Wendy Hiller Overview:

Actress, Wendy Hiller, was born Wendy Margaret Hiller on Aug 15, 1912 in Bramhall, Cheshire. Hiller died at the age of 90 on May 14, 2003 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire and was laid to rest in St Mary Churchyard Cemetery in Radnage, Buckinghamshire, England.

Early Life

Dame Wendy Margaret Hiller was born on August 15th, 1912 in Cheshire England and came from a fairly privileged family. Her father, Frank,  was a successful cotton manufacturer and her mother, Marie, stayed home with the children. Despite their relative wealth, the Hiller families regional accent was considered less than posh amongst prominent english social circles. In hopes of improving her chance at marriage by losing her less than desirable accent, Wendy was sent educated at the Winceby House School in Sussex. However, rather than integrate herself with the social elite, Hiller began to find her passion in acting. In 1930 she enrolled at the Manchester Repertory Theater and began working as an assistant stage manager and playing bit parts.

Early Career

While at the Manchester Repertory Theater, she worked hard developing both her craft and reputation as an actress. In 1930 she made her professional debut in The Ware Case. Over the next few years, she won increasingly better parts. In 1934 she played the lead role in the stage adaptation of Walter Greenwood's novel Love on the Dole. In the production Hiller played Sally Hardcastle, a poor urban girl who sold herself into a marriage rather than watch her family slip further into poverty. The performance was met with great praise and eventually toured throughout England.

The role would eventually bring Hiller to the London Stage, making her West End debut in 1935. The play was wildly successful, with Hiller becoming an immediate critical darling. Thanks to the popularity of Love on the Role, in 1936 the play made it's way to Broadway with Hiller at the helm. Once again, she was met with great critical praise and managed to catch the eye of playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw saw her potential to bring out the radiance of his heroines.

Film and Stage Success

Thanks to her partnership with Shaw, Hiller saw her career blossom. He immediate cast the young actress in his plays Saint John, Pygmalion and Major Barbara, effectively taking the actress under his wing. Shaw would eventually go on to say Hiller was his favorite of all the actresses he worked with. Per Shaw's request, Hiller starred as Eliza Doolittle in the 1938 big screen adaptation of Pygmalion opposite Leslie Howard. The film was a great success and earned Hiller her first Academy Award nomination. In 1941 she would once again bring Shaw to the movies, starring in the silver screen adaptation of Major Barbara. Despite her success in the film industry, Hiller returned full time to the stage in 1945.

For the next decade remained a popular mainstay both in New York and London, finding her niche playing physically plain but incredibly strong willed characters. In 1943 she toured the British Isles playing Viola in the William Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night. She remained in England for the next few years, starring in John Gielgud's production of The Cradle Song at the Apollo theatre. She then starred in Playboy of the Western World and Tess of the d'Urbervilles at the Old Vic theatre in Bristol, both productions directed by her husband, Ronald Gow.

In 1947 Hiller returned to the states to star as Catherine Sloper in the original production of The Heiress. The production was great success, running for over a year at the Biltmore Theater. Her portrayal as the painfully shy and plain Catherine is now considered to be one of her greatest triumphs of her Broadway career. She would revive the role in 1950 in the plays West End premiere.

Return to Film

By the early 1950s Hiller return to the big screen, while also continuing her stage career. In 1952 she played a mistreated wife of a colonial ruler n Carol Reed's Outcast of Island. That year she ended her two year run at the Haymarket Theater, acting in the N.C Hunter play Waters of the Moon. She continued to act in successful stage plays in London and New York, with some her biggest triumphs of the 1950's being Julius Cesar, The Night of the Ball and Toys in the Attic.  In 1958 she returned to the screen to star in the Delbert Mann ensemble piece Separate Tables, playing a lonely hotel manager. For her efforts, won the 1959 Academy Awards for Best Actress. Two years later she would receive her first BAFTA nomination for her role as Gertrude Morel in Sons and Lovers.   

In 1963 Hiller once again took a success Broadway role to the big screen her portrayal of Anna Berniers in George Roy Hill's Toys in the Attic. After gaining much critical acclaim in her role as Alice Moore in A man for All Season, she once again took a break from the big screen on concentrated on her stage work.

Later Career

By the 1970s Wendy had settled comfortably into grande dame roles, her plain but striking features having grown stern and frowning. Her voice too took on an intriguingly wobbly and dour, distinctive tone. Queen Elizabeth II appointed Ms. Hiller to the Order of the British Empire in 1971. She then became Dame Wendy Hiller four years later.

 Geared towards playing imperious aristocrats that complimented her rather detached demeanor, she starred in theatrical productions of Ghost in 1972, Crown Matrimonial in 1974 and John Gabriel Borkman in 1975, while making a formidable Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1981. In her final stage role, she was simply perfection as the genteel but prickly elderly Jewish Southerner in the West End version of Driving Miss Daisy in 1988.

On camera Wendy managed to stand out grandly in the whodunnit star ensemble of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) as an aged, impervious Russian princess, and recreated her Lady Bracknell in a delightful 1985 TV appearance. She ended her film career as brilliantly as it began with the 1992 film Screenplay: The Countess Alice. She entered a quiet retirement. Dame Wendy Hiller died on May 14, 2003. She was 90 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Wendy Hiller was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one for Best Supporting Actress for Separate Tables (as Pat Cooper) in 1958.

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1938Best ActressPygmalion (1938)Eliza DoolittleNominated
1958Best Supporting ActressSeparate Tables (1958)Pat CooperWon
1966Best Supporting ActressA Man for All Seasons (1966)Alice MoreNominated

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Wendy Hiller Quotes:

Alice More: Poor, silly man - do you think they leave you here to think?

[after King Henry VIII leaves]
Alice More: What's this? You crossed him?
Sir Thomas More: Somewhat.
Alice More: Why?
Sir Thomas More: I couldn't find the other way.
Alice More: You're too nice altogether, Thomas.
Sir Thomas More: Woman, mind your house!
Alice More: I am minding my house!

Eliza Doolittle: Walk? Not bloody likely. I'm going to take a taxi.

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Best Supporting Actress Oscar 1958

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Wendy Hiller Facts
She played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938) opposite Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins. Rex Harrison, who also appeared in Major Barbara (1941) with Hiller, played Professor Henry Higgins in the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady on Broadway, followed by the West End London production (both opposite Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle) and in the My Fair Lady (1964) opposite Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle. He continued to appear in the role on and off in smaller productions for decades.

She & husband Ronald Gow had one daughter and one son.

She was awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975 for her services to drama.

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