Judith Anderson (1897-1992)

Judith Anderson
Judith Anderson
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Judith Anderson is remembered as one of the great character actresses of her time particularly in powerful and tragic roles. When she became a Hollywood movie star in in the 1940's she was already regarded as one of the greatest stage actresses of the era after a glittering career in the theater. She also made a triumphant transition into television acting later in her career.

She enjoyed a long career of seventy years, during which she received many honors. As well as two Emmy Awards and a Tony Award she was also nominated for a Grammy Award and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in 'Rebecca' in 1940. In 1960 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) and was often billed as "Dame Judith Anderson" and in June 1991, in the Queen's Birthday Honours, she was named a Companion in the Order of Australia (AC), "in recognition of service to the performing arts".


She was born Frances Margaret Anderson in Adelaide, South Australia on February 10, 1897. Her Scottish-born father, James, was a share dealer and prospector. She attended Norwood Morialta High School in Adelaide.

Early Years

Her first ambition, after seeing a performance by Dame Nellie Melba, was to take up an operatic career, but after her first acting experience as a young High School pupil, she decided on a dramatic rather than operatic career. She won several local elocution competitions and was highly successful in her dramatic studies at school. She began performing for amateur theatre companies in Adelaide and Sydney.

The Young Actress

She made her debut professionally with the stage name of Francee Anderson in 1914, when she was just 17,at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, in 'A Royal Divorce' where she came under the wing of the experienced and popular actor, Julius Knight who began her acting education. She appeared alongside him in numerous adaptations including 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', 'The Three Musketeers' and 'Monsieur Beaucaire'. In 1917 she toured New Zealand with his company.

After three years, the ambitious young actress made the decision to move to America rather than England, which, embroiled in the Great War, was difficult to access. She had a letter of introduction to Cecil B de Mille which did not help her when she went to Hollywood to see the great man, who was dismissive of the rather unglamorous figure she presented. Undeterred she switched her attention from Hollywood to Broadway and moved to New York.


She spent a dispiriting initial few months making the rounds of theatrical agents until she finally found work with the Emma Bunting Stock Company at the 14th Street Theatre in 1918. She was a fast learner and her talent began to get noticed. She toured with other stock companies for three years until 1922, when, under the name Frances Anderson, she made her debut on Broadway in 'On the Stairs'. It was the start of a long and illustrious career.

In 1924 she had her first major success on Broadway, playing Elise opposite Louis Calhern in 'Cobra' and it was at this time that she changed her stage name to Judith Anderson. Her star was rising and she firmly established herself as a genuine talent with 'The Dove' in 1925 which played for over 100 performances. During the course of the next few years she became well known as a highly talented and dependable performer and in 1927 she toured her native Australia with three plays, 'Tea for Three', 'The Green Hat' and 'Cobra'.

Judith continued to establish herself as a formidable talent and by the early 1930's was seen as a genuine star of Broadway. In 1931 she was the Unknown Woman in 'As You Desire Me' which was filmed the following year with Greta Garbo in Judith's role. But Hollywood had taken note of Judith's talent and in 1933 she made her movie debut in a supporting role in the pre-code drama 'Blood Money' directed by Rowland Brown.

For the remainder of the 1930's she concentrated on her theater work and she built a reputation a one of the greatest stage actresses of the time. In 1932 she appeared in 'Mourning Becomes Electra' and in 1936 she played Gertrude to John Gielguid's Hamlet in New York. Her London debut followed in 1937 as Lady Macbeth at the Old Vic opposite Laurence Olivier.

She was becoming a specialist at interpreting the great classical works and from 1942-43, she played Olga in Chekhov's 'Three Sisters', in a production which also featured Katharine Cornell, Ruth Gordon, and a young Kirk Douglas in his Broadway debut.

Other notable stage works included, in 1947, the title role in Euripides's 'Medea', a memorable performance for which she received a Tony award in 1948. She later appeared in the supporting character of the nurse in the 1983 TV version of 'Medea'. In 1953, she appeared in Stephen Vincent Benét's 'John Brown's Body', directed by Charles Laughton and in 1960 she returned to the old Vic to play Madame Arkadina in Chekhov's 'The Seagull'.


During this memorable period of stage successes she returned to Hollywood and made several noteworthy films, the first of which has become her best known performance, as Mrs Danvers in 'Rebecca', for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (losing out to Jane Darwell, for 'The Grapes of Wrath'). Her portrayal of the malevolent and sexually ambiguous Mrs Danvers is brilliant, and is widely considered to be one of the screen's most memorable female villains.

Several movies with top directors followed during the 1940's including 'Kings Row' in 1942, Otto Preminger's 'Laura' in 1944 with Gene Tierney, 'And Then There Were None' the following year, and 'Specter of the Rose', Jean Renoir's 'The Diary of a Chambermaid' and 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers', all in 1946.

From the 1950's onwards her movie appearances were less frequent but equally powerful. After two Biblical roles in 'Salome' in 1953 and 'The Ten Commandments' in 1956, she changed tack completely to play to perfection the supporting role of Big Mama, the loyal wife of Burl Ives in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in 1958.

She played the Sioux squaw Buffalo Cow Head in the Western adventure 'A Man Called Horse' in 1970 and the Vulcan Princess in 'Star Trek lll' in 1982 (at the age of 86). Away from Hollywood she appeared in the Australian film 'Inn of the Damned' directed by Terry Bourke in 1973.


Judith started a completely new career in television in the 1950's and became a regular performer on Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. She also re-created her classical successes firstly as Medea in 1959 and then two separate productions of 'Macbeth' in 1954 and 1960, winning the Emmy Award for both performances as Lady Macbeth. From 1984 to 1987 she played matriarch Minx Lockridge on the NBC serial 'Santa Barbara'.


Judith was married firstly to English professor, Benjamin Harrison Lehmann for two years from 1937, and secondly to theatrical producer, Luther Greene, from 1946-51. Neither marriage produced children and she said that neither was a "jolly holiday". She was subject to speculation about her sexuality throughout her career.

Judith Anderson died of pneumonia on January 3, 1992, in Santa Barbara, California. She was aged 93.

Judith Anderson Academy Awards

No Wins:

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... Rebecca (1940)


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Judith Anderson Filmography

Blood Money
Forty Little Mothers
Free and Easy
Lady Scarface
All Through the Night
Edge of Darkness
And Then There Were None
The Diary of a Chambermaid
Specter of the Rose
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Red House
The Furies