I know.
Other films among the twenty or so that she made included Sons and Lovers with Trevor Howard (1960), David Copperfield (1970) in which she played Daisy Trotwood, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Voyage of the Damned (1976), The Elephant Man (1980), Agatha Christie’sWitness for the Prosecution (1982) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987).
She was awarded an OBE in 1966 and made a Dame of the British Empire nine years later. Her husband predeceased her in 1993 and she leaves two children, Ann and Anthony. She once told an interviewer that it was ‘impossible to make a success’ of both work and family all the time. Throughout her career she made sure to divide her time in such a way as to be with her family as much as possible and to enjoy her days going to the theatre, gardening or playing golf.
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V 17-05-03
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