Desley Deacon, Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen historian Desley Deacon offered me her biography of Dame Judith Anderson for review, I was a little reticent because my review copies were getting out of hand. Little did I know then what was in store for me, and just how much more behind I would become. However, finally, its turn came, and here I am with my review.

First though, I must say something about the publication itself, particularly given our recent discussion here about Print on Demand books. Deacon’s Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage is available as an e-Book or a PoD one. I read the PoD edition, and it is beautiful. The cover is gorgeous, and the book’s overall design is stylish, with an art deco look reflecting the style of Anderson’s early life and career. The book is big and heavy, but the binding is strong allowing the book to open well for reading. And, the icing on the cake is that it is gorgeously illustrated with quality reproductions of images from the full range of Deacon’s life. These illustrations are beautifully interspersed throughout the book, rather than concentrated, as is more common, into a couple of glossy photographic sections.

But, of course, the important thing is the content. There are, broadly, two main types of biography, those written in the narrative or creative fiction style, like, for example, Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review), and those traditional, scholarly, cradle-to-grave ones, like Philip Butterss’ An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (my review). These latter tend to be closely referenced and well-indexed. Judith Anderson is one of these.

“she has a way with her” (critic)

So now, Judith Anderson. Like many of my generation, my first introduction to her was as the terrifying Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1939 (no I wasn’t alive then!) Rebecca. But, Judith Anderson had been around a long time before that. Born in Adelaide in 1897, she (as Francee Anderson) went to the USA in 1918, and this is where she both established her career and made her home for the rest of her life. It wasn’t easy – is an actor’s life ever? – but eventually Anderson began to get roles. Deacon chronicles the trajectory of her career meticulously, from these early days to her final performances when she was in her eighties. It was a long, and distinguished career which, while centred on the stage, also included film, television, radio and the college speaking circuit. Anderson, unlike some actors, was not averse to working in forms – like television, like, even, television soaps – scorned by others. Regarding this latter, Anderson is quoted as saying “there is no indignity in earning $5,000 per week”. No, indeed, particularly when you never knew where your next pay check was coming from, and when you were providing significant support to other family members.

Various themes run through this story of Anderson’s life. One is the frequency with which critics praised the brilliance of her acting but bemoaned the silliness or inappropriateness of the vehicle. Indeed, this issue was the main reason for the long time it took for her to have her breakthrough. However, Anderson, always a hardworker, kept at it, and eventually her vehicle came, the play Come of age, by Clemence Dane. It was 1934, and she’d been treading the boards in America for 16 years! English playwright Keith Winter saw the play and wrote:

There are in the English speaking world, three actors who have genius of a quite staggering order – Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, and Judith Anderson. Perhaps Laurence Olivier.

No small praise. In the end, though, besides the aforementioned Mrs Danvers, the two roles for which Anderson was most known, was as Euripides’ Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Character and strong women roles did seem to be her forte.

“same old muddling” (Anderson)

While the biography’s focus is Anderson’s work life, largely because that was her life, Deacon also includes something of her personal life, including, in particular, her two short disastrous marriages. It was a sadness for Anderson that she never managed to have her own family and children. This brings me to another theme that runs through the biography: she had, as Deacon describes it, a “hectic personality” or, as Anderson herself said, “I have not myself a very serene temperament”.

Australian arts administrator, Robert Quentin, said during her 1955 tour in Australia, that she was “more than living up to her reputation as being the most troublesome actress in the world.” Deacon is not one of those biographers who psychoanalyses her subject. Her approach is more straight – that is, she presents what is on record, using the occasional “may” or “could” when some fact or other is not known. However, I’d like to suggest that, while this apparent difficult behaviour of Anderson’s was probably partly her temperament, it may also have stemmed from ongoing frustration with the acting life, with the challenge of getting work, with being messed around, with having to accept what she felt were less than ideal plays or co-players, and so on. In 1935, for example, she was being sussed out for a play, but there was the usual to-ing and fro-ing as backers, producers, and/or agents negotiated and fiddled around. She writes, “when I left Wed afternoon it was definite – but now the same old muddling.” You can feel the frustration.

“near perfection in the dramatic art” (Variety)

Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage is clearly, like Deacon’s friend Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin, a passion project that was years in the making. Thoroughly researched, and written in a formal but accessible style, it is a positive but non-hagiographical story of an actor who was once described by Variety as achieving “near perfection in the dramatic art”. Dame Judith Anderson is too little remembered today, but her struggle to fulfil her creative self is timeless. For this reason, if no other, her biography is well worth reading.

Challenge logoDesley Deacon
Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage
Melbourne: Kerr, 2019
ISBN: 9781875703067 (PoD)

(Review copy courtesy the author.)

15 thoughts on “Desley Deacon, Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage (#BookReview)

  1. Chic was the stillsman (as always) on a Terry Bourke typical feature, “Inn of the Damned”, before we met. How Terry managed to persuade Dame Judith to work on it I have no idea; but I suspect it wasn’t by showing her the script ! 😀
    I don’t recall his telling me of her being difficult, but he did say she was aloof. And he added “But who could blame her ? – imagine what it must’ve been like finding herself on a Terry Bourke shoot, back of beyond !” .. [grin]

    • Oh, thanks for this little insight M-R. Deacon describes it as her “penultimate – and most bizarre – movie” and as “a pioneering attempt by Australian New Wave filmmakers to capture the US market with an ‘Aussie/Western variation on the Psycho formula.” Does that sound about right?

      • We-elll .. I probably describe it as “another offering from Australia’s most bizarre film-maker, loved by his crews for treating them well, knowing exactly what he wanted and how to obtain it; but, unhappily, not by his dwindling audiences”. 😀
        But yes, that’s a pretty good summary.

        • Well, it’s great that he was loved by his crew for treating them well, and that he knew what he wanted even if perhaps the audiences didn’t appreciate it. I remember the title but I don’t believe I ever saw it.

  2. MR: I’d love to know more about the making of Inn of the Damned. I did a lot of research around it but the book was getting so long and I felt the film really needed a little book or article of its own. Other things have got in the way (broken ankle, four months in hospital, Covic-19, etc) but I’d still like to do something on it. I didn’t find any comments she made on the film; by then she was used to any sort of muddle, as Whispering Gums points out. She was glad, at that stage of their lives, of any excuse to come and see her older brother and his family. And she was ready to do just about anything for money – that close to poverty childhood.

    PS: what a wonderful review of my book! Thank you, Whispering Gums.

    • I enjoyed the book Desley. You had a wealth of material to draw on so it must have been a challenge finding a path through it.

      I hope M-R does have some more stories about the film for you.

    • I would willingly help if I could, Desley; but my late husband had worked on it before we met. All I have is a still or two, and memories of Chic’s occasional memories of it.
      You and I agree about Whispering Gums’ reviews of our books, btw. 🙂

  3. Well, this aspect of her ‘troublesome’ life fits well with Anne Enright’s most recent novel Actress… her character is troublesome too, in part because of the way an actress was treated in her day.
    *wink* I like to think that we’re all troublesome when we don’t do what blokes tell us to do…

    • Agree completely. Look at the trouble she had in getting Medea exactly how she wanted it. They all gave in the end, but she had to fight and be troublesome and consequently troubled.

      • Yes, “and consequently troubled” is what you feel sorry about. Life shouldn’t be so hard, but I suspect it is for most “genius” artists. (BTW I finalised this post late last night and in the light of day found a few missing words. I think I’ve fixed them now. That’s the joy of blogging – you can keep editing after publishing.)

    • Good point Lisa … and certainly, as I said in my review, I’m sure part of her troublesomeness was due to that AND also due to the perfectionism of a true artist. She wanted the very best co-actors, writers, musicians etc.

  4. Oh she was Mrs Danvers in Rebecca – how wonderful she was! I have the DVD of that 1940 movie in black and white and it’s marvellous. I do like her bit about not having a serene temperament… A good pod book too – I must check who is the publisher! Sounds a change from my little pocket notebook size Kylie Tennant. From a cinema buff, thank you for this review Sue!

    PS: We are hoping for snow on the weekend! BTW, I used to live in the north coast subtropics, which is why you were probably thinking i was further north – talk about a climate change!

    • Yes, it’s a great movie isn’t it, Sue? I remember my Dad, who was a bit of a movie buff in his youth, pointing her out to me. (And Olivia de Havilland who played the young Mrs de Winter in that only died recently at 104, I think? You probably saw that.) Anyhow, Anderson was in rather a large number of movies, but the stage was her love. Yes, it’s a much bigger book than my pocketbook Astley one, and you almost can’t tell it’s PoD, it looks so good. I’m glad you found this review interesting.

      (That said, I was pleased that the print in my Astley one is a good size which I was concerned it may not be when I saw its shape, but it has no margins!)

      Ah, you must have mentioned northern NSW somewhere along the way. Good luck with the snow – if that’s what you’d like!

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