With so much going on in the world (and life), keeping anxiety in check can feel like a full-time job. I’m finding comfort in the movies of Dame Margaret Rutherford, a truly spectacular character actor, and from what I read, a lovely human being.
Last night, I watched the 1945 version of Blithe Spirit for the first time. How had I never seen this movie? I’m an old-movie buff, particularly smart comedies from the ’30s and ’40s (oh and I suppose ’50s and ’60s, and I like romances too, and noir and…well, you get the idea) and this one is delightful, particularly for Margaret’s character, Madame Arcati.
She’s a bike-riding psychic medium who conducts seances to help people contact relatives and friends who have passed on. I love that although the other characters treat her as though she is strange and quirky–and she is–somehow she is the one who seems the most alive and authentic and real compared to the mannered people with whom she interacts. I mean, she’s absolutely delightful.
It didn’t surprise me one bit to read that Noel Coward wrote the part with her in mind, and she had huge success with it on stage and in the movie. According to IMDb, all other actresses who play the part base their performances on hers. Cool, right?
Before watching Blithe Spirit, I had already enjoyed all four of her Miss Marple movies. She didn’t play the character the way I imagined from the books–and apparently it took some time before Agatha Christie herself came around, eventually dedicating The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to the actor–but Dame Margaret is so unapologetical about her performance that I fell in love with her version. Fun fact: Dame Margaret wore her own clothes for the movies (and I am dying to own a cape like that).
She also insisted that her husband, Stringer Davis, play a supporting role as the town librarian Mr. Stringer. They were together 15 years before marrying in their 40s and 50s because his mother disapproved; they waited for the old lady to move on before tying the knot. Apparently their relationship in real life was similar to that onscreen.
Other interesting facts about Dame Margaret: She didn’t start acting until she was in her 30s. She struggled with depression and anxiety throughout her life, sometimes requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy. Both of her parents had severe mental health struggles that led to a murder and death by suicide; although she was raised by a loving aunt, she always feared losing control of herself like her parents. Her husband cared for her through her highs and lows, and the couple unofficially adopted a 20-something year old writer who was transitioning to female. Dawn Langley Simmons later wrote a biography of her adopted mother. Dame Margaret won an Oscar for The V.I.Ps (on my to-see list!) and was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire when she was 75. She wrote an autobiography, but it’s out of print so copies are really expensive. Dame Town has a nice comprehensive bio.
I think what appeals to me about Dame Margaret’s life and career is the portrayal of an older woman as powerful, funny, caring, capable, and unique. She’s comfortable with who she is and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks, while also caring for those who need her help. She is the type of woman I hope to be when I grow up.
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