Born October 5, 1933 in Queensland, Australia, Diane Cilento was the daughter of distinguished medical practitioners, Sir Raphael Cilento and Phyllis, Lady Cilento. She wanted to become an actress from an early age, and after being expelled from school in Australia, was educated in New York while living with her father. She later won a scholarship with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and moved to England in the early 1950s.
After graduation, Cilento found film work immediately. Her early films include Captain Horatio Hornblower and Moulin Rouge in which she had minor roles. Her first starring role was in 1954’s The Woman Who Pawned Her Harp opposite Felix Aylmer. Subsequent films included 1955’s Passage Home opposite Peter Finch and 1957’s The Admirable Crichton opposite Kenneth More. She married second unit director Andrea Volpe in 1956 with whom she had a daughter in 1957.
Divorced from Volpe in 1960, Cilento’s early 1960s films included The Naked Edge in support of Gary Cooper and Deborah Kerr and I Thank a Fool in support of Susan Hayward and Peter Finch. She married second husband Sean Connery in 1962, the year he began making a name for himself as James Bond. Their son, future actor Jason Connery, was born in January 1963. Cilento’s performance in that year’s Tom Jones earned her an Oscar nomination in support of Albert Finney. Subsequent films of the decade included The Third Secret in support of Stephen Boyd, The Agony and the Ecstasy in support of Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison and Hombre in support of Paul Newman and Fredric March.
Cilento divorced Connery in 1973. That year, she appeared in two films, Hitler: The Last Ten Days in support of Alec Guinness and the cult horror film, The Wicker Man opposite Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. It was while working on that film that she met writer Anthony Shaffer who wrote the film’s script on the heels of his dual 1972 smash hits, Sleuth and Frenzy. Cilento and Shaffer moved in together in Cilento’s home in Queensland, Australia. They would marry in 1985, though Shaffer would retain an apartment in London.
Cilento’s comeback on returning to Australia was meant to be the title character in Tim Burstall’s The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser but a disagreement arose between Cilento and the director and the role went instead to Susannah York.
The actress continued to work sporadically on TV, in film and the theatre into the 1990s. Her last theatrical film was 1985’s The Boy Who Had Everything in which she co-starred with her son, Jason Connery, in what was only his second film.
Jason Connery married actress Mia Sara in 1996. They would divorce in 2002. Their son, Dashiell Connery, is now all grown up carrying on the family business.
Anthony Shaffer died on November 6, 2001in London at 75. Diane Cilento died on October 6, 2011 in Queensland, Australia one day after her 78th birthday. Writer Peter Shaffer, Anthony’s identical twin, author of Equus and Amadeus, died in County Cork, Ireland on June 6, 2016 at 90.
THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957), directed by Lewis Gilbert
J.M. Barrie’s 1903 play was last revived on Broadway in March 1931 with Walter Hampden, Fay Bainter and Estelle Winwood in the roles played in the 1957 film version by Kenneth More, Sally Ann Howes and Cilento. It was not successful, closing the month after it opened. The film version was even less successful, opening to poor reviews and closing quickly in New York, but revived in 1958 after Howes succeeded Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady as Paradise Lagoon and flopped again. Taken as an artifact of early twentieth century stage comedy, though, it’s quite charming, but would be better with a more upbeat ending.
TOM JONES (1963), directed by Tony Richardson
Shot with rented equipment and costumes, this charmer that takes on the hypocrisies and stupidity of 18th Century England was a genuine crowd-pleaser that was nominated for ten Oscars and won four including Best Picture and Best Director. Five of its actors, Albert Finney, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman and Cilento were also nominated. Cilento’s field wench is one of Finney’s early conquests. How she managed to cop an Oscar nomination for her short appearance is a bit baffling, but she does well with the little she’s given to do. The impeccable cast also includes Susannah York, Joan Greenwood and David Warner.
THE THIRD SECRET (1963), directed by Charles Crichton
One of the last films to be made in widescreen black-and-white, this psychological British thriller was produced by its American writer, Robert L. Joseph, during Daryl F, Zanuck’s absence from 20th Century Fox, but edited and released under Zanuck’s supervision upon his return. Stephen Boyd stars as an American journalist in London urged to find a psychiatrist’s murderer by his teenage daughter, Pamela Franklin. Originally there were four suspects, Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, Patricia Neal and Cilento, but Zanuck’s had Neal’s scenes cut because they were poorly conceived. Judi Dench’s film debut as Attenborough’s assistant.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTSY (1965), directed by Carol Reed
Irving Stone’s book on which Reed’s film is based was Michelangelo’s life story, of which the painting of the Sistine Chapel was a small part. The film deals solely with his painting of the Chapel. Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison did not like each other, which aided their portrayals of the adversarial characters of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. The film not only ignores the painter’s homosexuality which informed much of his work, it gives him Cilento as a potential love interest playing the Contessina de’Medici, sister of Cardinal Giovanni de’Medeci (Adolfo Celli) who would become the next pope, Leo X.
THE WICKER MAN (1973), directed by Robin Hardy
Often cited as the greatest British horror film ever made, Edward Woodward stars a police sergeant sent to a remote Scottish island village to investigate the disappearance of a young girl the villagers insist never existed. Christopher Lee is the island’s ruler with Cilento, Britt Eklund and Ingrid Pitt as the principal female characters. Actor-writer-director Hardy was a business partner of writer Anthony Shaffer who wrote the script based on David Pinner’s novel, Ritual. Cilento, still reeling from her divorce from Sean Connery, met Shaffer, who would become her third husband, on the set of the film.
DIANE CILENTO AND OSCAR
- Tom Jones (1963) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress