Childhood & Early Years
Wendy Margaret Hiller was born on 15th August 1912 in Bramhall, near Stockport, Cheshire, England. Her father, Frank Watkin Hiller, was a well-to-do cotton spinner and cloth manufacturer. Her mother was Marie Elizabeth (nee Stone). She had three brothers, René, Michael and John.
Little Wendy was sent to Bexhill, Sussex to be educated at Winceby House School. Her parents had hoped that this would help her lose her Cheshire accent. However, she was not entirely successful in that.
While in school, Wendy decided to become an actress. On completing her course in 1930, she entered the Manchester Repertory Theater, making her professional debut in the same year with a small part in ‘The Ware Case’. Subsequently, she continued playing similar parts in different plays.
At the same time, she tried her hand at every other kind of job like sweeping the stage, making tea, prompting, setting the scenery etc. Later, she also worked as an assistant stage manager.
Wendy undertook all these jobs quite willingly because they helped her to learn the principles of stage acting and management. Her actual breakthrough came in 1934.
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In 1934, Wendy Hiller was chosen to play Sally Hardcastle, a slum dweller, in the stage version of ‘Love on the Dole’. The play was hugely successful and reached the West End Theatre in 1935.
In 1936, she travelled to New York with the play. Here, her performance was noticed by George Bernard Shaw, who cast her in many of his productions, including ‘Saint Joan’ and ‘Pygmalion’.
Subsequently in July 1936, she appeared in the lead role of the above mentioned plays at Malvern Theatre Festival, England. As her name spread, she began to receive offers to act in films.
In 1937, she made her debut in films as Betty Lovejoy in ‘Lancashire Luck’. Her next film, released in 1938, was ‘Pygmalion’, in which she once more enacted the role of Eliza Doolittle at Shaw’s insistence. It was a huge hit and she received an Academy nomination for it.
Hiller’s third film ‘Major Barbara’ was also based on George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name. The film, released on 2 August, 1941, was both a critical and financial success. In spite of that, she decided to concentrate on her stage career.
In 1943, she appeared as Viola in Shakespeare's ‘Twelfth Night’. As part of her war effort, she went on extensive factory tour throughout Great Britain with it. Later in 1944, she appeared as Sister Joanna in ‘Cradle Song’ and in 1945 as Princess Charlotte in ‘The First Gentleman’.
However, she did not give up films altogether. In 1945, she appeared as Joan Webster in ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’.Made on a budget of £200,000, it has been hailed as one of the greatest films of that era.
In 1946, she returned to stage and joined the Bristol Old Vic for a season. Here, she appeared as Tess in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, adapted for stage by Ronald Gow. Later it moved to the West End and became very successful. Critics praised her performance for its lack of mannerism.
From 1947 to 1949, Hiller appeared as Catherine Sloper in ‘The Heiress’, a stage adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square. It had a year-long run at the Biltmore Theatre in New York and proved to be her greatest triumph on Broadway.
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On returning to London, Hiller again played the role in the West End production in 1950. Sometime now, she also appeared in the title role of ‘Ann Veronica’.
Hiller next appeared in N. C. Hunter's ‘Waters of the Moon’. Starting in 1951, it had a two year run. Some time now, she also returned to films.
Her fifth film, ‘Outcast of the Islands’ was released in 1952. In this film, she appeared as Mrs. Almeyer. Shot partlyin Sri Lanka, it earned £149,335 at the box office and was nominated as the best British film.
Next in 1953, she appeared as Lucinda Bentley in ‘Single-Handed’ (released in the U.S.A as the ‘Sailor of the King’). It was a war film based on a novel by C. S. Forester. In this film, she played the mother of Signalman Andrew 'Canada' Brown, played by Jeffery Hunter.
Subsequently, she once again immersed herself in stage productions. In 1955-56, she was with the Old Vic, producing notable performances, which included her depiction of Portia in ‘Merchant of Venice’. ‘The Night of the Ball’ (1955) was another significant production during this phase.
In 1957, she had her two films released; ‘Something of Value’ (later released as ‘Africa Ablaze’) and ‘How to Murder a Rich Uncle’. However, just as in ‘Sailor of the King’, she appeared in supporting roles in both these films.
Her next film ‘Separate Table’ (released in 1958) was another hugely successful venture. Here too, she appeared in a supporting role and received, in addition to quite a few nominations, her only Oscar.
Also in 1958- 1959, she appeared in the new Robert Bolt play ‘Flowering Cherry’, first at Haymarket and then at Broadway. The following year she appeared in‘Toys in the Attic’ (Piccadilly, 1960).
Her next film, ‘Sons and Lovers’ was also released in May 1960. In it she appeared as domineering and possessive matron Gertrude Morel. The film was another huge success, grossing $1,500,000 at the box office.
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She also made several films throughout 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Among them, ‘Toys in Attic’ (1963) and ‘A Man for all Seasons’ (1966), earned her several nominations. Her depiction of Princess Dragomiroff in ‘Murder on the orient Express’ (1974) was also highly commended.
Subsequently, she made two more films in 1970s and five in 1980s. Her last film, ‘The Countess Alice’, in which she played the title role, was released in 1992.
Among her stage work, ‘The Wings of the Dove’ (1963), ‘A Measure of Cruelty’ (1965), ‘A Present for the Past’ (1966), ‘The Sacred Flame’ (1967), ‘The Battle of Shrivings’ (1970) and ‘Lies’ (1975) are most significant. Her last performance at the West End was in the title role in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1988).
From 1969 onwards, Wendy Miller also appeared in a number of television series. Starting in the same year as Mrs. Micawber in ‘David Copperfield’, her last appearance was in 1991, as Laurentia McLachlan in ‘Best of Friends’.
Her first major work in films was ’Pygmalion’ (1938). Appearing as Eliza Doolittle, she clearly defined the character, going to the extent of uttering, "Not bloody likely, I'm going in a taxi!". This makes her the first British actress to utter the word in a film. It also earned her the first Oscar nomination.
‘Separate Tables’, done two decades later, was another of her memorable films. In this film, she depicts the role of Pat Cooper, an accommodating hotel owner carrying on a disturbed relationship with an alcoholic guest. The film earned $3.1 million in the US and Canada alone.
Onstage, although ‘Love on the Dole’ (1936) introduced her to the viewers, it was ‘Heiress’ (1947), which is said to be her most significant work. Her depiction of the ill-used, painfully shy spinster became well-known for its stubborn acrimony.