Over the next seven decades Anderson made indelible impressions on stage, screen and television, establishing a persona of dominant woman, most vividly as Mrs Danvers on screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and on stage in, and as, Euripides’ Medea, the role that would track her through her life.
As this perhaps most formidable woman in the history of drama, Anderson scored a triumph on Broadway in poet Donnan Jeffers’ adaptation in 1947, subsequently touring the US, scoring with it on television, and returning to Australian capital cities to recreate the role in the opener of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1955. As one lucky enough to see this performance – and to meet her afterwards – I can vouch for her powerful presence on stage, and her unpretentious courtesy off stage. Though in no sense a daunting woman, she contrived to put her stamp on this most forbidding role.
There were of course many other key roles, in the likes of Three Sisters and Macbeth, and there was always a sense of daring at work in her career. How many actresses who had made Medea their signature role would have elected to come back at the age of 84 to play the Nurse to fellow-Australian Zoe Caldwell’s go at the murderous Greek?
And while on the matter of daring and old age, having played Gertrude to John Gielgud’s Prince back in 1936, she finally had her way in playing Hamlet himself when she was 73 – to an admittedly diverse critical reaction.
For filmgoers of long memories, she was always Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. As the housekeeper, devoted with possibly lesbian fervour to her late mistress, the titular Rebecca, she created a vividly suspicious presence. No-one who saw it is likely to forget the moments when, for vengeance, she seeks to persuade the new Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) to throw herself from the upper-floor window.
Like many stage actresses, Anderson had little interest in movies, regarding these as the ‘‘actors’ refuge’’, a source of financial relief when the theatre temporarily stalled. Nevertheless, though the stage was her first love and the site of her main career, she is never less than imposing on screen, so much so that it is hard to believe she was only 1.6 metres tall.
Apart from Rebecca, there were more than 50 films, in which she was always a presence to be reckoned with, whether keeping Barbara Stanwyck in order in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, or rescuing Robert Mitchum from a lynching in Pursued, or as a murderous rustic pubkeeper in the Australian Inn of the Damned, or as the Vulcan High Priestess in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, when she was a mere 87. In films, as Deacon’s account suggests, she was one of those performers who made ‘‘character actor’’ a key element of a film’s holding power.
Film may linger longer – it can turn up on TV or DVD – but for Anderson, like many actors, it was her stage presence that made her name and led to the honours (including a damehood) she later received. Her great contemporaries of the Broadway stage – such as Katharine Cornell or Helen Hayes – merely dabbled in movies, in comparison with Anderson’s filmography.
Deacon may not be old enough to have seen much of Anderson on the stage, but it is one of the major achievements of her book to bring the stage career to life. This is not just a matter of quoting reviews of productions, though when she does so she contrives to make a sense of drama from them.
As well, the quality of her research is such that she is able to recreate some feeling for the shifting theatrical climate of the decades, for the varied approaches to performing of Anderson and others, and for her ongoing associations with the others in her profession.
The necessarily chronological mode does not preclude motifs and perspectives that situate Anderson’s life and career in a broader professional and personal context.
Not since Jonathan Croall’s John Gielgud in 2011 have I read a theatrical biography that so vividly evoked the protagonist at work and the world in which she lived. There is a wonderful recreation of Anderson’s personal life with its often-tangled affairs, two failed marriages and long-lasting friendships, as well as the delights of living on several continents.
Perhaps her chief regret was the lack of children that a lasting union might have produced, and she was a devoted aunt to other people’s young ones. Anderson may have been shorter than expected (and an unreliable speller), but without being a stereotype ‘‘grande dame’’ she was undoubtedly a woman to contend with.
Work could be frustrating as well as exciting, and so could her dealings with lovers and others. Her life, that is, was often difficult, but it was one utterly worth celebrating.