Today's featured character actress is known for her rich portrayals of craggy, wrinkled, commandeering monsters – with the occasional kindhearted characterization thrown in for variety. She made little-to-no effort to preserve her looks even though, as a young lady (and some folks may be surprised to find this out), she was hailed across two continents as the most beautiful woman in England! Miss Gladys Cooper, infamous as a soul-crippling mother from hell, was the subject of countless portraits in which she either modeled benignly or enacted classic theatrical roles, becoming something of a pin-up. But first we go back to the beginning.
Gladys Cooper was born as such on December 18th, 1888 in London, England to a journalist father. She was one of the offspring from her father's second marriage to a somewhat younger woman. She had elder half-brothers and sisters from his first marriage along with two “full” sisters, one of whom was born deaf. A striking child from the start, she was being used as a model in the rapidly burgeoning postcard industry by the age of six, often being paired with musical comedy actress Marie Studholme, as seen here. Later, when she embarked on a stage career at the tender age of seventeen, she was singled out for her looks rather than for her acting ability, though she soon undertook training in singing, dancing and movement, which served to broaden her skills.
In 1908, now almost twenty, she eloped with Herbert John Buckmaster (known as “Buck”) much to her parents' displeasure (her father practically shunned her for a year over it.) While still performing in the theatre, she had become a prolific photographer's model and continued to appear on thousands of postcards. The style of the day was not to smile, but to look thoughtful, serene or even mildly forlorn. (This was also due to the need to remain perfectly still for a period while the film was exposed.) Some of Cooper's expressions are positively haunting in their immediacy, such as the one above left with her long hair cascading and her surprisingly tough expression. By July of 1910, she'd given birth to her daughter Joan (who would later marry actor Robert Morley.) The pretty child would become a popular model as well, both with and without her mother.
During WWI, British soldiers received more postcards with her visage on them than any other, making her a sort of “pre-Betty Grable” of The Great War. When her son John came along in 1915, he, too, became a model and his cherubic face and wave of blonde hair graced many a postcard as well. (Sadly, John would experience mental and anger problems as a young adult and would eventually have to be institutionalized.) Cooper entered the British silent film industry, making several appearances in addition to her continued work in the theatre. Her husband unable to fully contend with the fact that his wife was bringing home 9000 pounds per year from her artistic ventures and following their separation for a time due to the war, the couple's marriage faltered and they were divorced in 1920.
Among her stage successes in England were The Misleading Lady, The Naughty Wife, Home and Beauty, The Sign on the Door and even a stint as Peter Pan! When the leader of a playhouse with which she'd become associated fell ill, she began managing the place while simultaneously originating the role of Leslie Crosbie in Somerset Maugham's The Letter. The production cost 4,000 pounds, but ultimately made 40,000!
In 1928, she married Sir Neville Pearson, which lent her the title of Lady Pearson. The couple had a child (her third) named Sally, born in 1930. Cooper was forty-two and had successfully bucked the existent social system by producing her own plays and running a business followed by having another baby while over the age of forty. By 1934, she had come to Canada to work in The Shining Hour with Raymond Massey. The Shining Hour was a Broadway success as well, but it was forced to close due to being promised at a London theatre by a certain date.
Cooper and her husband made several attempts at performing together, including Broadway productions of Othello and Macbeth, but they were unsuccessful and financially devastating. In time, they returned to England to tour in plays. Things finally looked up when Cooper was befriended by the authoress Daphne du Maurier, who alerted her to the filming of her novel, which was going to be made in Hollywood by Alfred Hitchcock, in his American film debut. The movie Rebecca had a small, but appealing, role in it for Cooper and it would introduce her to a whole new level of acting recognition.
Rebecca, in which she played Laurence Olivier's pragmatic but friendly sister, was a major success, winning the 1940 Oscar for Best Picture and winning over legions of fans of the source novel. Cooper found that she utterly adored sunny California, even if she had trouble navigating the streets of Los Angeles and Hollywood. When war broke out in 1939, Cooper was torn between staying in The States or returning home. She decided to stay and explore her newfound success as a cinema character actress while sending food and money back home, which the luxurious salaries she was being paid allowed her to do.
In Kitty Foyle, she played the disapproving mother of the man Ginger Rogers loved and became pregnant by. She then played Laurence Olivier's wife in That Hamilton Woman, a film in which he carried on an affair with (his by then wife in real life) Vivien Leigh. She also wound up in the decidedly lesser-rung films, The Black Cat and The Gay Falcon (one of a series of films starring George Sanders.)
One of her all-time most remembered parts came in 1942, though. In Now, Voyager, she was the acidic, controlling, iron-hearted mother of Bette Davis, a late-in-life child who serves her mother at the expense of her own personality and development. Then when Davis undergoes a stunning makeover, both physically and emotionally, Cooper can scarcely stand it and promptly begins a decline, at least part of which is engineered to further rein in her daughter. This mercilessly intimidating and demanding characterization earned Cooper an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and lives on as one of her best concoctions. The statuette went to Teresa Wright for Mrs. Miniver, however.
Gay men tend to love Now, Voyager in part because Davis' “coming out” as a swan and breaking free from the shackles of an oppressive, disapproving parent often mirrors the type of agonies that can happen when a man realizes he is different and fears that he won't be able to live within the confines his family has, on purpose or not, dictated. Plus, we just love to see a good makeover! Interestingly, Davis had just had a success playing the same role on screen that Cooper had originated in The Letter, but there was no hostility between the actresses. In fact, Davis quite revered Cooper. This triumph was followed up with The Song of Bernadette, which had Jennifer Jones as a young girl who sees visions of The Virgin Mary, but who is not believed by others, especially Sister Therese, a stern, devout and sometimes venomous nun. I don't have to tell you who got that role, but it netted her another Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. This time Katina Paxinou took home the award for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
In 1945, she played Gregory Peck's mother in The Valley of Decision, a film that had Greer Garson as a household servant falling for Peck, who was outside her social class to say the least. This time out, Cooper was kindly and caring, offering sympathy to the troubled young lady whose heart was crumbling. (She had worked with Garson the previous year in Mrs. Parkington as well.) She also played a caring character in The Green Years, a film that detailed the life of a young Scottish orphan who is raised by his elders. Though fifty-seven in real life, she was aged in the film to her late eighties. The young man was played by Tom Drake (of Meet Me in St. Louis fame), but in the earliest scenes, he was portrayed by Dean Stockwell. Based on this photo, Stockwell is probably the only person alive today who can honestly say that he had been to bed with Gladys Cooper! Ha! This is a notable film for fans of married actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, too, because not only was she pregnant during the filming with his child, but she played his daughter in the the movie despite being two years older than him in real life!
She had an unusual role in 1946's Beware of Pity as the blind wife of Cedric Hardwicke. The film's star, Lilli Palmer, played a woman rendered paraplegic after a horseback riding accident. Cooper's scenes chiefly consisted of her trying to convince Palmer's suitor that he can live with her handicap, though it may be too late for them to make it work. It was a solid acting exercise for a woman who was always in danger of being typecast as a meanie.
After her third husband died of heart trouble in 1946, Cooper never remarried again and began working in both England and the U.S. as opportunities dictated. She played the mother of Lana Turner and Donna Reed in the sweeping epic Green Dolphin Street, her character's deathbed scene a highlight, and was an exacting philanthropist with an agenda in The Bishop's Wife, with Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. (At one point, Niven even snarkily implies that she could be the dragon in a proposed stained glass window!) She then appeared in The Pirate with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and in Madame Bovary, again with Jennifer Jones, where she played still another disapproving mother. Then there was the commandeering Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden, in which she terrorized Shirley Temple. In 1952's At Sword's Point, she portrayed an aging Queen Anne, who summons the children of the famous musketeers for help. One of the children was female Maureen O'Hara, who swashbuckled right along with the men! She went to Broadway in 1955 to play in The Chalk Garden and was nominated for a Tony, then she went back to California to work in the film Separate Tables. In Tables, she made life hell for her employee Deborah Kerr. (Ironically, Kerr would later star in the movie of The Chalk Garden, though not in Cooper's role. That went to Edith Evans.)
Cooper returned to Broadway in 1962 when she appeared in A Passage to India, which netted her another Tony nomination. She also worked on television, memorably starring in a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. One of those paired her with an up and coming young actor by the name of Robert Redford! She played a petrified woman afraid to leave her home who takes in a young injured man who may very well be death (just one more tidbit people can use when comparing Brad Pitt and Redford since Pitt later played Death in Meet Joe Black.)One more Oscar nomination was around the corner, this time for her work as Rex Harrison's mother, Mrs. Higgins, in the lavish musical My Fair Lady. No longer a dragon lady, such as in the bulk of the screen roles that made her famous, she was kindly and knowing, rooting for Harrison to take Audrey Hepburn as his bride. She had played the same role in a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production of Pygmalion just the year before. Like others in the cast, she was dressed in Cecil Beaton's carefully conceived costumes. If you look carefully at a portrait over the fireplace in Harrison's character's home, you will see that it is actually a painting of Cooper done in 1922. Ironically, she was pitted against Edith Evans for The Chalk Garden, a role that Cooper had originated, but the Oscar went to Lila Kedrova for Zorba the Greek, in any case. Miss Cooper would never be granted The Academy Award. (Incidentally, Evans once described the young Cooper's beauty as unphotographable, as if a camera couldn't really ever capture it, but added that it was “enough to stop a bus” when witnessed firsthand as she often used to watch Cooper from the wings, transifixed by her face under the stage lights.)
Next, Cooper took part in a television series called The Rogues, which starred David Niven (who, along with fellow Rogues costar Robert Coote, had been on a cricket team that Cooper sponsored during WWII), Gig Young and Charles Boyer. The black and white show focused on these con artists and gave her a chance to play a regular role on a continuing program for once, as part of their schemes. She was nominated for an Emmy award for her solid acting on the show.
Still working rather steadily, 1967 brought The Happiest Millionaire, an overlong, bloated musical by Walt Disney that starred Fred MacMurray, an unbearable Tommy Steele and Cooper's old costar from The Valley of Decision, Greer Garson, in her own last feature film role. Soon after this, Cooper was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her work in contributing to the art of acting. Apart from taking joy in grandmotherhood, she continued to work in the theatre all along, including reviving The Chalk Garden, and made another film (for which she secured third billing) in 1969, A Nice Girl Like Me. Unfortunately, Miss Cooper was stricken with lung cancer and though she continued to work even while battling the disease, it finally (along with a case of pneumonia) claimed her on November 16th, 1971, at the age of eighty-two.
Gladys Cooper was not a tall or large woman, but she was capable of incredible impact as an actress, able to come across as intimidating in the extreme if need be. She felt no need to explore the mechanics or the inner processes of her craft, able to turn on and off at will, and could frequently be found playing poker in between scenes of even the most challenging stage roles. As good as she was, she considered her profession a job that needed to be done in order to survive comfortably. Her own assessment of the first glimpse of herself in Rebecca, which was really the true start of her film career, was this: “a strange hunchbacked creature in an ill-fitting tweed suit out of whose mouth such a frightful grating noise comes that I thought something must have gone wrong with the soundtrack.” We're often our own harshest critic. In The Underworld, we give thanks that she didn't decide to abandon screen acting because, through it, she has given us so many hours of pleasure!