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Wendy Hiller, 90; English Stage, Film Actress Starred in Shaw's 'Pygmalion'

May 17, 2003|From Associated Press

LONDON — Dame Wendy Hiller, one of Britain's finest actresses and George Bernard Shaw's chosen leading lady, has died. She was 90.

Hiller, who had a 50-year career as a stage star and Oscar-winning film actress, died Wednesday at her home in Beaconsfield, west of London, her family said. The cause of death was not announced.

A tall, handsome woman with regal bearing and a rich, distinctive voice, Hiller in later life was frequently cast in aristocratic roles that suited her natural hauteur.

She achieved fame early in her career as a girl from the slums in the 1934 Manchester Repertory production of "Love on the Dole."

Playing that role in London, she caught the eye of George Bernard Shaw, who cast her as Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion" on stage in 1936 and on screen two years later.

She was at home in roles that required a peppery, wry quality, whether as Shaw's pert heroines or as the imperious traveler in Sidney Lumet's 1974 film "Murder on the Orient Express."

That style served her well in playing Oscar Wilde's inimitably snobbish Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" in 1987, and a year later as the elegant Southern Jewish widow in "Driving Miss Daisy."

While projecting great warmth in person, on stage and screen she could be forbidding.

Her stage persona always seemed too knowing, even skeptical, to play either the innocent or the ingenue.

Wendy Hiller was born on Aug. 15, 1912, and reared in the northern city of Manchester, where her father was in the cotton-spinning business.

He thought her Lancashire accent might harm her marriage prospects, so he sent her to a school in Bexhill, south of London, to learn to speak like a proper lady.

There she developed a "deep, burning passion" for the stage.

"I just thought I'd always wanted to show off; quite honestly, acting is showing off," she said in an interview with Associated Press shortly after her 80th birthday in 1992.

Her parents' reaction? "Looking back, it must have been something they had to brace themselves to face -- their only daughter going into the theater."

Hiller joined the Manchester Repertory Theater at age 18, and four years later won the lead in "Love on the Dole." It was a hit that carried her to London and Broadway, and led to Shaw's offer of leading roles in theater festival productions of "Pygmalion" and "Saint Joan" in 1936.

"Love on the Dole" brought happiness as well as fame -- in 1937, she married Ronald Gow, a stage-struck schoolmaster who had adapted the play from Walter Greenwood's novel. Gow died on April 27, 1993.

Following her appearance in Anthony Asquith's film version of "Pygmalion," Hiller starred in 1941 in Shaw's "Major Barbara," one of her most memorable film roles.

She remembered Shaw as "awfully polite, a dear gentleman."

"I didn't appreciate it at the time," she told Associated Press.

"When you're young, you're stupid. If someone had said to me, 'Will you play "Saint Joan" with six rehearsals?' and then halfway across the Atlantic came the cable, 'Would I play "Pygmalion" as well?' I mean I'd have a sort of nervous collapse now. Then, I didn't....

"I was unbelievably lucky," she said. "Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, were so kind to me, and I remember sensing that they would have been far more warm and intimate if I hadn't been so shy and nervous.

"They had no children, no grandchildren. Years later, I realized that GBS and Mrs. Shaw were holding out hands of friendship to me. But I was young and stupid, and felt one mustn't intrude on those outstretched hands."

Hiller won a best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in "Separate Tables" (1958) and was made a dame -- the equivalent of a knight -- in 1975.

Her 1987 performance as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" won raves from critics.

In 1988, she played a strong-willed Southern Jewish widow in American writer Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy."

"Luckily, West End audiences seem to rather like very old people," she said.

"They think, 'My God, we saw her acting in the war and there she is still doing it,' and mentally they give you a sort of prize for sheer survival, as long as you turn up every night and remember most of the lines. Not that it ever gets any easier to do."

Hiller is survived by a son, Anthony; and a daughter, Ann.

A funeral service is planned May 27 at Amersham Crematorium.

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