Born February 26, 1922 in Barnt Green, Worcestershire, England, Margaret Leighton was the daughter of a businessman who made her acting debut at the Old Vic in 1938’s Laugh with Me which was also televised that year. She made her Broadway debut in 1946 in five touring plays starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, beginning with Henry IV. She returned to England, where she married publisher Max Reinhardt in 1947 and made her film debut in 1948’s The Winslow Boy, which was released in the U.S. in 1950 after American audiences had already seen her as the second lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1949 film, Under Capricorn starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph cotton and Michael Wilding, who would later become her third husband.
Busy in British films in the early 1950s, she starred in such films as The Astonished Heart, The Elusive Pimpernel, Calling Bulldog Drummond, Home at Seven, The Holly and the Ivy, The Teckman Mystery and The Good Die Young opposite future husband Laurence Harvey.
Leighton divorced Reinhardt in 1955 and married Harvey in 1957. In-between she won a Tony for Broadway’s Separate Tables in which she played the role that would be split between Deborah Kerr and Rita Hayworth in the 1958 film version. It was a role she had first played in London in 1954.
The actress earned a second Tony nomination for 1959’s Much Ado About Nothing, a third nomination and second win for 1961’s The Night of the Iguana in the role that Deborah Kerr would play in the 1964 film version, and a fourth nomination for 1962’s Tchin-Tchin. She also managed to make her first Hollywood film, 1959’s The Sound and the Fury, in this period. She and Harvey divorced in 1961.
Married to Wilding in 1964, Leighton was extremely active on TV as well as on screen in the 1960s, earning an Emmy nomination for a four-part guest-starring role on Dr. Kildare in 1966. Her films of the period included The Best Man, The Loved One, 7 Women and The Madwoman of Chaillot, all of which featured brilliant all-star casts in which she played major supporting roles. Her last Broadway appearance was in the 1967 revival of The Little Foxes co-starring Anne Bancroft.
In 1971, she won an Emmy for playing Gertrude in a TV production of Hamlet and later earned an Oscar nomination for that year’s The Go-Between. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that same year, she refused to let it slow her down. She continued to act in such films as X, Y and Zee starring Elizabeth Taylor who had previously been married to Wilding, Lady Caroline Lamb starring Sarah Miles and The Nelson Affair starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch in which she played Lady Nelson.
Margaret Leighton died of multiple sclerosis on January 13, 1976 at the age of 53.
THE WINSLOW BOY (1948), directed by Anthony Asquith
Leighton made her film debut as the suffragette sister of the titled character in the first and best film version of Terence Rattigan’s play based on a 1914 cause celebre which rocked the government of Asquith’s father, the then British Prime Minister. The director is clearly on the side of the falsely accused boy whose cause is taken up by England’s greatest barrister of the day, played by Robert Donat. Acting honors are shared by Donat and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the boy’s father, but Leighton is almost as impressive, although the romance between her character and Donat’s is manufactured for dramatic purposes.
THE TECKMAN MYSTERY (1954), directed by Wendy Toye
Leighton received her only top billing for her performance in this intriguing mystery, also based on a true story. Despite her billing, John Justin has the larger role as a biographer researching the presumed death of a British pilot who is believed to have died during a test flight. Leighton plays the pilot’s sister who may or may not be responsible for various deaths that occur during his research. Both are excellent as are Roland Culver as a dogged police inspector, George Coulouris as an early victim and Michael Medwin as the missing pilot who turns up alive and scared. Never released in the U.S., which is a shame, it’s worth tracking down.
THE BEST MAN (1964), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
One of several films made between 1962 and 1964 prominently featuring then contemporary fictitious U.S. presidents, this one is about a primary fight between an Adlai Stevenson style candidate (Henry Fonda) and a Robert Kennedy type (Cliff Robertson) tempered by a crusty former president clearly patterned on Harry Truman (Lee Tracy). Leighton as Fonda’s wife, Edie Adams as Robertson’s wife and an extremely hilarious Ann Southern as a powerful lobbyist fill the main distaff roles. Although fed up with Fonda’s womanizing, Leighton agrees to stand by him due to her own aspirations of becoming First Lady, but will she?
7 WOMEN (1966), directed by John Ford
One of Ford’s darkest films, as well as his last, starred Anne Bancroft (substituting for stroke victim Patricia Neal) as an atheistic doctor who sacrifices all for British missionaries in war-ravaged 1935 China. Equally memorable is Leighton as her nemesis, the prim leader of the mission who calls Bancroft “the whore of Babylon”. Sue Lyon, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field and Anna Lee are the other women all have their moments, but the main drama is between Bancroft and Leighton as they fight off the barbaric Mongolian warlord and his cut-throat band of barbarians.
THE GO-BETWEEN (1971), directed by Joseph Losey
Leighton received her only Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Julie Christie’s mother in this richly detailed romantic mystery in which her character remains in the background for two-thirds of the film’s running time, but then asserts itself to bring the romance between Christie and Alan Bates crashing down. Told in flashbacks by Michael Redgrave as the older version of Dominic Guard, the boy who served as messenger between Christie and Bates, it’s absorbing from start to finish. Leighton was the only performer nominated, though Christie nominated for McCabe & Mrs. Miller instead, and the rest of the cast are equally fine.
MARGARET LEIGHTON AND OSCAR
- The Go-Between (1971) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress