Skip to comments.Dame Wendy Hiller -- obituary
Posted on 05/15/2003 5:36:51 PM PDT by dighton
Dame Wendy Hiller, who died on Wednesday aged 90, was an actress who was adored by Shaw and won an Oscar, but kept her distance from the mainstream of British theatre, in which she flourished for more than half a century.
She came from the north of England where her father was a Manchester cotton manufacturer and was sent to school in the south of England to eradicate a northern accent - not to assist her theatrical career (she had never thought of that until success was thrust upon her in a play called Love On The Dole), but because it was supposed that a regional accent would tell against her chances of marrying.
In fact she married a northern schoolmaster, Ronald Gow, who had written Love On The Dole, the play which brought her sudden fame. George Bernard Shaw set the seal on her reputation after seeing her in Gows huge success.
He invited her in 1936 to act at the Malvern Festival in two of his plays, Pygmalion and Saint Joan. From then on she never looked back, although she did not follow the conventional path to success through the Old Vic or Stratford-upon-Avon or by joining a fashionable classical company.
Instead, she built up a following of her own in Shavian plays and films, in Ibsen, and in modern adaptations (some by her husband) of novels by Walter Greenwood, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and others.
Her great quality as an actress was to be able to indicate innocence and emotional integrity without dullness. Her voice, which had so troubled her father, became her greatest dramatic asset. It had a quaver and a slight stutter which caught the imagination and its sincerity of tone made her incapable of taking roles which called for falsehood.
If there is something of the Pygmalion legend in her progress from the portrayal of peasant girls to regal figures such as Queen Mary in Crown Matrimonial, the Countess in the film of Murder on the Orient Express and (in 1988 at the Apollo) the august old lady in Driving Miss Daisy, a gentle American geriatric comedy, two other legends touch upon the life of this unspoiled and, by modern standards, unambitious actress.
First, in 1934, she became in her native Cheshire the local girl who had gone to the big city and made good. The next year, she became the unknown provincial actress who, given her first chance in London, won national fame in a big hit.
What set her art apart from most of her contemporaries was its lack of sophistication. Wendy Hiller was never star-struck. She had no fiery urge to be famous. She let others attend to her professional career, and when they did not, it languished, but she never minded much because the theatre was not the be-all and end-all of her life.
She did not, and she knew it, possess that physical beauty which, particularly in the 1930s, a young actress needed to get on; but many, particularly Gow and Bernard Shaw, nonetheless recognised her spiritual radiance, which was to light up so many characters, particularly Sarah Hardcastle, Tess, Joan of Arc, Major Barbara and Eliza Doolittle.
Wendy Hiller was born at Bramhall, Cheshire, on August 15 1912, the daughter of Frank Watkin and Marie Hiller. She was sent to school at Winceby House, Bexhill, where she got a taste for acting and won a voice contest at Hastings - as, she later said, the best of a bad bunch.
At 18 she joined the Manchester Repertory Theatre as a student. She played small parts, understudied the principals and became assistant stage manager. Nobody took much notice of her for the first four years - until she played Sarah Hardcastle in Love On The Dole, Gows adaptation, with Walter Greenwood, of Greenwoods North Country novel about the Depression. In this play Wendy Hiller toured and triumphed in London and New York.
At the age of 24, on the slender reputation of one role, she became a leader of her profession. Shaw, having seen her as Sally Hardcastle, appreciated her natural qualities, and beckoned her to the Malvern Festival in 1936 where she gave excellent accounts of his Saint Joan and Eliza Doolittle.
In 1937 she and Gow, whom she had by then married, tried their luck in films. He wrote propaganda scenarios during the Second World War, and with Pygmalion and Major Barbara she began a film career which, though disjointed, was to bring her an Academy Award for her performance in Terence Rattigans Separate Tables.
It was, however, with Robert Morley in the play about George IV, The First Gentleman, that Wendy Hillers range began to show itself. She played Princess Charlotte in Norman Ginsburys effective drama, and though Morley characteristically made it a vehicle for himself, Wendy Hillers sincerity made a striking contrast.
The next season, as the heroine of her husbands new version of Hardys Tess of the dUrbervilles, she established herself as one of the West Ends most promising young players. Her insight into Tesss unrequited passion touched the heart without apparent effort in this import from the Bristol Old Vic and was a big success.
Her voice, with its quavering, halting quality, sometimes fluted and sometimes crooned, sounded unfailingly authentic in its West Country inflections and her air of peasant simplicity was unforgettable.
Within a few months she was in New York playing the wretched spinster Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, adapted from Henry James. She did so well that when Peggy Ashcroft had to leave the subsequent London production Wendy Hiller replaced her.
Ronald Gows next vehicle for his wife after Tess was a commercial failure, perhaps because it incurred a degree of miscasting, since H G Wellss character Ann Veronica had political and intellectual powers scarcely suited to the public idea of Wendy Hiller.
In 1951, with actresses of the calibre of Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans, she made a personal success in a small part in Waters of the Moon. While both dames still had a notable night, Wendy Hillers contribution in that long-runner was vivid. In a revival at Chichester in 1978 she quietly made more of the Sybil Thorndike role she was now playing than had Dame Sybil herself - knitting and sniffing, scoffing and scowling at the unwelcome visitors in this insubstantial but actable comedy.
Meanwhile, however, she had proved herself most sensationally royal in Royce Rytons re-creation for the stage of the abdication crisis, Crown Matrimonial (1972). This was a brilliantly poised performance and a surprise to many admirers who never supposed this actress capable of such majestic haughtiness and regality.
Her acting in two Ibsen plays, When We Dead Awaken (1968) and Ghosts (1972), had, though, shown powers which were to be confirmed with Ralph Richardson at the National in John Gabriel Borkman (1975). She had by then acquired a mode of theatrical address which involved, in its leisurely, intimidating style, a pursing of the lips, a deep intake of breath and a tendency to speak extremely slowly. This could be comic or tragic or faintly laborious but it served the actress in her senior years time and again.
Her Miss Bordereau in a revival of The Aspern Papers (1984) achieved a certain awe without erasing eerie memories of Beatrix Lehmann and, though Wendy Hillers Lady Bracknell (1987) both at Watford and the Royalty, was commendably incapable of being rushed, the graciousness suffered from a deliberation of speech which sounded laboured rather than languid.
What ultimately made her career so remarkable was its quiet success on both sides of the Atlantic and her ability to shuttle for nearly 60 years between queens and peasant women without a glimmer of pretence.
Her other films included parts in A Man for All Seasons, David Lynchs dramatic version of The Elephant Man, with John Hurt, and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
She was appointed OBE in 1971 and DBE in 1975.
She and Ronald Gow, who died in 1993, had a son and a daughter.
Sheridan Morley writes: In one sense, Wendy was a kind of anti-star: one husband, one house (in Beaconsfield), one family. Although she did occasionally travel to Hollywood (notably in 1958 for Separate Tables) and Broadway (where her greatest success was in The Aspern Papers in 1962), she lived a relatively domestic life.
Her territory was regional England and, of course, Shaw; she landed the film of Pygmalion in 1936 after he had seen her on stage at the Malvern Festival where she played her first Major Barbara. Like Peggy Ashcroft, whom she often followed into classical roles, Wendy abhorred any personal publicity; as an actress she could break your heart by her voice alone, but there was a steely centre to her Cheshire heart. What was remarkable about her was her extreme untheatricality until the house lights went down, whereupon she would give a performance of breathtaking reality and expertise: few who saw it will forget her at the very opening of the National Theatre with Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft in John Gabriel Borkman.
Once, interviewing her for BBC radio, I asked how she wanted to be remembered, if at all. Oh, I think a little posterity must always be nice, she replied. After Im dead Ill probably be a cult and theyll have entire seasons of me at the National Film Theatre. Thank God I wont have to watch them all.
In a profession where this is rare, Wendy was a genuinely good woman: she approached her acting as a craft and her life as far more important than her work. In a last decade spent very largely as an invalid, she had the devotion of her two children and those of us who loved her either in private or public - sometimes both.
Wendy Hiller in "A Man for All Seasons"
The stage's loss --- Heavens gain.
Agreed - we don't have actors and actresses any more, we have "stars". And we're rather poorer for it, I think.
Wendy Hiller with Rex Harrison and Robert Newton in one of my personal faves, George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. For an utterly wrong-headed socialist and Stalinist dupe, Shaw was a wonderful writer. Funnily enough, this is also a very pro-capitalist film.