Following on from the surprisingly successful John Ford feature (650 hits, thank you very much), here's part two.
#2. Wendy Hiller
One of the most extraordinary things to happen to me in recent times was the discovery – quite by chance, aside from the fact that I’m generally talking about Wendy Hiller – that my dad’s new girlfriend’s mum grew up next door to Wendy Hiller, the only actress who truly vies for my affections alongside Miss Lillian Gish. This discovery has culminated with my cool new grandma giving me the signed photograph that Hiller gave her upon returning to her childhood home upon making it, a quite exquisite act of kindness and generosity. So for the second instalment of the ‘And introducing…’ series, we’re talking all things Wendy Hiller.
One of the most distinctive actresses of the 20th century, with her inimitable, tremulous voice, arrestingly unusual features and irresistible presence, guaranteed to wrench your attention away from everything else on screen.
She sounds good. Why haven’t I heard of her?
The Cheshire-born actress was primarily a stage star, but she lent her talents to 18 films across 50 years, as well as doing a bit of TV. Fans of British filmmaking legends Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger will know her as the social climber scuppered by love in their Hebridean romantic drama, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (above). She was also George Bernard Shaw’s favourite actress and appeared in definitive film versions of two of his finest plays: Pygmalion – later musicalised as My Fair Lady – and Major Barbara, giving perhaps my favourite performance of all time (here's the opening scene, it's an absolute wonder). Her later film work included lower billing in everything from an exhaustingly compromised colonial drama (Something of Value) to Southern Gothic (Toys in the Attic), soaring, searing religious drama (A Man for All Seasons), and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
That was some big talk about Major Barbara. Tell me more.
Hiller gives a beautiful, enrapturing performance as the title figure (above), whose faith in the noble work of her Salvation Army is shattered when her bosses accept a donation from her father, a supercilious, ominously-twinkling arms dealer (Robert Morley) who looks and acts like a mix of Shaw and Satan. She’s the perfect, compassionate, warm and beating heart of a satirical, often cynical Bernard Shaw gabfest that cocks a snook at temperance, the Sally Army and those who see nobility in poverty.
It’s an extraordinary showcase for a rare and remarkable talent, Hiller’s greatest creation a living, breathing, wonderful woman of Shavian rhetorical powers, uplifting faith and arresting, all-consuming empathy. "Oh, did you think my courage would never come back?" she asks screen beau Rex Harrison in a transcendent closing monologue. "Did you believe that I was a deserter? That I, who have stood in the streets, and taken my people to my heart, and talked of the holiest and greatest things with them, could ever turn back and chatter foolishly to fashionable people about nothing in a drawing-room?" It absolutely floors me.
Whit-whoo. You love her.
Please. This is ridiculous.
I do a bit.
She’s your wife. So what else did your wife make that’s worth watching?
Pygmalion (above) is high-grade, surprisingly glamorous entertainment – featuring Leslie Howard’s white-hot comic smarts and Hiller’s definitive Eliza – and has a good deal to say about life, love and how to pretend you’re not a Cockney. There’s a committed group of cinephiles who hold ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ as their favourite film ever, and you can well understand why. Hiller’s performance is a masterclass in thawing-out, her stuffy bride-to-be throwing caution to the wind – and a future of security in the bin – as she falls for penniless Scottish charmer Roger Livesey. Hiller is the best thing about both the batshit colonial melodrama Outcast of the Islands and the conventional war drama, Sailor of the King, though she disappears from the latter after the prologue.
Written out after the prologue? Sounds like she was in decline.
How dare you. Five years later she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar – despite having most of her best scenes snipped – playing a stoically lovelorn hotelier in Separate Tables, opposite Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven and her Major Barbara co-star Deborah Kerr. She delivered another of her sporadic, effortlessly devastating performances four years later in Sons and Lovers. It may be difficult to watch much of the film without thinking of Monty Python’s deft spoof, but Hiller is spectacular as a mother who retains her essential goodness despite the oppressive brutality of life. Her performance incorporates a couple of little breakdowns that make you whimper. Which other actress has ever made you feel – actually feel – something of the loss of a child, or the ruination of another? She went on to play Thomas More’s wife Alice in A Man for All Seasons, an exceptional characterisation that transcends its relative brevity, and formed part of an impeccable supporting cast assembled around The Elephant Man. Her final big screen role was opposite a rampaging, marauding, self-loathing Maggie Smith in the erratic 1987 film, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – in which Hiller is afforded just one truly stirring scene, but what magic she weaves from it.
Hiller in Separate Tables.
Be honest, though, how did a Bramhall-born favourite of the British stage translate to a slice of Southern Gothic?
Incredibly well. I was surprised too. Toys in the Attic, written by Lillian Hellman, is a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done. Geraldine Page and Hiller are cast as spinster sisters in New Orleans whose sheltered life is shaken by the return of ne'er-do-well brother, Dean Martin, suddenly flush with cash but somewhat reticent to say why. In his company is his neurotic young wife (Yvette Mimieux), whose harsh, strident mother (Gene Tierney) may have made the match. It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Page and Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations. Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions. Though billed fourth, it's actually a rare instance during her postwar career that she was front and centre, and the results are simply sublime.
Surely she must have done something rubbish?
Well, she was in the all-star Murder on the Orient Express (above), one of the most tedious, overrated and silly films of the ‘70s, playing the pale, aloof Princess Dragomiroff – not her best work, but still the most watchable thing on show, opposite Albert Finney and his little moustache-hammock. The 1978 version of that hoary old horror, The Cat and the Canary, is also a bit of a stinker, though Hiller is both droll and appealing as the executor.
I might give those a miss. Was she in anything as weird as John Ford’s sex hygiene film?
Arguably. Outcast of the Islands is a kind of batshit colonial Third Man, with raffish thief Trevor Howard winding up at a trading outpost, where he falls for a female warrior (Kerima) and proceeds to betray his best friend (Ralph Richardson). It’s a strange, intense drama – complete with broad comic interludes – that lacks a consistency of tone, oscillates between profundity and pomposity and is too low-budget to realise its ambitions, leading to continuity problems and some iffy back-projection. But it has a whole deck of wild cards that make it a must-see for fans of classic British film. Where else would you get to watch Robert Morley trussed up in a cocoon-like hammock, swinging, whooping above a bonfire? Or Richardson – in full Captain Birdseye make-up – trudging up a mountain, unsure whether to shoot or lecture his protégé? Indeed, much of the acting has to be seen to be believed, with a masterclass in madness from Howard, a poignant part from Richardson, Morley’s bilious turn as a barking, greedy trader, and Hiller impossibly touching, in what could have been a hackneyed part, as the unhappily-married woman looking to trade in one bastard for another. It’s a film of rough edges and odd diversions, but it’s very interesting, and at its best, it’s just great. Something of Value is the film’s boring cousin: a sincere but muddled movie about the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya, with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as childhood friends caught on opposite sides of the conflict. It's a gruelling watch and its narrative flaws are legion, but Poitier is superb and Hiller steals the film (doesn't she always?) being variously sexy and transcendent and covered in blood and shooting a gun. Phwoarr.
I am glad you fancy your wife. Where does her TV work come on the Brideshead-to-Stranger-Things spectrum?
Do you mean, ‘Is it white flannelled English period drama or populist, internet-backed American sci-fi?’
No, I mean, ‘Is it amazing or terrible?’
Oh. Well I haven’t seen all of it, but there are dazzling highlights. Like All Passion Spent, a three-part adaptation of Vita Sackville-West's most popular novel, with Hiller as an 85-year-old widow – previously wedded to the establishment – who finally gets to show her innate non-conformity. It takes ages to get going (the first half of the mini-series is basically just her purchasing and redecorating a house), but the music's nice, the script is unusually classy and meditative, and the scenes between Hiller and her eccentric longtime admirer (Harry Andrews) are extraordinarily moving. This portrait of a stoical, accepting and non-judgemental woman, blessed with a gentle power that comes from deep within, is among the great achievements of her incomparable career. What surrounds it isn't generally in the same league, but it's worth seeing for the central performance alone.
I’m not going to watch 90 minutes of someone redecorating a house. What else?
How about her 1983 reunion with Rex Harrison, The Kingfisher (above)? This marvellously escapist drama, ab sees a lonely bachelor (Harrison), living with his gay old butler (Cyril Cusack), make a move for the one that that got away a half-century ago (Hiller), following the death of her husband. The material is good if imperfect – there's a touch of pointless slapstick and an ill-advised diversion about Harrison's fatal conquests that seems in rather bad taste given the actor's involvement in Carole Landis's suicide – while the direction is fairly standard and unimaginative, but the performances are an absolute joy, with Harrison and Hiller sparking as they had in Major Barbara 42 years earlier, and Cusack providing memorable though not exactly hilarious support. Sexy Rexy plays the unrepentant but genuine, wistful old cove you'd expect, dialogue still like honey on his lips, while Hiller creates another of those impeccable, distinct characterisations she could turn out at will: a twinkly-eyed, joshing, witty, knowing and self-aware woman who's happy to get sloshed but blessed with tremendous emotional intelligence (a pensioned-off, very English version of Myrna Loy's character in Libeled Lady, perhaps).
OK, best of all is The Best of Friends, a remarkably thoughtful and mature TV movie based on the correspondence between legendary playwright George Bernard Shaw (Patrick McGoohan), esteemed museum curator Sydney Cockerell (John Gielgud) and Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Hiller), a Benedectine nun who was one of the world's leading authorities on church music. Quite how a play in which the characters simply wander in and out of one another's rooms and gardens, reciting their letters, can be this entertaining, immersive and affecting is rather beyond me, but Hugh Whitmore's script is remarkably incisive, insightful and inspiring − even curiously, enduringly comforting − in its ruminations on friendship, religion and death. That's especially true in the hands of these performers, with McGoohan a barnstorming but immensely likeable Shaw, and two of the finest actors of all time delivering late masterclasses: Gielgud's Cockerell understated, self-deprecating and self-aware, Hiller's Dame Laurentia radiating compassion, humanity and understanding: a fitting companion piece, in Hiller's penultimate appearance, to the greatest performance she ever gave, in Shaw's own Major Barbara.
Please can you summarise this blog for people in a hurry?
The filmed legacy of this renowned stage actress is a strange and spotty thing: she made just 18 movies, along with 40-odd TV appearances, during a career that spanned from 1937 to 1992, but what remains is of inestimable value for anyone who admires the artistry of acting. Through the nuanced control of her incomparable face, a stage-honed understanding of gesture that she adapted for the all-seeing camera, and that deep, modulated and inimitable voice, she thought out loud, and what she thought was usually extraordinarily beautiful. I really do think she's the greatest sound actress of all time. The world’s finest playwrights wrote roles for her, the world’s finest directors sought her out, and the world’s greatest performers were acted off the screen by her.
So where do I start?
With Pygmalion if you want something light but substantial, with Major Barbara if you want to have your very foundations shook.
Anything else to report?
If you ever come across a copy of her 1937 debut, Lancashire Luck, please alert me with extreme prejudice.
I bet she never expected to become a weird cult figure, if only in the head of an obsessive 33-year-old Press Executive.
On the contrary. Asked by the BBC how she would like to be remembered, if at all, the replied: “Oh, I think a little posterity must always be nice. After I'm dead I'll probably be a cult and they'll have entire seasons of me at the National Film Theatre. Thank God I won't have to watch them all." I've tweeted the NFT (now BFI Southbank), though, and they're ignoring me.
What to say: “Taking the bus to the video store to find out more about Wendy Hiller? Not bloody likely – I’m going in a taxi.”
What not to say: “I feel that she did her best work in the mid-to-late ‘70s.”
Thanks for reading. I didn't make any of the gifs, as I don't know how. You can find credits here.