Wendy Hiller would have laughed to see anyone summing up her twenty-one film career. She always considered it something of an adjunct to her work on stage. After her breakthrough performance and first Oscar nomination in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s adaptation of Pygmalion, Hiller made a few more movies before returning to the stage in the mid-forties. Even then, she only took film roles when her interest (or her financial needs) agreed. “Never mind the honour,” she said after learning that she’d won an Oscar (for Separate Tables) in 1959. “Cold hard cash is what it means to me.”
Roles both big and small came her way nonetheless, continuing up to her final years when her appearance in the Anne of Green Gables sequel made her known to me and inspired me to look further back at her body of work.
Those haughty cheekbones made her seem unapproachable. Those intelligent, probing eyes were intimidating, which was probably why she was always more of a great actress than a movie star, plus she disliked taking part in any personal publicity and demanded no attention brought to herself as an actor of note. Watching Wendy Hiller on screen, though, those qualities combined with what always seemed like a fascinating, repressed passion that was released through her warm laugh or the booming sound of her unmistakable voice, revealing her to be as fascinating a contradiction as any film star ever was.
I Know Where I’m Going (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
If Hiller always seemed like a great theatre actress transported to the screen with her stage mannerisms intact, then directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger found a way to break through her prestige veneer, bringing out her best film performance as a young woman so determined to succeed in life that she even chooses her (rich) husband based on cold-blooded reason instead of human feeling. When she’s trapped on a Scottish island with handsome (but poor) Roger Livesey, however, she finds that her heart cannot resist being appealed to by genuine human sympathy. Gorgeously shot and hopelessly charming, this is one of the loveliest films in which Hiller ever appeared.
Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard, 1938)
Of course we love the costumes in the full-colour My Fair Lady. However, the best version of the story of Eliza Doolittle learning to be a lady from the irascible Professor Higgins, and actually the best film adaptation of a Shaw play ever put on film, is this 1938 gem that still sparkles. Hiller is the definitive Eliza, thoroughly convincing as the “guttersnipe” and then indelibly affecting as the lady she becomes.
Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941)
Producer Gabriel Pascal spent his career obsessed with bringing Shaw to the screen, for the most part bringing disaster upon himself following the success of Pygmalion. His 1941 film version of Major Barbara feels like a play on film. It bandies about ideas of class and Christian morality in ways that feel too navel-gazey for film audiences, but it has a number of energetic and curiously funny sequences thanks to Hiller’s lively performance and the supporting turns by Sybil Thorndike and Deborah Kerr in her film debut.
A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
Hiller earned her third Oscar nomination for a few potent scenes in Fred Zinnemann’s Best Picture-winning adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play. She captivated as the devoted, fiery-tempered wife to Paul Scofield’s principled-to-a-fault Sir Thomas More who is damned for not amending his morality when Henry VIII seeks his assistance to break the church from Rome. I find the movie a bit cold, but I like how effectively it captures the look of the time. It’s a relevant tale of the futility of defending your principles when you’re up against lust for power and indulgence. Hiller plays the grief of a woman who refuses to see her husband’s point of view, desperate for him to abandon reason in the name of staying alive. By avoiding sentimentality and focusing instead on angry bluster, Hiller manages to break your heart.
Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974)
Sidney Lumet turned Agatha Christie into box office gold with the success of this all-star adaptation, leading to many more with varying degrees of success. (I like Death on the Nile better myself.) The all-star cast features a round-up of classic murder mystery types. Albert Finney stars as detective Hercule Poirot, while Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her performance as a Swedish missionary. Hiller, however, brings command and style to her role as the powder-blanched Russian Princess who has more than her fair share of secrets hidden away for Poirot to find. She won that year’s Evening Standard Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958)
There’s not much to this movie that has aged well since it made waves in the late fifties. The majority of the characters are the kind of stereotypes you expect to see in bad dinner theatre. Performances from stars like David Niven (who won Best Actor) playing a sexually perverted ex-army man and Deborah Kerr raising her voice to play a lonely spinster now seem like campy fodder for a French and Saunders skit. Hiller’s Oscar-winning performance, by comparison, still zings with power as the professional and reserved but secretly passionate proprietor of the hotel where all this fluffy Terence Rattigan melodrama takes place.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Jack Clayton, 1987)
Maggie Smith won a BAFTA as a lonely Irish old maid whose devotion to Catholicism has kept her prim and naïve for just about her whole life. That lasts until Bob Hoskins, as an Americanized Irishman, enters the picture and captures her heart. Hiller has a smaller role in her final feature film appearance, playing Smith’s strict aunt and adoptive mother who has given her all her reservations before being her life’s scourge in her old age. It’s a compelling film and a rare opportunity to see Smith cutting to the bone before she’d become something of a parody of herself, which we’d rarely see again until Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet in 2012.