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Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)


Main image of Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)

Trained at the Old Vic Theatre School, Joan Plowright quickly asserted herself as one of the dominant young actresses of the late '50s/early '60s. On the London stage from 1954, she scored major successes at the Royal Court, and triumphed in such diverse pieces as Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson (1958) and Shaw's Major Barbara (1949). She co-starred with Laurence Olivier, as his daughter, in The Entertainer (1957), repeating the role in the film version (d. Tony Richardson, 1960), and marrying him in 1961.

But, as a young woman, she had a fitful screen career, taking time to raise a family, and by the time she started appearing regularly she was too old for leads and played a series of often striking character roles. She was the mother of two disturbed young people in Equus (d. Sidney Lumet, 1977) and Brimstone and Treacle (d. Richard Loncraine, 1982), a truculent union rep in Britannia Hospital (d. Lindsay Anderson, 1982), and starred in Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers (UK/Netherlands, 1988) and as Jane Horrocks's spinster aunt in The Dressmaker (d. Jim O'Brien, 1988).

She began to appear in US films, exploiting her gift for accents in such films as Avalon (US, d. Barry Levinson, 1990) and I Love You to Death (US, d. Lawrence Kasdan, 1990), but her roles increasingly encouraged grande dame mannerisms, especially in Enchanted April (d. Mike Newell, 1991), for which she received a BAFTA nomination, and she contributed to the mess of The Scarlet Letter (US, d. Roland Joffé, 1995). Awarded a CBE in 1970, she has been a formidable stage actress for several decades, and it has been a shame to see her in so much screen junk in recent years - and that includes the sentimentality of Tea with Mussolini (UK/Italy, d. Franco Zeffirelli, 1999).

Autobiography: And That's Not All, 2001.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Britannia Hospital (1982)Britannia Hospital (1982)

Lindsay Anderson's unhinged satire of Thatcher's Britain

Thumbnail image of Entertainer, The (1960)Entertainer, The (1960)

Olivier shatters his Shakespearean image as a seedy music-hall artiste

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1970)Twelfth Night (1970)

Acclaimed television adaptation with Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness

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Thumbnail image of Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

Actor, Producer, Director