Anna Massey: Award-winning actress on stage, film and television acclaimed for her subtlety and intelligence

A stage and screen actress highly regarded for her subtlety and intelligence, Anna Massey carved out a career playing repressed women and spinsters while constantly battling with insecurity.

Stage fright was there from the beginning, when she made her professional debut, aged 17, as Jane atthe Theatre Royal, Brighton, inthe pre-London tour of WilliamDouglas Home's play The Reluctant Debutante (1955). Nevertheless, one critic described her as giving a performance of "nice, down-to-earthdetermination" and Massey herself recalled of the first night that, as Wilfrid Hyde-White and Celia Johnson joined her to take a curtain-call, he told his older co-star: "Let's get in front of that bloody girl – she's too damned good for us."

Massey continued in the role in the West End (Cambridge Theatre, 1955-56) and the Broadway production (Henry Miller's Theatre, 1956-57), for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Her pinched features and slim figure stood out, making her unconventionally attractive.

She made her film debut as Sally, daughter of the Scotland Yard detective, in Gideon's Day (1958), a crime drama directed by her godfather, John Ford, then had a good leading role in Michael Powell's notorious Peeping Tom (1960) as Helen Stephens, who falls in love with a film focus puller who has a sideline in photographing young women, then killing them.

However, the cinema struggledto come to terms with Massey'sunstereotypical looks and she wasbetter served by television. She played a vinegary Miss Murdstone in David Copperfield (1969), the superficial Lucetta Farfrae in Dennis Potter's adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978) and a wonderfully severeMrs Danvers in Rebecca (1979), aserialisation that also featured her first husband, Jeremy Brett, as Maximde Winter.

Massey's best role on the small screen was in the 1986 BBC adaptation of Anita Brookner's novel Hotel du Lac, as Edith Hope, the mousy, cardigan-wearing crime writer who lives on her own, is having an affair with a married man and seeks to escape her loneliness by moving to a hotel – but discovers the other guests are just as lonely. The performance won her Best Actress awards from both Bafta and the Royal Television Society.

Born in Thakeham, West Sussex, Massey was the daughter of the actors Raymond Massey (a Canadian best known for playing Dr Gillespie in the television series Dr Kildare) and Adrianne Allen (the original Sybil in Noel Coward's Private Lives), whose elder child, Daniel, also went on to become an actor. The couple split up when Massey was a baby. Her father married an American lawyer whose ex-husband then married Raymond Massey's former wife.

With her mother away much of the time, Massey was brought up by a nanny and educated in London, New York, Switzerland, France and Italy. On leaving school, she decided to follow her parents on to the stage.

She was a regular in the West End for a quarter of a century. Her many roles included Penelope Shawn in Dear Delinquent (Westminster Theatre, 1957), Lady Teazle in School for Scandal (Haymarket Theatre Royal, 1962), Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (Haymarket Theatre Royal, 1965), the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Wyndham's Theatre, 1966) and Driver in Donkey's Years (Globe Theatre, 1977).

In the cinema, she was seen as the murdered bartender Babs Milligan, carried off in a sack, in Frenzy (1972, directed by Alfred Hitchcock), the pivotal lonely widow Mrs Linde in A Doll's House (1973), Imogen Bennett, the public schoolboy Guy's society mother, in Another Country (1984) and the governess Miss Laetitia Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (2002).

Not all of Massey's film shoots were a happy experience. In her 2006 autobiography, Telling Some Tales, she described the director Otto Preminger – with whom she worked on Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) –as "one of the cruellest and most unpleasant directors that I have ever worked with."

On television, she also played Lady Laura Kennedy in The Pallisers (1974), Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park (1983), Queen Victoria in Around the World in 80 Days (1989). Towards the end of her career she played Baroness Thatcher in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006) and Mrs D'Urberville in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (2008).

To the end, Massey remained unconventional in an industry where glamour is often the watchword. "Over the years," she said in 2006, "I've put on less and less make-up. The unadorned face is far more interesting, if less flattering, but it requires courage. Nowadays, facelifts prevent the map of people's lives from being seen. This saddens me. It's like putting a cover on your life."

When her son, the writer David Huggins, from her first marriage, to Jeremy Brett, was a child, Massey employed her own former nanny to care for him. On her death in1965, the actress suffered a nervous breakdown.

Massey was created a CBE in 2005 for her services to drama. Her four-year marriage to Jeremy Brett was dissolved in 1962 after she claimed that he left her for another man. Twenty-six years later, Massey married the Russian scientist Uri Andres, who survives her, along with her son.

Anna Raymond Massey, actress: born Thakeham, West Sussex 11 August 1937; CBE 2005; married 1958 Jeremy Brett (divorced 1962, died 1995; one son), 1988 Uri Andres; died 3 July 2011.

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