When 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.
Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage
Melbourne: Kerr, 2019
ISBN: 9781875703067 (PoD)
(Review copy courtesy the author.)