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Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)


Main image of Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)

There was simply no one like Wendy Hiller in British films: her sculpted, unconventionally beautiful face, distinctive voice and the intelligent intensity of her playing marked her as exceptional.

Essentially a stage actress, she made only fifteen cinema films in fifty years but how choice so many of them were: in Anthony Asquith's Pygmalion (1938), she was the definitive Eliza for a generation, receiving an Oscar nomination; in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), she is irresistibly engaging and finally touching as the headstrong heroine losing her grip on her life when she falls in love - and though she hated working with director Michael Powell; in Separate Tables (US, d. Delbert Mann, 1958), she won an Oscar for her supporting role as the lonely, generous hotel manager; she is D.H. Lawrence's bitter, passionate Mrs Morel to the life in Sons and Lovers (d. Jack Cardiff, 1960); very moving as the great-hearted, simple Alice More in A Man for All Seasons (d. Fred Zinnemann, 1965, another Oscar nomination); making bricks from Agatha Christie's straw as the Princess in Murder on the Orient Express (d. Sidney Lumet, 1974); and austerely dominant as Auntie in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (d. Jack Clayton, 1987), her screen swansong.

Alongside this gallery is a great stage career, begun in Manchester in 1930, and brought to early notice with the role of Sally in her husband (1937-93), Ronald Gow's play, Love on the Dole in 1934, repeating the role on Broadway to which she would often return.

It was her playing of St Joan and Pygmalion at the Malvern Festival which led Shaw to recommend her for the lead in the films of Pygmalion and Major Barbara (d. Gabriel Pascal, 1941). She had enormous successes in classical plays (as in her Old Vic season, 1955-56) and such new plays as The Heiress (1950) and Flowering Cherry (1958).

On TV, she chose with similar care and to similar effect, her range encompassing the outraged spinster of Clochemerle (BBC, 1972) and the wise, humane Lady Slane, who, All Passion Spent (BBC, 1986), is determined to remake her life in widowhood.

Most actors have to put up with a certain amount of dross; Wendy Hiller seems to have avoided it. She was made OBE in 1971 and DBE in 1975.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Metaphysical love story, beautifully filmed in the Scottish Hebrides

Thumbnail image of Elephant Man, The (1980)Elephant Man, The (1980)

Moving drama starring John Hurt as a grotesquely deformed man

Thumbnail image of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)

Maggie Smith gives an acting masterclass as a lonely Irish spinster

Thumbnail image of Man for All Seasons, A (1966)Man for All Seasons, A (1966)

Oscar-laden story of Sir Thomas More's defiance of Henry VIII

Thumbnail image of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Star-studded adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery

Thumbnail image of Pygmalion (1938)Pygmalion (1938)

Oscar-winning adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's celebrated play

Thumbnail image of Comedy of Errors, The (1983)Comedy of Errors, The (1983)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation with Roger Daltrey

Thumbnail image of Richard II (1978)Richard II (1978)

BBC Shakespeare adaptation with Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud

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