Wendy Margaret Hiller, actress: born Bramhall, Cheshire 15 August 1912; OBE 1971, DBE 1975; married 1937 Ronald Gow (died 1993; one son, one daughter); died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire 14 May 2003.
The actress Wendy Hiller, who became an instant star with her West End theatre début in Love on the Dole in 1935, had a long and distinguished career on both stage and screen. She will be remembered particularly for her splendid creation on film of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, her portrayal of another spirited Shaw heroine, Major Barbara, and her subtly layered performance as the hotel proprietress in both stage and screen versions of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables. She won an Oscar as best supporting actress for the film version which, according to its director, she almost refused to do.
Other notable stage roles were in Saint Joan, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The First Gentleman, The Heiress and Crown Matrimonial. Unconventionally pretty, with chestnut hair, a turned up nose and a distinctively earthy and resonant voice, she initially specialised in independent, no-nonsense heroines who knew their own mind, though sometimes, as in the film I Know Where I'm Going, they were forced to reconsider their viewpoint.
Later (and she graduated to mature roles surprisingly quickly) she excelled at conveying the constrasting resilience and emotional deprivation to be found in the heroines of Shaw, Henry James, Ibsen and O'Neill, but her performances always retained an innate honesty and integrity. "She is the most unactressy of actresses," said Susannah York, and John Gielgud once said,
She shares with two of her contemporaries, Celia Johnson and Peggy Ashcroft, the charm and skill of a typically English temperament, fresh and simple, honest, frank and open, without the tricks and affectations which actresses too often use in order to cover basic inadequacies in their performances.
Born in 1912 in Cheshire, where her father was a wealthy cotton manufacturer, Hiller was sent south to be educated at Winceby House School, Bexhill, Sussex, in the hope that she would lose her regional accent, considered a hindrance to her marital opportunities. But Hiller had already determined to go on the stage, and in 1930 she became a student at the Manchester Repertory Theatre, working as an assistant stage manager and playing small roles.
She made her stage début there at the age of 18 in The Ware Case. It was in Manchester in 1934 that she first played Sally Hardcastle, the resolute proletarian heroine of Walter Greenwood's novel Love on the Dole, willing to sell herself in wedlock to a rich merchant rather than see her family go hungry. After touring with the play, Hiller made her London début with it at the Garrick Theatre in 1935 and was an immediate success. The critic James Agate described her as "magnificent," adding that "the play moved me terribly and must move anybody who still has about him that old- fashioned thing – a heart."
The following year, she played in the Broadway version, winning similar rave reviews. The critic Greville Vernon wrote, "This young English girl has beauty, charm, pathos and tragedy. She ought to go far." One of those taken with her performance was George Bernard Shaw, who invited her to appear in two of his plays, Saint Joan and Pygmalion, at the Malvern Festival in 1936. In 1937 Hiller married Ronald Gow, the former teacher who had adapted Love on the Dole for the stage, and it was to be a famously happy union.
Her first film was the modest comedy Lancashire Luck (1937), in which she played the daughter of a carpenter who wins a small fortune on the football pools. The following year she scored a great personal triumph in Anthony Asquith's expert screen transcription of Pygmalion, with Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wilfred Lawson a splendidly earthy Doolittle. The performance brought Hiller her first Oscar nomination, but she lost to Bette Davis in Jezebel.
The producer Gabriel Pascal then tried to set up a screen version of Saint Joan ("We must have Wendy," said Shaw) but the project fell through and instead Hiller starred in Shaw's Major Barbara (1941). It was too long and talkative to enjoy the success of Pygmalion, but Hiller's performance was forceful and appealing. Afterwards, she was to concentrate primarily on the theatre with sporadic returns to the screen. After Major Barbara she made only one more film in the Forties, but it was a gem, I Know Where I'm Going (1945), possibly Powell and Pressburger's most captivating film. Hiller was perfect as the wilful daughter determined to marry for money but unsettled by her encounter with a Scottish laird in the stormy setting of the Hebrides.
On stage, Hiller toured factory centres in 1943 as Viola in Twelfth Night, returning to the West End in 1944 to play Sister Joanna in a revival of the Spanish play Cradle Song. The play was directed by John Gielgud, who described her as "modest to a fault, punctual, reliable, deeply professional and equally loyal to directors and fellow actors". She scored another success as the wilful Princess Charlotte in The First Gentleman (1945). Her co-star Robert Morley later said,
She was never afraid of over-acting when she felt instinctively that the role required her to do so and, as Princess Charlotte, she was in turn so fierce and so gentle that, on some evenings, after she had died in the second act it seemed a waste of time continuing with the play.
The following year she played several roles with the Bristol Old Vic, including Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World, and Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. She also played Tess in London, winning acclaim for her powerful and passionate interpretation. In 1947 she returned to Broadway to give a superb performance as Catherine Sloper, the plain, vulnerable heroine of The Heiress (based on Henry James's novel Washington Square).
In Gow's 1949 adaptation of Ann Veronica, the critic Harold Hobson praised her capturing of the heroine's essential tenderness. "You can see the femininity beneath the feminism," he wrote. In 1950 Hiller replaced Peggy Ashcroft in the London production of The Heiress at the Haymarket, and the following year she began a two-year run at the same theatre in N.C. Hunter's enjoyable comedy-drama Waters of the Moon. On Broadway she had another personal triumph as Josie Hogan in O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, and after taking over from Celia Johnson in the London production of Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry (1958) she played the same role in the New York version (1959).
Film roles were few during this period, but she had a notable success in Carol Reed's compelling screen version of Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands (1951). Having had a personal triumph as the lonely hotel manageress in the stage version of Separate Tables, in which Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton had played two roles each in two one-act plays, she initially had doubts about doing the screen version. The director Delbert Mann said,
Because the leading roles were being played by four actors instead of two, as on stage, Wendy said it would mean she would be the fifth most important character, whereas on stage she had been the third most important in both plays. She
wanted to withdraw from the project, but I talked her out of it and at least to try it awhile in rehearsals. She was great in rehearsal, wonderful to work with and totally co-operative. I never heard another word of complaint from her, and of course she went on to win an Oscar.
When she won the award, Hiller surprised some with her lack of sentiment. "Never mind the honour," she declared, "I hope this award means cash, hard cash." Later she said,
It's amazing what they give these awards for. All I seemed to do was walk in and out of doors and look over my shoulder at Burt Lancaster. They cut out my two best scenes, you know. I was frightfully cross.
She gained another Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Alice More in A Man for All Seasons (1966).
In 1960 she starred as one of two spinster sisters in the London production of Lillian Hellman's steamy drama set in New Orleans, Toys in the Attic, and she repeated her role in George Roy Hill's 1963 film version, which considerably diluted the play's elements of miscegenation and incest.
Later stage roles included Mrs Alving in Ghosts (1972) and an imposing, fragile but ramrod-backed Queen Mary in Royce Ryton's account of the abdication crisis Crown Matrimonial (1972). For the National Theatre at the Old Vic, she was a chilling Gunhild in John Gabriel Borkman (1975) with Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft. She was part of the starry cast in the film Murder on the Orient Express (1974), using her deepening voice to magnificent effect as an imperious Russian princess, and she proved a formidable Lady Bracknell in a television film of The Importance of Being Earnest (1985), achieving with her forcefully studied delivery the feat of making the viewer forget Edith Evans. In 1988 she played the crusty American widow who gradually warms to her black chauffeur in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy.
She was appointed OBE in 1971, and DBE in 1975.