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Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)


Main image of Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)

The irresistible leading lady of some of the most enduring British films, seductive of voice, face and figure, searching the language - and indeed the world - for booby traps, Greenwood's performance record must be nearly unrivalled among British leading ladies. RADA-trained and on stage from 1938 (delectably malicious as Hattie in The Grass Is Greener, 1959; sharply ambiguous in The Chalk Garden, 1971), she was in films from 1940.

She was one of The Gentle Sex (1943) celebrated in Leslie Howard's film, was a sympathetic helper for The October Man (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1947), and a doomed Sophie Dorothea in Saraband for Dead Lovers (d. Basil Dearden, 1948), but it was as the female lead in a series of benchmark comedies that she made herself indispensable to British films.

In Whisky Galore! (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949), she is the drily beguiling Peggy and the wonderfully minxish Sibella respectively; she deflects Alec Guinness from his experiments in The Man in the White Suit (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1951, 'What could I do?' she asks, as if it wasn't obvious) and she is, in her way, as imperishably Gwendolyn as Edith Evans is Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (d. Anthony Asquith, 1951).

She did better in America than some of her contemporaries (cf. Moonfleet, d. Fritz Lang, 1955, and Stage Struck, d. Sidney Lumet, 1958). She played character roles back in Britain but remained a star till the end, which came after Little Dorrit (d. Christine Edzard, 1988), as Mrs Clennam, and it was good to see her brilliant at the finish. There was some TV and stage work but she is above all a British film star, the genuine article.

Never, it seems, very ambitious, she had a late but happy marriage to actor André Morell and worked only fitfully after that.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Gentle Sex, The (1943)Gentle Sex, The (1943)

WWII drama about seven women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service

Thumbnail image of Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)

Glorious adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic play

Thumbnail image of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Deliciously dark comedy, featuring no fewer than nine Alec Guinnesses

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Ealing classic with naive inventor Alec Guinness up against British industry

Thumbnail image of Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Ealing's first Technicolor film, an uncharacteristic period melodrama

Thumbnail image of Whisky Galore! (1949)Whisky Galore! (1949)

Gently subversive Ealing comedy about whisky smuggling in the Hebrides

Thumbnail image of Girls on Top (1985-86)Girls on Top (1985-86)

Flatshare comedy with French, Saunders, Tracy Ullman and Ruby Wax

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