Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Death of a Stalwart

Anna Massey, whose death at the age of 73 was announced yesterday, has been one of the most prolific performers in British period dramas for more than thirty years. A reliably charismatic on-screen presence, Ms. Massey was often cast in the role of the aunt or the housekeeper. Most recently she was seen as Mrs Bedwin in Oliver Twist, Mrs D'Urberville in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Miss Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right, all for the BBC. She also starred as Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park in 1982 and as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca in 1979. She re-created her Olivier Award-winning role as the frustrated Miss Prism for the National Theatre in London in Oliver Parker's 2002 film adaptation The Importance of Being Earnest.

Ms. Massey won a BAFTA for her portrayl of the lonely spinster Edith Hope in the 1986 television adaptation of Anita Brookner's Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac. So passionate was she about the project and playing the role that she helped finance the production with her own money. Aside from her many television roles, she regularly appeared on stage. Her stage debut was in 1955 when she played the title role in William Douglas-Home's The Reluctant Debutante in the West End and later on Broadway. Her most recent stage role was as Elizabeth 1 opposite Isabelle Huppert in Schiller's Mary Stuart in 1996, also for the National Theatre.

An intriguing facet to Ms. Massey's career was her involvement between 1960 and 1972 in three films which were not initially successful but which gained considerably in reputation in subsequent years. In 1960, she played Helen in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, pictured above, a film which was so reviled on its initial release that it effectively brought Powell's illustrious career to a screeching halt. The tale of a serial killer who films his victims' deaths was seen as perverse but has since been hailed as a masterpiece by, amongst others, Martin Scorcese. She also played the teacher Miss Elvira in Otto Preminger's intensely odd Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 and the barmaid Babs in Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 shocker Frenzy. The scene in which she is being unwittingly led through the bustling London streets to her death is revered as a classic Hitchcockian moment of suspense.

I was always delighted to see Anna Massey's name in the credits. For an actress who was often called upon to play a similar type of role, she never phoned it in. She utterly convinced in the moment whether being imperious and authorative or gentle and kind, whether wielding a knife or drying a tear. She carried quality in her pocket. Please drop me a line and let me know for what role you will best remember the late, great Anna Massey.

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