Oscar Profile #302: Judith Anderson

J. AndersonBorn Frances Margaret Anderson on February 10, 1897 in Adelaide, South Australia, the acclaimed future actress was educated in her native country. Billed as Francee Anderson, she made her stage debut in Sydney in 1915. At the urging of some traveling American actors, she moved unsuccessfully to Hollywood and then to New York in 1918 where after a bout of poverty and illness she made her Broadway debut as Frances Anderson in 1922 and had her first starring role as Judith Anderson a year later.

By the 1930s Anderson was a major Broadway star whose successes included As You Desire Me, Mourning Becomes Electra and The Old Maid opposite Helen Menken in roles later played on screen by Greta Garbo, Rosalind Russell and Miriam Hopkins opposite Bette Davis.

Anderson made her own film debut in 1933’s Blood Money but did not achieve success on film until seven years later when she played Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca for which she received her only Oscar nomination. She played her two greatest Broadway roles in the 1940s, Lady Macbeth in the 1941 production of Macbeth and the title role in 1947’s Medea for which she won a Tony. Her films through 1950 included All Through the Night, Kings Row, Edge of Darkness, Laura, And Then There Were None, Specter of the Rose, The Red House and The Furies.

In the 1950s Anderson turned to TV and won the first of her two Emmys for reprising her Lady Macbeth in Macbeth in 1955. She would win her second for once again playing Lady Macbeth in a 1961 incarnation. Infrequently on Broadway now, she appeared in only two more films during the decade, albeit both of them instant classics, The Ten Commandments and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Made a Dame of the British Empire in 1960, she appeared occasionally on TV during the decade in such productions as 1968’s Elizabeth the Queen in which she played Elizabeth I and on screen in such films as 1970’s A Man Called Horse as the old squaw who is given the captured Richard Harris as a gift. She did not appear on Broadway in either decade.

In 1982 Anderson made a triumphant return to Broadway as the nurse in Zoe Caldwell’s production of Madea. She received a Tony nomination for her performance and a later Emmy nomination when the play was adapted for TV the following year. She became known to a whole new audience as the High Priestess in the 1983 film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and made an impressive sixty appearances on the daytime TV soap opera, Santa Barbara in 1986 and 1987, after which she retired.

Married and divorced twice with no children, the legendary Dame Judith Anderson died on January 3, 1992 at 94 without ever having legally changed her birth name of Frances Margaret Anderson.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

REBECCA (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Ironically the only Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar was one that owes its style more to producer David O. Selznick, fresh from producing Gone With the Wind than to Hitchcock who was constrained by the producer. That said, Hitch’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s best-selling novel is awash in Hitchcock’s trademark suspense. It has an impeccable cast led by Laurence Olivier as the mysterious Maxim De Winter, Joan Fontaine as his unnamed second wife and Judith Anderson in a mesmerizing performance as the eerie housekeeper still loyal to De Winter’s first wife, the mercurial Rebecca.

LAURA (1944), directed by Otto Preminger

Preminger’s breakthrough film was an adaptation of Vera Caspary’s best-selling novel of the same name. It is immortalized by Preminger’s stylistic direction, David Raksin’s haunting score and the performances of Gene Tierney as a highly successful fashion advertising executive, Dana Andrews as the detective investigating her murder and the three main suspects, Clifton Webb as a charismatic newspaper columnist, Vincent Price as her parasitic playboy fiancé and Judith Anderson as her wealthy socialite aunt who has been having an affair with Price. All five were Oscar worthy, but only Webb received a nomination.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), directed by René Clair

This was the first and best screen version of Agatha Christie’s play which differs from her novel also known as Ten Little Indians in that it is given a happy ending for two of the characters that was denied them in the novel. The cast is impeccable. Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, June Duprez, Roland Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Mischa Auer, Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard were the other invitees to spend a weekend on a secluded island where they are murdered one by one. Anderson’s demise is particularly chilling when she is killed early in the proceedings.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), directed by Cecil B. DeMille

It’s easy to get lost in a film with as large and impressive a cast as the one DeMille assembled for his epic retelling of the life of Moses, but Anderson manages to make her limited screen tiem memorable as Memnet, the aid to Bithiah (Nina Foch), the daughter of the Pharaoh who discovers baby Moses in a basket floating down the Nile. Anderson again has an impressive death scene as Nefriteri (Anne Baxter) kills her to prevent her from betraying Moses (Chalton Heston). The mammoth cast also include Yul Brynner and two of Anderson’s previous co-stars, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), directed by Richard Brooks

Critics were mixes as to whether Anderson’s in-your-face portrayal of Big Mama in Brooks’ film of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play was too strong or not, but you don’t hire an actress with Anderson’s fierce persona if you’re looking for meek and humble. She more than holds her own in the company of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives at their best, with an equally impressive Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood contributing their best as well. The scene in which she pats the bed and tells Maggie the Cat (Taylor) that’s where the problems are, remains a highlight of the film.

JUDITH ANDERSON AND OSCAR

  • Rebecca (1940) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress

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