Arts Remembrance: Billie Whitelaw — An Appreciation

The late Billie Whitelaw and Samuel Beckett rehearsing "Not I."

The late Billie Whitelaw and Samuel Beckett rehearsing “Not I.”

By Paul Dervis

So many of the truly gifted actors of the British stage and screen of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas are rapidly leaving us. One of the best, Billie Whitelaw, departed this week at the age of 82.

Whitelaw, who as a child actor in the mid 1940s performed in radio programs, came from working class stock but received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In her twenties, she was cast in semi-sex kitten roles in lowbrow British films such as as Terry Thomas’s Make Mine Mink and the very silly Bobbikins (a precursor to Look Who’s Talking). She was also cast in late 1950s television sitcom Time Out for Peggy.

But then Ms Whitelaw found her calling.

In the early 1960s she began working with the famed playwright Samuel Beckett. Their professional and creative relationship lasted until his death in 1989. The dramatist called her “the perfect actress” and he began writing plays specifically for her. About her acting in Beckett’s plays, critic Jonathan Kalb wrote that “… she can evoke so much with so little physical freedom. To have seen her perform in Not I, Happy Days, Footfalls, and Rockabye convinces one that she is a great Beckett interpreter.” After Beckett’s death, she did a number of tours lecturing on his art.

In the mid 1960s Whitelaw became a member of Britain’s National Theatre Company. There she famously played Desdemona opposite Sir Laurence Olivier’s Othello.

But it is for her performances in films from the end of that decade on that I remember her most fondly. Shelagh Delany, who wrote one of the most important plays (and films) of that period, A Taste of Honey, penned a follow-up piece entitled Charlie Bubbles. It gave Albert Finney his first opportunity to direct. He starred in it as well. In the film, Charlie has found fame as a writer in London, but in doing so he has lost himself. He travels back to his home in Manchester, along with his young American intern (an early adult role for a very young Liza Minnelli), to reconnect with his past; specifically with his son and his long-suffering and estranged wife, brilliantly played by Whitelaw. The character is a modern day version of Brecht’s Mother Courage. She is a powerful, intense tiller of farmland who cannot see Charlie’s success, only his frailty. Whitelaw did not appear in Charlie Bubbles until near the end. Yet she dominated the screen, giving meaning to this Lost Soul’s life.

She made this film important.

She followed Charlie Bubbles with a mixed variety of cinematic fare: Start the Revolution Without Me, Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, The Omen, and the Merchant/ivory blockbuster, Maurice. In 1990 she was cast in The Krays as the mother of the film’s notorious British gangster twins. For her amazing performance, she was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award (BAFTA) for Best Supporting Actress. She had won that same award for Charlie Bubbles, as well as for an earlier film, Twisted Nerve.

Whitelaw may not have become a household name like her contemporaries Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave, but I dare say her body of work was just as strong.

I will miss her.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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