Posted by Moira Finnie on October 21, 2009
Gladys Cooper was a bit of a snob.
Not in the usual social way that you may infer from that remark, but as a working woman she had an attitude that hers was a job, like any other, a way of making a very good living at times. Sometimes it meant acting in The Letter, or The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, or even Peter Pan at the age of 35. She was unacquainted with idleness, revelations of inner torment, and too many expressions of emotion off stage, taking pride in her toughness and the pleasure she derived from her work and her family. Wearing Molyneux gowns and hawking some bloody face cream with her name on it was all part of the game, giving her an independence that very few women of her time would ever know. It also gave her a chance to do much more than the average woman as well–including bringing up her children, helping her extended family and friends, and having some very good times indeed traveling and indulging her greatest pleasure of creating a comfortable home wherever she was at the time.
At other, more meager times, being an actress was a discipline to be endured and “gotten on with” rather than analyzed or draped in much mystery. As a result of this refreshing no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she was her own producer for so many years when she ran her Playhouse in London, challenging plays and classical roles were not in her background as they were for her contemporaries Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. Her fellow actress, Dame Edith once confessed envy of her peer, commenting that she used to stand in the wings just to watch her face under the lights on stage, transfixed by Cooper‘s youthful beauty that was, she claimed, essentially unphotographable but “enough to stop a bus”.
Edith Evans in particular understood that the accolades that Gladys received in more commercially oriented plays by Frederick Lonsdale, Somerset Maugham and others were well earned. Her plays may have been geared by necessity to the fashionable Kensington crowd in London, but over time, the gallery of characters she created formed the outline of a new, 20th century figure: an independent woman, a role she played on stage and off, especially as her youth faded and her ability to create a character on film developed in time.
Not a particularly reflective individual, Gladys Cooper had little patience with those in her profession who saw it as a higher calling. She believed it was nothing more than a “talent to amuse”, as her friend Noel Coward once described a performer’s gift. Asked about the growing influence of Method acting near the end of her career, she sniffed, “I don’t understand it, dear; one just goes on and one is, that’s all there is to acting.” While this dismissive attitude was probably partially due to her roots in a Victorian childhood when endless activity was believed to be an antidote for any sort of melancholic introspection, I suspect that as she aged, her gifts as an actress deepened, though she was reluctant to dissect whatever rough magic sprang from her inner life, informing her work more. When she arrived in Hollywood, she took to the life outside of the studios, relishing the warmth of the sun, the heaviness of the oranges that grew unbidden on the trees, and the nearness of a welcoming ocean. The movies themselves were another matter.
As outlined last time, Cooper did not come to American film in the studio era until relatively late in life. Moving to California in 1939, with her finances at a low ebb, her marketable beauty in inevitable decline, her third and malleable husband Philip Merivale at work in New York and her beloved family largely left in England, the warmth of the California climate and the then relatively low cost of living appealed to her as much as a chance to work.
After the initial success of Rebecca (1940-Alfred Hitchcock), the actress tentatively hoped for other roles, even though she wondered about the possible identity of that shocking person on the screen. Describing her appearance in Rebecca as that of “strange hunchbacked creature in an ill-fitting tweed suit out of whose mouth such a frightful grating noise comes that I thought something must have gone wrong with the soundtrack,” she had her doubts about the likelihood of catching on in the movie capital, even though she’d impulsively purchased a home there overlooking the Riviera Country Club on Napoli Drive. Her prospects weren’t helped by the fact that so few of the people who counted in Hollywood (producers such as Sam Goldwyn for one), nor the general American public were aware of her existence and experience. Old friends such as Nigel Bruce, who had played her cuckolded husband in The Letter for over 300 performances a decade earlier, welcomed her eagerly. The devoted Bruce and his affectionate wife “Bunny” were her champions in this new world, gathering other members of the British colony to her side, helping her to find her way around the studios and enlivening her social life as well as that of Philip Merivale.
This whirl soon included many others, including big and little stars such as Ronald Colman (who, Cooper was glad to see, was as handsome as ever, and had forgiven or forgotten her harsh remarks about his acting ability years before). Others who gathered at her Napoli Drive home, and some of whom even took part in the Gladys Cooper XI, a cricket team she sponsored, were David Niven, Robert Coote, Henry Daniell, Basil Rathbone and his wife Ouida (even if Gladys found their lavish parties “on a terrace with white gloved servants” in questionable taste), Roland Young, and of course, C. Aubrey Smith. Part of the appeal of this “Hollywood Raj” atmosphere was no doubt nostalgia, but there was also a sense of comradeship in trying to do what they could for the besieged British during the early years of the war.
On one occasion, Gladys and many other sympathetic actors put on a theatrical production of Noel Coward’s Tonight at Eight-Thirty in a theater in Los Angeles to raise money for British relief. Acting and directing in several of the playlets herself, Cooper loved getting back on stage, and, according to one letter, her vigorous direction of Basil Rathbone in “The Astonished Heart” was “awfully nice and I am getting all the ‘ham’ out of him at last!” Another charity effort that Cooper and a few dozen actors, directors and writers made in sympathy with Britain for no fee was the rarely seen film, Forever and a Day (1943). Telling the story of a London house over the course of about 200 years, the anthology film was critically a mixed bag, but if you ever have a chance to see Gladys Cooper and Roland Young in one sequence directed by Edmund Goulding about the parents of a WWI soldier waiting for word on his fate, the excellence of her moving and outstanding work is unforgettable, almost making the rest of the movie seem justified.
If this concern with money sounds somewhat mercenary and self-absorbed, there may have been an element of that, but Gladys Cooper was used to being financially responsible, (despite some impecunious extravagances that necessitated still more work). She would support her mother and children for many years, as well as helping extended family members in Philip Merivale‘s brood of four children.
Of necessity, she also sent money and food back to England regularly during the war years. Throughout her life, Gladys would help her younger sister Doris (who was also an actress, mostly in small parts in her sister’s plays), and support her congenitally deaf youngest sister Grace all of her life, sharing a home with her. Sadly, the death of Philip Merivale after only nine years of marriage in 1946 from a heart ailment increased both Cooper‘s need and desire to work. After the war, another event made her continued career even more of a necessity. After serving in WWII, and establishing himself as a gifted actor, Gladys’ son John Buckmaster‘s high-strung personality descended into schizophrenia. This then little understood psychosis prompted numerous breakdowns and several traumatic episodes, including arrests in New York in 1952 after reportedly threatening others on Madison Avenue with knives and molesting several women. These events, followed by hospitalizations and treatment, eventually led to Buckmaster (seen above), stabilizing somewhat as he grew older, especially after medications for this illness became more refined. Unfortunately, he is said to have blamed his father Herbert John Buckmaster and his mother for his illness, and cut himself off from them for the remainder of their lives.
Cooper, whose attitude toward all illness tended to be briskly dismissive, never completely reconciled herself to this trauma in her family life, feeling, as she was overheard telling a nonplussed doctor once about her sister’s deafness, that it could be overcome “if [one] really made an effort.” Despite this inability to comprehend the impact of illness on others and to generally ignore it in herself, Gladys always appears to have been the person who paid the bills, no matter what. Her persistent love for her daughters Joan (who would marry actor Robert Morley) and Sally (who would marry actor Robert Hardy) as well as her only son, as imperfectly as it may have been expressed during her hectic life, appears to have been as characteristic of her personality as her phenomenal work ethic. From all reports, that embrace extended to her grandchildren as well.
After appearing as Dennis Morgan‘s Philadelphia mainline mother in Kitty Foyle, (a film she hoped would prove her capable of “playing American”). Cooper wrote that the star Ginger Rogers was “very nice, quite small though she looks so big on screen”; but to meet those mortgage payments on her piece of California sunshine, Cooper was soon appearing as prim murderesses in two minor films, (The Black Cat and The Gay Falcon), and a bit chagrined about her future. However, she landed a part as an exceptionally cold Lady Nelson to Laurence Olivier‘s straying Admiral Nelson in the propagandistic history of That Hamilton Woman (1941-Alexander Korda). Performing in only a few scenes opposite Olivier and Vivien Leigh, there were those who wondered if the chill in her voice and stiff character might have indicated an actual underlying hostility toward the beautiful and talented Leigh. This supposed tension was prompted by the fact that, pre-Olivier, and before shedding Leigh Holman, Vivien’s first husband, she had been involved with Cooper’s only son, the gifted and high-strung John Buckmaster. Despite this past faux-pas, Cooper thought Leigh a talented person and formed a warm relationship with her that lasted throughout her life.
This relatively thankless role in the historical romance may have helped to earn Gladys the chance to play Mrs. Henry Vale, the disturbingly controlling Boston Brahmin mother figure in the film directed by Irving Rapper from the Olive Higgins Prouty novel, Now, Voyager (1942), a beautifully made movie elevated through the performances, the production values, and the resonant themes of the piece. As the mother/jailer/destroyer of the nearly middle-aged daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis), Cooper embraced her domineering mother role without flinching from her repellent character’s need to “make all the decisions” for “my little girl”. Part of the power in her Oscar nominated performance derives from a flinty refusal to beg for even a flicker of sympathy from the audience, but somehow Mrs. Vale is never a caricature. The actress, in some very convincing aging makeup and a wig which made Cooper think of her own mother every time she caught sight of herself in the mirror, the character was a monster in lace, but a compelling figure nonetheless. Perhaps her ability to play the part with such venomous zest was partly due to her rapport with the director, Irving Rapper, who had seen Cooper on stage in her Playhouse days. There are many nice touches to her work in this film, including one scene where back to the viewer, the camera lingers on Cooper‘s bejeweled, claw-like hand, tapping on a bedpost like a rattler getting ready to strike as her daughter explains her need for freedom.
Despite her malevolent portrayal, Mrs. Vale is still allowed to be a vulnerable human being, driven by her own destructive needs to exert herself within her own small world, locked in a battle of wills with her daughter in their Marlborough Street mansion. We get hints of her precariousness after she falls (or throws herself) down the stairs following one confrontation with her daughter. In consequence, she is once again the center of attention, issuing orders and manipulating others, (especially to an unfazed salt of the earth nurse, nimbly played by Mary Wickes). Yet this time, Charlotte is able to realize that “I am not afraid”. Having given birth to a child relatively late in life, (and one who knows that she was not wanted), the mother witnesses her own authority waning throughout the length of the film–as Charlotte gains independence through the intervention of a concerned Ilka Chase and Claude Rains‘ Dr. Jaquith and her own realization of her individuality, Cooper‘s glacially regal manner and refusal to recognize her own child’s nervous breakdown and her emergence into adulthood creates a drama centering around one character’s personal epiphany, another’s inability to accept change, and, for the Davis character, learning to love and parent in a mature, creative way.
One of the strengths of this film is that there are no easy answers for Mrs. Vale’s attitudes. Her compelling yet villainous character is a mystery, without explicit explanations to offer us, though certainly the constraints of her own life and social position have formed her personality, just as they have that of her daughter Charlotte. Yet, unlike the Bette Davis character, the realization of her diminished power does not lead to a liberation, but death. The entire movie is lifted out of the “normal” range of sometimes shallow emotional displays sometimes associated with A list “women’s pictures” by the restraint and feeling found in Davis‘ performance, especially in her scenes with Rains and Cooper. Finding herself acting with Gladys Cooper, after the Hollywood star had delivered one of her greatest performances in the role first created on stage by Cooper, as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter, the two independent-minded actresses might have been expected to be wary of one another. However, they discovered their natural affinity almost immediately.
Following this appearance on the talk show, Davis sent a very large floral display to Cooper‘s memorial service with a card emblazoned with the words “She was a great Lady”.
Gladys Cooper at the time recognized that the success and the critical accolades that she had received for this breakthrough role helped to solidify her professional standing among the studios. One of her follow-up roles, as the caustic Sister Marie Therese Verzous in The Song of Bernadette (1943-Henry King), might have been one more sanctimonious piece of Oscar bait if it weren’t for the quality of the production, the casting of a stellar supporting cast, led by Anne Revere and Charles Bickford, and the sincerity of the performances, not least of which was Cooper‘s turn as a disbelieving nun who makes Bernadette of Lourdes’ time on earth enough of a hell for any future saint. Gladys, who as a faithful if relaxed Anglican, expressed a bit of puzzlement about some of the aspects of a religious life for a nun, gave her judgmental character great integrity and considerable nuance, particularly in the scene in which she realizes that she has spent several years of her life tormenting Bernadette, a person she has been jealous of for a very long time. Learning that the young woman is uncomplainingly dying of a painful “tuberculosis of the knee”, Cooper‘s thunderstruck expression and her portrait of a dedicated, pious woman puzzled by her own soul’s inability to experience transcendence helped to earn the actress a second nomination as Best Supporting Actress from the Academy Awards.
An annuity of sorts came Cooper‘s way following this performance in the form of a contract with MGM when that studio was at the height of their celebration of English infatuation. In part due to the war, Gladys found herself playing some parts that were less than enthralling. One of these less demanding parts was on loan out to RKO for Mr. Lucky (1943-H.C. Potter) with Cary Grant. Though Cooper said she “found it less of a strain than the gardening” at her never quite completed home, the actress regarded it as “faintly amusing” but “all rather feeble really”. Having enjoyed the movie on its own terms, largely for Cary Grant being Cary Grant, I wonder if Gladys Cooper might have chafed a bit under the restriction of playing a fairly simple-minded society type after her meatier roles giving film performances that anchored the stories they told, adding much depth and color to each of them.
Other MGM movies from this same period, such as the family sagas of The Valley of Decision (1945-Tay Garnett) and Green Dolphin Street (1947-Victor Saville) and even an appearance in the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly musical The Pirate (1948-Vincente Minnelli) gave Gladys a chance to play rather likable patrician ladies, but few of them were gritty enough to be among her signature roles.
One small part that does stand out was as Beatrice Remington in Hal Wallis’ Paramount production of Love Letters (1945-William Dieterle). Playing the guardian of Victoria Singleton, (Jennifer Jones), an orphan she has adopted in her old age, her character tries to shield the girl from life on their farm in rural England.When a brash young officer (Robert Sully) that Victoria has met at a dance begins to write her a series of heartfelt letters, full of idealized notions of love and expressing the belief she falls in love with that man she hardly knows, later explaining that “I think very few people are happy. They wait all their lives for something to happen to them – something great and wonderful. They don’t know what it is but they wait for it. Sometimes it never happens. What they want is the kind of spirit I found in those letters.” Faster than you can say “Cyrano de Bergerac”, the audience knows that gentle Joseph Cotten is actually the author of these letters. After he is invalided out of the service, he learns that the couple he brought together married and that Victoria is now not only a widow, and an amnesiac, but that he’s probably responsible! Based on a novel by Christopher Massie and with a screenplay credited to Ayn Rand, this obsessive romance with noir overtones, was part of the elaborate, (and awfully public) courtship by producer David O. Selznick of actress Jennifer Jones.
In this case, the beautifully mounted if slender story was only enhanced by Dieterle‘s dark romanticism and that of the ostensible producer Hal Wallis, whose meticulous approach to movie-making and his anglophilia could rival that of the Selznick‘s, (without the latter’s sometimes operatic overkill).
While I prefer the Jones in this period found in Cluny Brown, her fey tremulousness and dark beauty do have a poignancy that resonates in Gladys Cooper‘s playing of the stroke victim remembering her love for her ward and the tragic events that led to her lost memory. Staring off into a distant, unseen eternity, the dignified Cooper brings a genuine sadness to the unlikely proceedings. Would this gossamer-thin film seem as haunting without Cooper‘s tender glances and steely, low voice? I suspect not, since the few times I’ve seen this movie, this viewer is willingly manipulated into a properly autumnal mood set by the actors, the direction and Lee Garmes‘ dusky cinematography–even as I know I’m being led along.
The holiday-themed fantasy, The Bishop’s Wife (1949-Henry Koster), featuring Cary Grant as an angel and David Niven as a vexed Episcopal bishop, was a critical target when it was first released and only a moderate hit. Gladys Cooper‘s dragon of a church benefactor makes for a hissable villainess, leading Niven to plan a new church to glorify her late husband (suggesting that her dead spouse’s face should be featured in a stained glass window depicting St. George and the Dragon, Niven agreed to her request, asking impertinently who she “saw as the dragon”?). In the scene below, the angel played by Grant, melts much of the frost from Cooper‘s character:
By the early 1950s, Gladys Cooper‘s days in the warm California sun were numbered, as many of her old friend’s died, moved to New York or London following the disintegration of the studios. Though she hung on to her piece of California until close to the mid-1960s, Cooper established another cozy home and garden in the U.K. once again to be near to work there and most of all, her family. Returning to the theater in a series of plays on both sides of the Atlantic, she experienced one more theatrical hit in the Big Apple, when she opened in Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden in 1955, for which she received a Tony Award nomination.
Renowned for her matter-of-fact approach to even the most arduous, poorly written and impossible plays and film roles, Cooper was legendary for some relaxed habits on and off stage, though her energy level was phenomenal.
During her youth when she was appearing in two different acts of two plays, as well as being photographed for post cards, even she felt a bit fatigued standing around as Britannia in one play during World War I (seen at the right). Being required to die on stage in one of the plays allowed her to lie down for a bit. Unfortunately, on one night she fell asleep, awaking with a startled “what the hell!!” when another actor made a noise.
The actress also had a tendency to bring along her various offspring and even her beloved pets to a rehearsal, and while declaring undying love for another actor in a tender love scene, she was just as likely to be simultaneously wiping a nose, helping with an overcoat or galoshes or kissing a youngster goodbye as the child was led away by a minder. During most of her plays, a non-stop poker game among the actors and crew backstage was organized by her. It would be in constant play before, during and after the play, no matter what the demands of the part, and would endure throughout a run.
Theatrical etiquette had its place. During one opening night in a small theater with audience members seated just at the edge of the stage, a boorish patron placed his hat right on the lip of the stage. Spying this upon her entrance, Cooper went right on acting her first scene and gradually moved toward the patron’s derby, and proceeded to give it a kick that sent it sailing out over the audience to their delighted applause. Without missing a beat, she simply ignored this interruption and proceeded to play the scene.
When acting with Paul Scofield, who found that she had style and zest but “extraordinary relaxation”, she would somehow appear “immaculately groomed but unselfconscious: she made her first entrance on the first night still sucking a Polo mint she’d forgotten to take out of her mouth, so that on her first line it shot straight out across the stage and she didn’t bat an eyelid. I really did love her.”When acting on stage, Gladys usually showed up about 15 minutes before a play, slapped on her makeup and when wished “good luck” usually responded, “Luck? Luck? Whatever do you mean?” as though her job had nothing to do with it.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t a pro, but as her colleague director Tyrone Guthrie believed, “she had turned herself from a beautiful, pale-pink English rose into a well-equiped actress. She has never made the slightest pretence to being a dedicated artist, but is rather one of those people who have a living to earn and decided upon a career where her great physical beauty could be a capital asset…[while working in a play in New York] in the morning she used to go out sliding on the ice in Central Park with her youngest daughter. She would arrive at the theatre, punctual and casual, and give the impression that, while moderately interested in her work and entirely willing to do her best, her real interests were elsewhere.” Never one to visibly plum her soul for a character, she often remained “on book” long after other players had committed a scene to memory, (a tendency that drove a perfectionist Noel Coward to distraction).
Though she could still be reading from a play right up to opening night, not having managed to memorize her lines, she was known to have come up to other actors during a dress rehearsal and say “That was lovely dear; I’d always wondered what the first act was about, perhaps I should have read it,” as she did one time when preparing to appear with Pamela Brown in a play.Some thought her lack of pretense masked a dedication to her art that was indicated by her still evident power to enchant, terrify and beguile audiences. She just wanted to go about it without much fuss.
Film also continued to give her some featured roles, in particular Separate Tables (1957-Delbert Mann), as an unforgivable prig who dominated her daughter (Deborah Kerr) and anyone else she could place under her thumb in the hot house atmosphere of a seaside residential hotel. David Niven, who won an Oscar for his role of a sad and phony major in trouble over an incident in a movie theater, found the distinguished presence of Cooper, Cathleen Nesbitt, Wendy Hiller, and Felix Aylmer watching him on the set a bit unnerving. “Trial by a jury of my peers”, he later reflected, “and found guilty.”
Though one more distinctively memorable role as Rex Harrison‘s briskly sensible upper class mother in the sublime My Fair Lady (1964-George Cukor) would give her another Academy Award nomination, allowing her audience to glimpse a shadow of her still elegant form in Cecil Beaton’s designs, she brushed off missing the prize three times by commenting “always the bridesmaid, never the bloody bride.”
The new medium of television offered her some very good parts, decent money, and smaller gulps of dialogue to commit to memory as she aged. I suspect that most of those who read this first became acquainted with the talented and versatile Cooper via television. Appearances in dramas, comedies and serial programs were all regular parts of her life as she approached her late ’70s. Some of my favorite appearances by Gladys were in the programs of Alfred Hitchcock, including one of the most disturbingly nightmarish episodes of that series, “Consider Her Ways”, in which the actress plays a historian in a future world without men found here.
However, among her television work, I’d have to name a roughly 23 minutes as one of this woman’s best. I was reminded recently when reading about the anniversary of the premiere of The Twilight Zone in 1959 of a tour de force performance that Gladys Cooper gave in an episode directed by Lamont Johnson called “Nothng in the Dark” from the 1962 season. The story, written by George Clayton Johnson (seen at the right with Cooper), concerns a woman who has hidden in her basement apartment for years, afraid that if she ventures out into the world, death will find her. It was an excellent example of the ways that this seminal series wove a minimum of elements into a tapestry containing moments of stark fear and observations on the human experience that any person would recognize as visceral and yet new. No glamorous clothes or softened lens for Gladys Cooper in this episode, just that beautifully lined face, her imagination, the words, the camera, and a supporting cast that included R. G. Armstrong and an angelic Robert Redford before he was a big star. You can see the entire episode here.
Even though she was well into her 70s, when her friends David Niven, Charles Boyer and Robert Coote offered her a role as the very snappy den mother of elegant jewel thieves in the television program The Rogues in 1964, she jumped at the chance. Urbane and witty, the all too brief show never played down to the television audience, but made a viewer feel like a co-conspirator as the actors made one believe in one after another of their well-acted scams, which usually were directed at those deserving scoundrels they had encountered. Only available on DVD in Region 2, the show enjoyed a brief life on TVLand several years ago, but I hope that someday it re-emerges here in the States. You can see a typical Cooper moment on the show, blending comic bonhomie with imperiousness, here.
It’s a cliche to say that someone led “a rich, full life”, but in Gladys Cooper‘s case, I would merely change that to “rich, full lives”, capped by her being named Dame Commander of the Order of British Empire (DBE) for her contributions to acting in 1967. Still eager to work even as he approached her 80s, Cooper lamented to her director George Cukor
She missed nothing in her 82 years. In one of her last theater programmes, for a forgettable play called “His, Hers and Theirs”, her beloved son-in-law Robert Morley wrote a distillation of her attitude toward life, which ended that same year in 1971:
“Who cares how old I am? Who cares how long ago it was since I first played Peter Pan? Who remembers me as the Novice in The Dove Uncaged? I don’t even remember myself as Pamela in The Pursuit of Pamela so why on earth should you? Why do theatre programmes always concentrate on the past? This is the performance that matters. This is the challenge…the theatre today is as much a part of my life as it ever was, but I am not I suppose a dedicated actress, there’s too much else going on. Children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and houses and gardens and dogs and cats and marmalade and curries…”
Upcoming Gladys Cooper films on TCM can be seen here.
Part One of this Two Part Profile can be seen here.
Griffin, Gabriele, Difference in View: Women and Modernism, Taylor & Francis, 1994.
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