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DAME WENDY HILLER: Still Acting Strong

October 18, 1992|SUSAN KING | Times Staff Writer

Dame Wendy Hiller is one of England's national treasures. At the ripe young age of 80, she is still performing and stars with Sir John Gielgud and Patrick McGoohan in Hugh Whitemore's drama "The Best of Friends," premiering Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

"Best of Friends" is based on the true story of the long-lasting friendship of three British intellectuals: Hiller's Dame Laurentia MacLachlan, the Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey and a world authority on the Gregorian chant; Sydney Cockerell (Gielgud), the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and playwright George Bernard Shaw (McGoohan). Their actual correspondence is used as the dialogue in "Best of Friends."

Hiller herself was great friends with Shaw. In fact, she was his personal choice to play Eliza Doolittle in the 1938 film version of "Pygmalion," for which she received a best actress Oscar nomination. Hiller did win an Oscar 30 years later for best supporting actress in "Separate Tables."

Hiller, who was titled Dame in 1975, appeared in the original New York production of "The Heiress," was a member of the Old Vic Company and appeared in London and New York in Robert Bolt's "Flowering Cherry."

Hiller discussed "Best of Friends" and her long career with Times Staff Writer Susan King over the phone from her home in Buckinghamshire, England.

How did you meet George Bernard Shaw?

I don't want to go into a long spiel about my relationship with G.B.S. When I was 22 at the Malvern Festival, which you will know nothing about, there was a Shaw festival just for a week at Malvern and I played "Saint Joan" and "Pygmalion" for him. I was a stage actress and he invited me himself to play Eliza at the Malvern Festival to celebrate his 80th birthday. It was from that he insisted I do the film.

You also did the film version of Shaw's "Major Barbara."

Yes. That was not such a good play as "Pygmalion." Not such a good or popular play, but very, very interesting, of course. It has a great deal to say about organized religion.

After the success of the film "Pygmalion" and your best actress Oscar nomination, did Hollywood seek you out?

Hollywood wanted me to go out years before you were born, when I was playing a play in New York called "Love on the Dole" (which was written by her husband, Ronald Gow).

I was invited to go to Hollywood then, but I was really very snobbish and thought Hollywood was the end and not the beginning. I came back to England and and played "Saint Joan" for 25 pounds a week. That was my idea of heaven, not $25,000 a week or an hour. I just looked down on the whole of that. I was very snobbish, a very nasty little thing.

Did you ever regret making that choice?

No. I remember my children (and I) going past a rather lovely farmhouse when we were on a picnic (and they said), "Why didn't you go to Hollywood, Mummy, and make some money? Then we could have lived there." (She laughs.) That was their attitude. Why didn't I get on making some money for them?

Was it interesting with "Best of Friends" to play a character who was friends with Shaw, having known him so well yourself?

It never entered my head (while doing the drama). It is (just) acting, isn't it?. That is what we are paid to do. (She laughs.) I am paid to get on with the part and it was a very well-written piece, very well-written. The great thing was there wasn't one word that hadn't been--I was going to say said-- but written by the characters. So it was completely authentic and completely in character.

(They were) three literary, educated people. They could express themselves on paper. Fortunately for us, they expressed themselves so eloquently on paper. It has been our legacy. It has been our enrichment to have that correspondence.

The Abbess is a wonderful character. Did you know of her before you did "Best of Friends"?

She was a remarkable woman. No (I didn't), because I am not a Catholic. I don't take any interest in abbeys or nuns. She came as a most interesting character to me, a most remarkable woman--a Scottswoman, well-educated.

(The Abbess) gives one a completely new idea of an enclosed order, you know. I mean she was in touch with her world through her music. She was a very, very musical woman, very scholarly. She was the European authority on Gregorian chant and she did have a special dispensation from Rome--it took her years-- to leave the monastery for three weeks to go to some priory over on the east coast of (England) to teach Gregorian chants.

I did go to Stanbrook for just one day to have lunch there to see how the nuns used their robes, you know, and that was very interesting. Otherwise, as a very low church Protestant, I am completely out of my orbit (in the Catholic Church).

That last time you appeared on stage was four years ago in the London production of "Driving Miss Daisy." Do you think you will return to the stage soon?

That was a lovely play, a lovely American play, but it was universal. I don't think I would go back to the theater now. I don't think eight performances a week would be quite right for me.

But you're not thinking of retiring are you?

No, why should I?. (Actors) don't retire. People just stop asking us to do things. That's all.

"Masterpiece Theatre: The Best of Friends" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on KVCR; 9 p.m. KCET and KPBS.

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