Dame Judith Anderson, 93; Acclaimed for Classic Roles
Dame Judith Anderson, the Australian-born actress who stalked the world’s stages and films in potent portrayals of complex and tormented women, died Friday.
The quintessential Medea, Lady Macbeth and the obsessively deranged Mrs. Danvers of “Rebecca” was 93.
She died at home, said Patricia Cartin of Welch, Ryce Haider mortuary. In August, she spent 18 days in a hospital for an undisclosed ailment. No cause of death was disclosed.
The tragedienne, whose gifts vastly exceeded the handy Hollywood label of “character actress,” had been living in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, for more than 20 years.
It was one of her last roles--as the camp, imperiously dotty matriarch on the soap opera “Santa Barbara"--that brought her dominating presence and luxuriantly marbled voice to a generation who had never seen her command the stage in the ardent, demanding roles she adored, from the works of Eugene O’Neill and Euripides to those of Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare.
With her signature interpretations of theater’s classic roles--particularly “Medea"--she was first among the dwindling ranks of grande dames of the stage. In her 70s, she even dared the role of “Hamlet"--to no great reviews--and was once given the signal honor of using Sarah Bernhardt’s dressing room.
Her sure stagecraft earned her the extravagant tributes of theater lovers. In Berlin, they once strewed rose petals from her car to the stage door. In London, she performed in only two plays, but that was enough to earn her the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II.
Her hypnotically malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Rebecca,” brought an Oscar nomination, and her two television performances as Lady Macbeth earned her twin Emmys. One of those shows alone played “to an audience that would have taken us 33 years to reach on the stage,” she sighed.
Although she insisted she hated the “cold, cold” eye of the camera, it was TV and movies that ultimately registered her face and voice with vaster audiences.
In her 80s, Anderson cheerily signed on for her soap-opera role, several years after her grand-nephew teamed with Leonard Nimoy and inveigled her into playing a bat-eared Vulcan priestess in “Star Trek III.”
But it was her theater roles such as Medea and Lady Macbeth that left the enduring impression of an actress forever stalking the stage with bloodied daggers. “People always think of me as playing these terrible, terrible women, but I’ve really played very few of them--Medea, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth . . . yes, Mrs. Danvers in the movies . . . but no one remembers the pleasant people I’ve played--Mary, the mother of Jesus, and so many others. I haven’t always been an ogre.”
Still, it was as the stage’s leading player of tragic, powerful villains that she often excelled. Although she once remarked wistfully that she wished she was beautiful, her features seemed custom-made for the onstage torments of O’Neill and Williams, and endured in memory long after the milkmaid miens of Hollywood faded.
“There are so many strange, alluring, hateful, lovable, weird, tender, ugly women of history and of life,” Anderson once said. “I want to delineate all of them.”
When she came to Hollywood from Australia during World War I, she failed to catch the eye of director Cecil B. DeMille in that age of Pickford prettiness, and moved to Broadway. “I was such an ugly little mutt,” she said, “he couldn’t see how he could use me in his films. And of course he was right.”
Yet Anderson’s formidable looks--the striking profile of a bird of prey--caught hold. And the face that “lends itself to drama,” as she called it, determined her destiny. Nearly 40 years after her first failed meeting with DeMille, her face earned her the richly conspiratorial role of Memnet in DeMille’s last film, “The Ten Commandments.”
In a career that began when she stepped onstage in 1915 in an Australian touring company, she eventually performed opposite William Gillette, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Errol Flynn, Raymond Massey, Tyrone Power, and Ronald Reagan in the film “King’s Row,” as the wife of the doctor who amputates Reagan’s legs.
“I am saddened by the news,” Reagan said in a statement Friday. “She was wonderful to work with, and I have many fond memories of our days in Hollywood.”
Unlike many actresses of her age, she stood apart from her leading men and set her own terms. Disdaining Hollywood’s typecasting, Anderson cast about ceaselessly for challenges. Her hunger for variety left in its wake many brilliant performances, and a few forgettable ones.
From her first unhappy movie role as a hood’s moll in “Blood Money,” she ultimately made nearly 30 films, including “Laura” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which she played Big Mama. She starred in an Australian Gothic potboiler horror movie and played a Sioux squaw whose only lines were grunts in “A Man Called Horse.” She did not even disdain a role in the 1960 Jerry Lewis movie “Cinderfella,” the same year she played an Emmy-winning Lady Macbeth.
Her performance as Mrs. Danvers enthralled audiences but evidently frightened off producers. “I kept hoping another Mrs. Danvers would come along, not realizing I was being cast, typed and cut to pattern while I waited.”
Whatever the caprices of Hollywood, she returned to the stage again and again, finding herself refreshed and strengthened by its variety. She longed to do Schiller’s play “Mary Stuart"--and to alternate lead roles, playing Mary, Queen of Scots, one night, and Elizabeth of England the next.
In the 1947-48 Broadway season, her “Medea,” the hypnotic fable of a vengeful ancient princess, played for 214 performances, probably a record for a modern presentation of Greek tragedy. “She is crowding into two hours the accumulated bitterness, savagery and ferocity of the world,” wrote a critic.
She was born Frances Anderson-Anderson in Australia, the daughter of a failed silver entrepreneur. Inspired at age 7 by soprano Nellie Melba, she turned to dramatics after she found she could neither sing nor play the piano. If she had not been able to act, she often said, “I would have starved to death--there is absolutely nothing else I can do.”
After spending her teen-age years with an antipodean stock company, she landed in the United States in the middle of the 1918 influenza epidemic. A New York stock company manager offered her a job--$40 a week and “supply your own clothes.”
She debuted on Broadway in 1922, then made her first starring triumph in 1924 in “The Cobra.” Over the next years, she took over “Strange Interlude” from Lynn Fontanne, played Gertrude to Gielgud’s “Hamlet,” and was Lady Macbeth both on Broadway (where a critic called her hand-washing performance “almost too frightening to be watched”) and again with Olivier at the Old Vic.
In 1928 she met a man whose work influenced her for the rest of her life: the poet Robinson Jeffers. He adapted Greek dramas for her, including “Medea,” and wrote another, “Tower Beyond Tragedy.” She later dedicated herself to preserving Jeffers’ museum-home in Carmel.
Like “Medea,” “Tower Beyond Tragedy” became a signature piece she performed over the years from Carmel to Broadway, drawing crowds of bigger-name “stars” who watched in respectful homage.
Her own sense of stardom was so minimal that she was too modest to approach her hero, Albert Einstein, and instead haunted the Princeton campus during a play tryout there. She never saw him, and didn’t dare ask to.
In 1960 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in a Buckingham Palace investiture that she called “the greatest moment of my life.” The queen had asked her, “‘Did you come all the way over here just for this?”’ Anderson wanted to say “that I would have swum all the way, but I didn’t know whether it’s swum or swam.”
She was a private person who lived in the Santa Barbara area for more than 40 years, and loved puttering in her lush gardens after years of living “in trunks, suitcases and railroad stations.” She would “rather be (home) with my music and open a can of beans than go to the plushest party in Santa Barbara.”
She married an English professor in 1937, divorcing him within two years, and later married a theatrical producer. Both marriages were “disastrous . . . very short, but too long,” she later said.
The only marriage that endured was with the stage.
“If you’re born in the theater and wedded to it, the lights go down and your pulse goes up and your stomach won’t stay still, and there’s nothing like it,” she said. If she didn’t act, she said, she would be what Jeffers once wrote to her, “a leafless tree, waiting for the trunk to fall.”
She passed her meticulous craftsmanship on to actress Zoe Caldwell, taking a secondary role after teaching Caldwell the ropes in “Medea.” In 1970, she even tried a six-month road tour of “ ‘Hamlet,’ the greatest of all plays,” like her idol, Sarah Bernhardt.
“I never think of Hamlet as a man. I think of the character as a tortured, humiliated, agonized soul. A human being who plays every stop on the emotional pipe. I’m being criticized for taking on this role, but I don’t care a damn about that. Why shouldn’t a woman play it?” Critics did not take to it, but Times critic Dan Sullivan still found redemption in her “heavy, haunted voice that belongs in the National Archives as a permanent treasure.”
Afterward, she remarked, “Bad as it was, mediocre as I must have been, I’m glad I did it.”
If it never warmed to fondness, she nonetheless cultivated a respect for TV and films.
“Bernhardt, whom I worshiped, would have accepted a daytime drama if they’d offered her one,” she told the New York Times.
Besides, the plots were as intense as some of her Greek tragedies. “Except for the immorality, of which I heartily disapprove, I love the soaps. Look at ‘Medea.’ If you open up the newspaper any day, you will find the same elements that are working there. . . . But no matter what you do, if you care about it, if you’re passionate about it, it becomes great.”
After a couple of years, her character, a dotty matriarch enforcing her whims with a riding crop, went upstairs one day and never reappeared.
It dismayed her that “Santa Barbara” had nothing to do with Santa Barbara, but the acting was, as always, “fun--and it is great fun, getting on a stage and showing off. That’s what it is, you know.”