Dame Wendy Margaret Hiller DBE (15 August 1912 – 14 May 2003) was a distinguished English film and stage actress. The Academy Award-winning actress enjoyed a varied acting career that spanned nearly sixty years. Despite many notable film performances, she chose to remain primarily a stage actress.
Despite a busy professional career, throughout her life she continually took an active interest in aspiring young actors by supporting local amateur drama societies, as well as being the president of the Chiltern Shakespeare Company until her death. Chronic ill health necessitated her eventual retirement from acting in 1992. She spent the last decade of her life in quiet retirement at her home in Beaconsfield, where she died of natural causes at the age of 90.
Regarded as one of Britain's great dramatic talents, she was created an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1971 and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1975. Her style was disciplined and unpretentious, and she disliked personal publicity. The writer Sheridan Morley described Hiller as being remarkable in her "extreme untheatricality until the house lights went down, whereupon she would deliver a performance of breathtaking reality and expertise.
The huge popularity of Love on the Dole took the production to New York in 1936, where her performance attracted the attention of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw recognized a spirited radiance in the young actress, which was ideally suited for playing his heroines. Shaw cast her in several of his plays, including Saint Joan, Pygmalion and Major Barbara and his influence on her early career is clearly apparent. She was reputed to be Shaw's favorite actress of the time. Unlike other stage actresses of her generation, she did relatively little Shakespeare, preferring the more modern dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen and new plays adapted from the novels of Henry James and Thomas Hardy among others.
In the course of her stage career, Wendy Hiller won popular and critical acclaim in both London and New York. She excelled at rather plain but strong willed characters. After touring England as Viola in Twelfth Night (1943) she returned to the West End to be directed by John Gielgud in Cradle Song (Apollo, 1944). The string of notable successes continued with The First Gentleman (Savoy, 1945) with Robert Morley, Playboy of the Western World (Bristol Old Vic, 1946) and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Bristol Old Vic, 1946, transferring to the West End also in 1946), which was adapted for the stage by her husband Ronald Gow.
In 1947, Wendy Hiller originated the role of Catherine Sloper, the painfully shy, vulnerable spinster in The Heiress on Broadway. The play, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, also featured Basil Rathbone as her emotionally abusive father. The production enjoyed a year-long run at the Biltmore Theater in New York and would prove to be her greatest triumph on Broadway. Olivia de Havilland would later win the Oscar for the role in the film version in 1949. Upon returning to London, Hiller again played the role in the West End production in 1950.
Her stage work remained a priority and continued with Ann Veronica (Piccadilly, 1949), which was another collaboration with Gow, who wrote the play with his wife as leading lady. She did a two year run in N.C. Hunter's Waters of the Moon (Haymarket, 1951-52), alongside Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. A season at the Old Vic in 1955-56 produced a notable performance as Portia in Julius Caesar among others. Other stage work at this time included The Night of the Ball (New Theatre, 1955), the new Robert Bolt play Flowering Cherry (Haymarket, 1958, 1959 Broadway), The Wings of the Dove (Lyric, 1963), A Measure of Cruelty (Birmingham Repertory, 1965), The Sacred Flame (Duke of York's Theatre, 1967) with Gladys Cooper and The Battle of Shrivings (Lyric, 1970) with John Gielgud.
In 1957, Wendy Hiller returned to New York to star as Josie Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten , a performance which garnered her a nomination for Broadway's Tony Award as Best Dramatic Actress. The production also featured Cyril Cusack and Franchot Tone. Her final appearance on Broadway was as Miss Tina in the 1962 production of Michael Redgrave's new play The Aspern Papers, adapted from the Henry James novella.
As she matured, she demonstrated a strong affinity for the plays of Henrik Ibsen, as Irene in When We Dead Awaken (Cambridge, 1968), as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts (Edinburgh, 1972), Aase in Peer Gynt (BBC, 1972) and as Gunhild in John Gabriel Borkman (Old Vic, 1975), in which she appeared with Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft. Later West End triumphs such as Queen Mary in Crown Matrimonial (Haymarket, 1972) proved she was not limited to playing dejected, emotionally deprived women. She later revisited some earlier plays playing older characters, as in West End revivals of Waters of the Moon (1977 Chichester Festival, Haymarket, 1978) with Ingrid Bergman and The Aspern Papers (Haymarket, 1984) with Vanessa Redgrave. She was scheduled to return to the American stage in a 1982 revival of Anastasia with Natalie Wood, until Wood's untimely death just weeks before rehearsals. Hiller made her final West End performance in the title role in Driving Miss Daisy (Apollo, 1988).
She followed up this success with another Shaw adaptation, Major Barbara with Rex Harrison and Robert Morley, in 1941. The ground-breaking film team of Powell & Pressburger signed her for their 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but she was forced to back out due to pregnancy. The role eventually went to Deborah Kerr. Determined to work with Hiller, the pair eventually teamed her with Colonel Blimp star Roger Livesey in the 1945 I Know Where I'm Going!, which became a classic of British cinema.
Despite her early film success and offers from Hollywood, she returned to the stage full-time after 1945 and only occasionally accepted film roles. With her return to film in the 1950s, she portrayed an abused colonial wife in Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1952), but had already transitioned into mature, supporting roles with Sailor of the King (1953) and a memorable victim of the Mau Mau uprising in Something of Value (1957). She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1959 for the film Separate Tables (1958), as a lonely hotel manageress and mistress of Burt Lancaster. She remained uncompromising in her indifference to film stardom, as evidenced by her surprising reaction to her Oscar win "never mind the honour, cold hard cash is what it means to me. She received a third Oscar nomination for her performance as the simple, unrefined but dignified Lady Alice More, opposite Paul Scofield as Thomas More, in A Man for All Seasons (1966). She reprised her London stage role in the southern gothic Toys in the Attic (1963), which earned her a Golden Globe nomination as the elder spinster sister of Dean Martin and Geraldine Page.
Her portrayal of the domineering, possessive mother in Sons and Lovers (1960) earned her a BAFTA nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her role as the grande Russian princess in the huge commercial success, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), won her international acclaim and the Evening Standard British Film Award as Best Actress. Other notable roles included a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany with her dying husband in Voyage of the Damned (1976) and the formidable London Hospital matron in The Elephant Man (1980).
|1937||Lancashire Luck||Betty Lovejoy|
|1938||Pygmalion||Eliza Doolittle||Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1941||Major Barbara||Major Barbara|
|1945||I Know Where I'm Going!||Joan Webster|
|1952||Outcast of the Islands||Mrs. Almayer|
|1953||Sailor of the King, also known as Single-Handed||Lucinda Bentley|
|1957||Something of Value||Elizabeth McKenzie Newton|
|How to Murder a Rich Uncle||Edith Clitterburn|
|1958||Separate Tables||Pat Cooper|| Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress|
Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
|1960||Sons and Lovers||Gertrude Morel||Nominated - BAFTA Award|
|1963||Toys in the Attic||Anna Berniers||Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture|
|1966||A Man for All Seasons||Alice More||Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress|
|1974||Murder on the Orient Express||Princess Dragomiroff|
|1976||Voyage of the Damned||Rebecca Weiler|
|1979||The Cat and the Canary||Allison Crosby|
|1980||The Elephant Man||Mothershead|
|1981||Miss Morison's Ghosts||Miss Elizabeth Morison|
|1982||Making Love||Winnie Bates|
|1987||The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne||Aunt D'Arcy|
|1992||The Countess Alice||Countess Alice von Holzendorf|
Throughout the 1970s and 1980's, she appeared in many television films including a memorable Duchess of York in the BBC Television Shakespeare production of Richard II (1978), the irrasible Edwardian Oxford academic in Miss Morrison's Ghosts (1981) and the BBC dramatizations of Julian Gloag's Only Yesterday (1986) and the Vita Sackville-West novel All Passion Spent (1986), in which she was the quietly defiant Lady Slane. This performance earned her a BAFTA nomination as Best Actress. Her last appearance, before retiring from acting, was the title role in The Countess Alice (1992) with Zoe Wanamaker.
Other TV roles include:
|1969||David Copperfield||Mrs. Micawber|
|1980||The Curse of King Tut's Tomb||Princess Vilma|
|1981||Play for Today||Lady Carlion||"Country"|
|Witness for the Prosecution||Janet Mackenzie|
|1985||The Importance of Being Earnest||Lady Bracknell|
|The Death of the Heart||Matchett|
|1986||Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy||Princess Victoria|
|Only Yesterday||May Darley||from the novel by Julian Gloag|
|All Passion Spent||Lady Slane||Nominated - BAFTA Award|
|1987||Anne of Avonlea||Mrs. Harris||as Dame Wendy Hiller|
|1988||A Taste for Death||Lady Ursula Berowne|
|1991||The Best Of Friends||Laurentia McLachlan|