Margaret Rutherford – A Truly Dramatic Life

Victoria’s post on Sir Alec Guiness prompted me to recall how much I’d always enjoyed the great character actress Margaret Rutherford and to do a bit of research. What I discovered was downright hair raising. Margaret was the only child of William Rutherford Benn and his wife, the former Florence Nicholson.

Wikipedia tells us that Rutherford’s father suffered from mental illness and had a nervous breakdown on his honeymoon, afterward being confined to an asylum. He was eventually released on holiday and on 4 March 1883 he murdered his father, Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamberpot. Shortly afterward, William tried to kill himself as well, by slashing his throat with a pocketknife. William Benn was confined to the Broadmoor Aslyum for the Criminally Insane and was released several years later, reportedly cured. He changed his surname to Rutherford (no wonder!) and returned to his wife. The parents then moved to India with the infant Margaret, but the drama continued unabated – her mother committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree, three year old Margaret was sent back to Britain to live with an aunt, professional governess Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon and her father’s continued mental illness resulted in his being confined once more to Broadmoor in 1904; he died in 1921.

The intervening years must have been relatively peaceful, as Margaret eventually managed to secure a place at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, although she didn’t make her stage debut at the Old Vic until 1925 at the age of thirty-three.

She married the openly homosexual actor Stringer Davis in 1945 and they appeared in many productions together (right). They were happily together until Rutherford’s death in 1972. Davis absolutely adored Margaret, one friend noting: ‘For him she was not only a great talent but, above all, a beauty.’ Dubbed by bitchy colleagues as ‘String-along’, he rarely left her side. He was private secretary and general dogsbody, lugging bags, teapots, hot water bottles, teddy bears and nursing Margaret through her ‘bad spells’. These manic depressive episodes – often involving mental hospitals and electrotherapy – were hushed up.

As if their lives didn’t contain enough drama, in the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983. Hall was born at Sissinghurst, the estate of the writer Vita Sackville-West, in Heathfield, Sussex, England, and was the illegitimate child of Jack Copper, Sackville-West’s chauffeur (a grandfather was Rudyard Kipling’s gardener) and Marjorie Hall Ticehurst, who came, Hall always said, from a high social class. Hall said she was born with an adrenal abnormality that causes the female genitalia to resemble a man’s and was thus raised as a boy. She always maintained that she was — unequivocally — female. In 1950 she emigrated to the U.S. and in 1968, she underwent the sex change operation and the next year married her 22-year-old black butler, John-Paul Simmons. The publisher of ”Dawn: A Charleston Legend” was quoted as calling it the first documented interracial marriage in Charleston’s history. A bomb threat forced the couple to move the wedding from a Baptist church to the bride’s home, and the gifts were destroyed by a firebomb.

In England, Miss Rutherford was reported to have said, ”I am delighted that Gordon has become a woman, and I am delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of another race, and I am delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of a lower station, but I understand the man is a Baptist!”

Ironically, Dawn did a bit of acting herself – she became an extra in the ABC/Warner Bros miniseries North and South while visiting Charleston in 1985.

Margaret Rutherford and her daughter, Dawn

But back to Margaret herself – Rutherford made her first appearance in London’s West End theatres in 1933 but her talent was not recognised by the critics until her performance as Miss Prism in the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1939). In summer 1941, Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” opened on the London stage, with Coward himself directing. Rutherford played Madame Arcati, the fake psychic in a role in which Coward had earlier envisaged for her and which he then especially shaped. It would be Rutherford’s turn as Madame Arcati in David Lean’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ (1945) that would actually establish her screen success. This would become one of her most memorable performances, with her bicycling about the Kentish countryside, cape fluttering behind her. Interestingly it would also establish the model for portraying that pseudo-soothsayer forever thereafter and there have been about six remakes of the film.

Some of Margaret’s finest screen work was done when she was in her fifties. She was superb as Nurse Carey in Miranda (1948) and completely believable in the role of Professor Hatton Jones in Passport to Pimlico (1949). More success followed as she starred along Alistir Sim in ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ (1950). Then came along the role that she was so destined for, that of Miss Letitia Prism in Anthony Asquiths ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1952). Incredibly, despite a whole string of very capable and distinguished performances – she had still not won a single film honour. More comic characters followed including Prudence Croquet in ‘An Alligator Named Daisy’ (1955).

Rutherford then played Mrs. Fazackalee in Basil Deardens ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’ (1957) with such notables as Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Leslie Phillips. For much of the 60’s she become synonymous with Miss Jane Marple, making four Marple based films with a comedy bent that must have won Christie’s approval, as in 1962 Agatha Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Crack’d: “To Margaret Rutherford in admiration.” Margaret was awarded an OBE for services to stage and screen in 1961 and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe for The VIPs (1963), as the absent-minded Duchess of Brighton, opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She also played Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight in 1966 and was raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.

Margaret suffered from Alzheimer’s disease at the end of her life. Sir John Gielgud wrote: “Her last appearance at the Haymarket Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson in The Rivals, an engagement which she was finally obliged to give up after a few weeks, was a most poignant struggle against her obviously failing powers.” She died in 1972. Britain’s top actors flocked to the funeral, where 90-year old Dame Sybil Thorndike praised her friend’s enormous talent and recalled that she “never said anything horrid about anyone.”

You can watch a video tribute to Margaret Rutherford here.

The Incomparable Rufus Sewell

Victoria here. I have been watching a new series based on Ken Follett’s novel Pillars of the Earth.  It is on cable channel StarZ on Friday nights.  Here is the trailer. Sewell stars as Tom Builder, a master builder of the cathedral at the center of the book. Read more about Follett and the novel here.
Here is a review of the series and here is another. It is a gritty view of the green and pleasant hills of England, definitely more of the “dark satanic mills” * view, though it takes place long before there were industrial mills.
*playing on the words by Blake used in Jerusalem.
But I digress. The point of this blog piece is to celebrate the delicious talents of Rufus Sewell, an actor who has a distinguished career and versatility that must confound his rivals as one of England’s greatest actors.
I first encountered Mr. Sewell when I saw him as the tutor Septimus in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. What a brilliant play and what a brilliant actor. I was in London and really can’t say I knew anything more about it than I liked Stoppard.  Later, I found I loved Rufus as well as Tom. And I’ve seen the play two other times, including at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) wrote the brilliant novel Middlemarch in the 1870’s. It was a BBC miniseries in 1994, with Sewell starring as Will Ladislaw, the young love interest of the heroine toward the end of the novel.  Whether the two of them have a happy ending is more or less left to the reader’s imagination.
Who could resist happiness with this vision at her side?

Sewell played Seth Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm, the wonderful 1995 film made from the Stella Gibbons novel of the same name, published in 1932. It is hilarious and a special treat for British movie fans, if you love the Merchant Ivory films and their like. Poor Rufus, he doesn’t like the “pretty face” type of roles, but he is SO good at them.

Another of his Beautiful People roles was as Marco Venier in Dangerous Beauty, 1998, the story of a Venetian courtesan and poetess. I could just sit here and enjoy uploading pictures of the handsome actor.  But that would belie his versatility and the depth of his acting ability.  Nevertheless, I can’t resist.                      
Sewell has done many Shakespeare roles, such as Fortinbras in Hamlet and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, below in modern dress.
  His television roles include an appearance as Alexander Hamilton in John Adams, here shown with the title character played by Paul Giametti. Rather a spcialist in costume roles, Rufus has also played Charles II in a BBC miniseries.

In the excellent film Amazing Grace about the end of the British slave trade, he played Thomas Clarkson, an ally of Wilberforce.
But he has also played a number of villains. In The Illusionist, he was the Crown Prince.
And in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, Sewell was the evil count Adhemar (below with the late Heath Ledger on the left). I wanted the Count to win!! Or for Heath to wash and comb his hair.
Rufus Sewell was born October 29, 1967. There are many bios on the web, if you want the details of his education and personal life.  For me, it’s good enough to know he is out there being a great actor and trying new things. 
Last television season, he starred in  Eleventh Hour, a CBS series which ran for 18 episodes. The show had a loyal audience but apparently not enough to be renewed, so it has passed into DVD-dom and probably syndication some day. Sewell was Jacob Hood, a brilliant biophysicist who solved crime questions. He had a protector assigned by the FBI, Rachel Young.  I have to admit the scripts were not very compelling — being neither verifiable in science nor outright science-fiction. 
The acting was superb and the concept interesting, but it missed out in having unbelievable stories.  What a pity. 
In the meantime, I’ll have to be content seeing Sewell as Tom Builder. Rufus is also working on several new films.  See the list of info on the Internet Movie Database here.
Keep up the good work, Rufus, upholding the traditions of Kean, Olivier, Gielgud and so many other great British actors.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled  relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England was updated by the addition of an army of zombies. As if this (and sea monsters) weren’t enough, now they’re making a film version of the tale, with Natalie Portman both producing and starring as Elizabeth Bennett. The film, currently in production, is slated for release in 2011.

Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Sir Alec Guiness

Ten years ago today, Sir Alex Guiness, an exceptional British actor, died at age 86.  He was, to me (Victoria) the very personification of Englishness, from his portrayals of Dickensian guttersnipes to an obsessed British officer.

I’ve been writing about British movies on this blog from time to time and casting about for more info on old favorites has led me in some interesting directions and lots of orders from Netflix. I simply had to see Kind Hearts and Coronets again. And then Lavender Hill Mob.  I can’t remember when I first saw these films — perhaps when I was in college studying great film comedies (I was a radio-tv-film major at Northwestern University).

But both remained with me to the extent that I couldn’t wait to see them again. Both films owed their brilliance to Guiness (1914-2000), even though other actors were also outstanding.  Then I got to reading about Guiness, who wrote several autobiographies retelling his life stories.  He had worked with the greatest of British actors such as Sir John Gielgud and Sir Lawrence Olivier.  I’m planning to write about them soon.

Sir Alec appeared in many Shakespeare plays on the stage and on film. He won an Oscar for his performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.  If you have never seen this brilliant film about Americans and British soldiers who were Japanese prisoners during WWII, find it on TV, rent or order it immediately. Directed by the brilliant David Lean and also starring William Holden, you are bound to find it a memorable experience.

Guiness also appeard in David Lean’s films Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Passage to India.

Beginning in 1971, Guiness appeared in the the Star Wars films of George Lucas as the seer Obi-wan Kenobi. Reportedly, he hated the role and his notoriety coming from it. However, he had believed in the first film so much that his salary included a percentage of the gross profits, which made him a very rich man.  Apparently what he disliked was the autograph- seeking children who pestered him mercilessly.  He is also quoted as saying that he suggested Obi-wan be killed off because he hated speaking “those bloody awful banal lines.”

To the right are pictures of the eight roles Guiness played in Kind Hearts and Coronets,  a most excellent film. Sir Alec was a master of multiple appearances and characters. As a matter of fact, though he played leading men and in various Noel Coward roles as a sophisticated gentleman, he is mostly known for his character parts. An Arab shiek, a Communist party official, an obsessed colonel, an earnest spy — he could do almost anything.
 Author John LeCarre, who wrote the novel Soldier, Sailor Tinker, Spy, was so impressed by Sir Alec’s performance in a television version of his work (see left) that he used the portrayal as an inspiration for further stories about MI5  agent George Smiley.

Guinness wrote three volumes of his life story: Blessings in Disguise (1985), My Name Escapes Me (1996), and A Positively Final Appearance (1999). He recorded each of them as an audiobook.  His wife of 62 years followed him in death just two months later in October 2000.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Finally, Emma Thompson reprises her role as Nanny McPhee (yipppeee!) and is joined by Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maggie Smith, and Rhys Ifans. I believe that the US version is to be called Nanny McPhee Returns. In the sequel, Nanny McPhee arrives to help a harried young mother who is trying to run the family farm while her husband is away at war and uses her magic to teach the woman’s children and their two spoiled cousins five new lessons.

On a farm in Britain during World War II, Mrs. Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is driven to her wits end by her hectic life. Between trying to keep the family farm up and her job in the village shop, aided by the elderly and slightly mad Mrs. Doherty (Maggie Smith), she also has three boisterous children to look after, Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer). All of this she has to do while her husband is away at war. So when her children’s two spoiled cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are sent to live on their farm and another war is being fought between the two sets of children, she is in need of a little magic.

At first, it takes a big bang of Nanny McPhee’s stick to make the children realise that they cannot go on fighting and they eventually learn to tolerate each other. Meanwhile, Mrs. Green’s brother in law, Uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans), has gambled away the farm and is being chased down by two hit women. He desperately attempts to make Mrs. Green sell her half of the farm, using many mean and spiteful schemes.  One day, Mrs Green takes all the children on a picnic, at the end of which Uncle Phil delivers a telegram saying that Mr. Green has been ‘killed in action’ in the war. Mrs Green believes the telegram, along with everybody else. But Norman says that he can “feel it in his bones” that his father is not dead. Soon, the children, with Nanny at their head, are off to the war office in London to get to the bottom of things.

I won’t tell you any more – that should be enough to whet your appetitie if you’re a Nanny McPhee fan, as am I. The film has already been released in Britain and is scheduled for release here on August 20th. In the meantime, you can visit the film’s official site here. The Telegraph sums up their review of the film by saying “This is a shrewd, heartfelt piece of work.”