Tuesday, July 18

Judith Anderson

She never worked that much in the movies, certainly not as much as some of her contemporaries and one wonders why. And let's get it out there and you can mull it over as we chat... Judith Anderson was a magnificent actress. She was highly-trained, a masterful stage actress, a vigorous interpreter of the classics and could have out-acted most of those contemporaries whom she merely supported in films. Was she identified as too much of a stage actress to even be offered much of a career in films? Was she too formidable for some? Did her playing Mrs. Danvers stall a future career? Was it her looks?  Her closeted lesbianism? What exactly?

Whatever it was, and it was probably some of all we question, I think it's a shame she hasn't left behind this extraordinary body of screen work but it's not there.  She only made 26 big-screen movies which included a couple of great roles, another four or five memorable performances in big films and some mediocrity (the films, not her) and very brief parts. 

It didn't help her movie career that she didn't make her first film until she was 35 years old. The bloom of her youth had long passed by that time and her looks were not what Hollywood was looking for.  No one would ever confuse Judith Anderson with those gorgeous creatures at MGM.  Her eyes were beady, her nose dominated her face, she had a large head and her general facial features were severe.  There is little doubt as to why her movie roles, the better ones especially, often involved playing unpleasant characters.  I remember being afraid of her on that big screen when I was a child.

When she was a child, she declared to one and all that she would one day not only be an actress but a great one.  She easily gave up on her first plan... an operatic career. She would later claim it was not only her destiny to act but said that she was only ever truly happy when she was doing it.

She was a Brit who was born in Australia in 1897.  While in her early teens she began studying acting in her hometown of Adelaide and also Sydney and debuted in a play in Sydney, earning rave reviews and the attention of a director who thought she was quite special and helped guide her.  Having worked with some American actors in Aussie plays, she was convinced by them that she should give Hollywood a try.

She somehow thought of director Cecil B. DeMille and decided that he could be her ticket to fame.  She upped and moved to Hollywood and somehow was able to look him up but he dismissed her as not being the Hollywood type.  She knew she wasn't but was already confident enough in her abilities to think that he would want talent more than looks.  Oddly, one day she would be part of the director's last film.

Anderson then dismissed Hollywood as they had done to her and truth be known, she never forgot the slight.  She would often deride the film capital in the future but acclaimed stage stars often did that. After she made a beeline for New York, she soon found some of the same treatment there. She was always savvy enough, however, to know that the stage cares about one's talent over one's looks. Besides, she never for a moment doubted that she would make it. She knew no one that displayed her confidence, authority, unbridled passion or monster talent. She knew it... and the rest soon would. 

For a posting on this actress, I am almost sorry that I don't dive into Broadway careers more than I do because this was a stage career for the ages.  She had worked in a number of plays by the time she got the lead in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and received more stunning reviews. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that she would be the perfect actress to play Lady Macbeth and her performance blew people's minds, as did a turn playing Gertrude in Hamlet. Her presence alone told one she was born to play Shakespeare. 

The acme of her stage career is without a doubt her numerous performances as Medea, which she has played in several decades in several countries.  Not only was she a sensational in everything she did on Broadway but she wowed them all over Europe and back home in Australia.  In later years she would not only perform several of these roles on television, but she became mainly a television actress.  Luckily, more people got to see her.

I think that what people got to see was her impeccable timing. Simply exquisite.  Good acting requires good listening and one could sense that she truly listened.  Another thing one could add about her face is that it was not expressionless.  Movie audiences would understand that better than Broadway audiences.  She drew up and into herself to play with emotions and was willing to take them all the way if the part required it.  And if that's not enough, she appeared to do it all so effortlessly.   

By the early 1930s, Hollywood could no longer ignore Judith Anderson.  They weren't altogether sure what to do with her but the movie colony was actively seeking some class and Anderson in a film would help that endeavor.  Blood Money (1933), a pre-code, risqué little opus, has Anderson in the role of the hero's sister while gorgeous Frances Dee is the bad girl.  The part was not huge but she registered.  Still, she wouldn't make another movie for seven years.

And that would become the role for which she remains to this day most identified... the demented housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 thriller, Rebecca. Migawd, how she tormented that poor new second wife (of Laurence Olivier).  I will never forget her frightening eyes as she stood behind the timid Joan Fontaine, urging her to commit suicide.  If this stern, taciturn character wasn't a lesbian, perhaps a closeted one, then I need to turn in my gay membership card. 

The Oscar folks awarded her with a supporting nomination.  It is ludicrous that character actress Jane Darwell won for her role as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath when Anderson was in the competition.  

Scaring Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

By the way, she had a public squabble with Fontaine, calling her a phony.  No doubt it helped the actresses play their parts, knowing there was no love loss.  She had worked with Olivier earlier on the stage and stated that she found him to be equally phony.

She and Olivier likely checked one another over with a knowing eye... as in it takes one to know one.  Both liked members of their own sex, although Olivier certainly had dalliances with a few ladies.  Both also had marriages of convenience as they were called or marriages of cover-up as I call them.  Her first, in 1937, lasted for two years and the second, in 1946, lasted for five years.  The career in those days, whether on Broadway or in Hollywood, had to come with a marriage and gays were deeply closeted. Like the majority of her sapphic acting sisters, she never wore gay on her sleeve, rather quietly going about her business. Her marriages produced no children.

It was a B flick and rather violent for its time but she was sensational as a mobster in Lady Scarface (1941).  If you saw it, you never forgot it... in the same vein as never forgetting Mrs. Danvers.

King's Row (1942) was a small part as treacherous Charles Coburn's wife.  The film, wildly anticipated by the public, was based on a popular novel and starred that so-so actor, Ronald Reagan, as Anderson referred to him, in his best role.

I find it interesting that, of all people, Judith Anderson was in two of my 50 favorite films. The first, of course, was Laura (1944), as I've often mused, one of the finest film noirs ever made.  Of the five principals, including Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, Anderson was the least visible and her character was generally unimportant to the main story.  She was Tierney's rich, society cousin who was in love with Price, Tierney's fianceé.

With Gene Tierney in the noir classic, Laura

What particularly interested me in her playing of Ann Treadwell is that it was a rare soft role for her and a romantic one to boot. Additionally she was lovingly dolled up in some gorgeous clothes and the hair and makeup departments did some fancy work.

Hollywood loved to tattle about the sex lives of its stars and it was having a field day over three gay stars in one film with Price and Webb being the other two.  It also has long been a movie trivia question, at least with a gaggle of gays.  And another trivia question was to name the second film that involved Anderson with two more... this time two women.  Do you know?  Well, it's coming up. 

And Then There Were None (1945), based on the popular Agatha Christie murder mystery, concerns a number of people stranded in a big ol' castle who just keep dying one at a time.  We, the audience, never know who did it until we're down to just one.  Anderson, so excellent at being sinister, would have been a good choice for the killer but alas, she was one of the victims.  Acting-wise, we were lucky to have her in it as long as we did.

Another good noir is The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).  It concerns a ruthless woman who marries a weak district attorney who also happens to be the only witness to a murder she committed as a young girl. Barbara Stanwyck plays Martha and Anderson is the aunt she murders.  Another small part for the actress in a film with an esteemed cast.  Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott are the two other lesbian actresses and the answer to that second trivia question.

Ok, we're playing it straight from now on.

Specter of the Rose (1946) was a little minor noir about murder and the ballet.  Anderson had a very rare lead role and had the great distinction of being paired opposite drama teaching legend, Michael Chekhov. Watching these two act was just pure heaven.  It was little seen but I had the great pleasure at viewing it at a tribute to him once during a series of special films put on at and by UCLA.

Pursued (1947) looks and plays like a film noir but it is a western or perhaps more rightly a psychological western dealing with tragic consequences in Robert Mitchum's young life.  Anderson and the wonderful Dean Jagger are the couple who take him in. Teresa Wright is their daughter.  It was not a huge success although it was with me. 

She was not easily over-shadowed by other actors but Edward G. Robinson did a good job of it as her brother in The Red House (1947).  Newcomers Lon McCallister, Julie London and Rory Calhoun did impressive work in the story of the secret the red house holds.

Another western and another film with Barbara Stanwyck at whose hands Anderson suffers another terrible fate... that would be The Furies (1950).  Stanwyck, as a willful ranch owner's daughter, goes berserk when her father (Walter Huston in his final film) brings home a new bride (Anderson) and slashes her face with a pair of scissors.  It was a fun-enough flick but frankly, Anderson deserved better.  Still, it paid the bills and Hollywood paid them better than Broadway.

She only did four films in the 1950s because she and television had discovered one another.  Anderson was not one of those movie actors who wouldn't be caught dead on the small tube, snooty and terrified folks that they were in those days.  Anderson didn't care. Movies or TV... it made little difference to her.  She went where the good work was and on television she could do things that were very special to her.  One may not have found her on Dragnet or Rin Tin Tin, but she didn't turn down Playhouse 90, Studio One or Kraft Theater.

I would imagine Salome (1953) was a movie she did for the bucks. She was more than delighted to work with Charles Laughton, an actor who more than matched her dramatic abilities, passion and professionalism and with whom she toured (along with Tyrone Power and assorted others) in a traveling acting troupe around the country.  She played Queen Herodias, mother of Salome. It may not have been great cinema but flame-haired Rita Hayworth dancing in veils, sandals, baubles, bangles and beads is not a bad way to go. 

It took three more years to get back in a movie and she was still in a biblical mood as she signed on for The Ten Commandments (1956) for that cocky, old DeMille.  She found him (and Hitchcock) egotistical.  She is listed #11 in a large cast in a film that was very popular with the public.

Cat:  Ensemble acting at its zenith

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is my favorite Anderson movie and is, by far, the sweetest role she ever played.  In a film largely about family members with ulterior motives, she is the only main character without an agenda.  She dearly loves her husband, wealthy, plantation-owning blowhard, Big Daddy (Burl Ives), and it is rather heartbreaking to see how he treats her.  The family has gathered for his birthday celebration and cheers that he has beaten cancer, which is a lie, and she is the only one who doesn't know the truth.  She toughens up in the final scenes but was never menacing. It was touching how she clutched her handkerchief and grabbed on to her favorite daughter-in-law, Maggie, played beautifully by Elizabeth Taylor.

As the characters bonded, so did the two actresses.  It was during this production that Taylor's husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash and although the entire cast and crew were kind to her, Taylor was deeply beholden to Anderson for her special caring.    

No matter our talent or accomplishments, we all deserve a wtf moment, don't we? Imagine an actress of this magnitude appearing in Cinderfella (1960), a Jerry Lewis movie. When it was over, surely she must have said what have I done, what have I done?  I'm done.

Also in 1960, on a much more respectable note, she became Dame Judith Anderson thanks to Queen Elizabeth.   And why not? She had been doing grand dame all her life, on and off the stage and screen.

I had seen none of her work since Cat, centered on television movies but she returned to films in 1970 with arguably the most unusual role of her career.  She plays an ancient Sioux named Buffalo Cow Head in A Man Called Horse.  She spoke no English; in fact she rather grunted throughout, and was rather contemptuous of Englishman Richard Harris who had been captured by her tribe. It remains one of my favorite westerns.  The Indians, at least the Souix, for a change, are the good guys.

The last film she made of any note likely gave her a whole new audience... the trekkies... when she played the small role of the Vulcan High Priestess in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).

Anderson absolutely adored living in Santa Barbara, California (and I find no fault with that), something she had done since the early 50s.  Her last appearance was in a number of episodes of the 1984-87 run of the soap opera, Santa Barbara.  It is not likely she would have done a soaper but that title spoke to her.

Dame Judith Anderson passed away quietly at age 94 of pneumonia at her home in 1992.

Next posting:
A good 70s movie


  1. She was a great, great actress that I had forgotten. I saw many of the mentioned movies, but my favorite ones will always be Rebecca , Laura, Pursued, Martha Ivers and Cat on...
    There is nothing I can say about her except thanks again to You for having brought to life my sleepy memory. CIAO

  2. You are so welcome, my friend. I love it when you write. You'll probably do that more starting in September when we tiptoe through the thirties.