Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Oh, What a Character! Part Eight: Diving for Some Coral

The name Coral Browne is not one that you hear bandied about much these days outside of certain circles, but the world might be more fun if it were. Part of this could be due to the fact that Ms. Browne passed away in 1991, but if you frequent this site then you know that we would never let such a pesky detail stand in the way of our celebration of someone's life and career.

Coral Edith Brown was born in Melbourne, Australia on July 23rd, 1913, to a restaurant owner. She and her two brothers were raised in a suburb of the city and she studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. An early success at stage acting, she was already working professionally at age seventeen. Her debut as a pro was at the then still-new Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. I can't deny that she's showing off a rather sizeable lower arm in this early glamor shot to the right!

A few years later, at the age of twenty-one, based primarily on the strength of her still-burgeoning talent and the contact made with British acting legend Marie Tempest though Brown's current theatre director, she moved to England to attempt work there. With only 50 pounds in her pocket (a gift from her father – she was supposed to come home when it ran out!), she managed to establish herself and eventually became a frequent performer at The Savoy Theatre. In an odd twist of fate, the British touring company of The Man Who Came to Dinner ran into financial difficulty and Brown (slated to star in it opposite the amusingly plump Robert Morley) borrowed money from her dentist to secure the rights to the play. For the rest of her life, she received royalties from the various stagings of the famed Kaufman-Hart work.

Brown started working in British films in 1935 (having made on Australian movie, Waltzing Matilda, in 1933.) Her first one was Charing Cross Road, playing a supporting role to the film's star John Mills. Similar small roles followed as she lent support to Douglas Fairbanks Jr in 1936's The Amateur Gentleman, Gracie Fields and Victor McLaglen in 1938's We're Going to Be Rich and her initial contact Marie Tempest in Yellow Sands (also 1938.) It was 1936 when she added the “e” to her last name in order to lend it distinction. She had another small part in Raymond Massey's 1939 murder mystery Footsteps in the Sand.

Browne as shown above, had a less than perfect nose in profile. She would eventually have that streamlined out (See pic at right) and, in time, develop a fondness for cosmetic surgery. Stage continued to be her chief milieu, where all the better parts were, even though she still made movies. 1940's Let George Do It! (later retitled To Hell With Hitler) marked the last one for a while until she returned to the screen in 1946's Piccadilly Incident, this time in support of Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding. She worked with this same duo the following year in Kathy's Love Affair (none of these movies ever approaching classic status.)

In 1950, she married actor (later turned talent agent) Philip Pearman, a man she knew was homosexual. Letters discovered years later revealed plenty of humor, passion and sexual playfulness between them. Whatever the story, they had a divine time togethe and he was occasionally the willing target of her razor sharp wit. Once, when he was having difficulty finding the right role in which to act, she cattily remarked to him, while thumbing through her script for King Lear, that she'd found the perfect one, “a camp near Dover!”

There was another break before she made her next film. It was one scene in 1954's Twist of Fate. It's probably more notable as the screen debut of the star Ginger Rogers' then-husband Jacques Bergerac in a key role and as the chance to see them acting together. That marriage would be all washed up in just a couple of years afterward, though. All during this cinematic downtime, Browne was working onstage, be it in The Last of Mrs. Cheney or W. Somerset Maugham's Lady Frederick or Affairs of State.

She also had done Shakespearean work from The Taming of the Shrew to Othello to the aforementioned King Lear. In 1956, she was brought to New York' Winter Garden Theatre to play the role of Zabina in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, starring Anthony Quayle. Amazingly, the sprawling cast of this short-lived production also included Colleen Dewhurst, Lloyd Bochner and William Shatner! Sir Alec Guinness, who was in attendance at the first dress rehearsal, witnessed a resplendently savage-looking Miss Browne coming onto the set prior to curtain regarding some detail, whereupon the director asked her if she was pleased with her (voluminous) wig. Her (hilarious) alleged response was, “If you really fucking want to know, I feel as if I'm looking out of a yak's asshole.”

Later that year, she returned to The Winter Garden to alternately perform Macbeth (as Lady Macbeth) and Troilus and Cressida (as Helen) in repertory until early 1957. What followed was one of her most notable (and enduring) performances on film. She was selected to play Vera Charles in the film Auntie Mame, a piece that had been a terrific hit on Broadway for its star Rosalind Russell. Actress Polly Rowles had originated the role of Vera, but was not included in the movie version.

Vera Charles was a sharply-dressed, haughty, tippling actress who is the title character's best friend, but with a bit of an edge (what might today be called a “frenemy.”) Sporting platinum hair (a drastic change from her typical dark locks, which prompts Russell to exclaim, “If I kept my hair natural like yours, I'd be bald”), she is given several amusingly cutting lines (though nothing any playwright came up with could ever match the real verbal devastation of Browne's own knife-like tongue.)

Reportedly, Browne's hair started falling out due to the studio hairdressers' over-bleaching and Miss Russell came to the rescue by sending her a variety of snazzy hats to wear in the meantime until her locks grew back in correctly.

Perhaps Browne's most memorable sequence is when she arranges for the financially-strapped Russell to be given a small part in her most recent play and is rewarded for her efforts by having Russell blunder through it, wearing exceedingly loud jingle bell charms on her wrists that make a clatter before she has even entered. Browne finally can't take the sound any more and hollers backstage, “What the hell have you got back there, reindeer?!” Later, this show would be musicalized as Mame and Bea Arthur would make the part her own in both the Broadway version with Angela Lansbury and the execrable film opposite Lucille Ball.
In 1961, she joined Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, playing a concerned, vaguely lesbian, friend of Leigh's. No one involved in the production had a chance of outshining the delectably slimy presence of Lotte Lenya as a crafty procurer of hot, young Italian men, who she then farms out to lonely people like Leigh. At least Browne got to look nice and wear some stylish clothes, something that always meant quite a lot to her.
The following year, she reteamed with Robert Morley for the zany comedy Go to Blazes, about three crooks who use a fire engine as their getaway vehicle. Also in the cast were Daniel Massey (son of her previous costar Raymond) and a young Maggie Smith. 1963 had her playing a wealthy matron/mentor in the now-forgotten comedy film Tamahine. (I no sooner wrote that this film was forgotten than TCM put it on their schedule today for a Nancy Kwan tribute! God love them.) The title role referred to a Polynesian girl played by Nancy Kwan who is brought to England to live with her uncle and must adjust to big city life (with all its complications and misunderstandings.) Disappointingly, fourth-billed Browne's screen time was under two minutes!
1963 also marked a return to Broadway in The Rehearsal, with Keith Michell, Alan Badel and Adrienne Corri, who would remain a lifelong friend. Here, the two resplendently dressed ladies (with Coral looking for all the world like the test tube love child of Judy Garland and Joan Crawford!) greet astronaut Scott Carpenter after a performance. The man seems in danger of being swallowed up by their heaving breasts.

In 1964, Browne played the wife of Dr. Crippen, a real-life physician believed to have killed his spouse, dismembered her, buried her under their house and then fled America with his younger lover (disguised as a boy!) to London. The role called for a brow-beating, sexually promiscuous quality which Browne delivered. Donald Pleasance played the title role while Samantha Eggar was his new love. This same year, Browne's husband of fourteen years, stricken with cancer, reportedly killed himself as some other folks have when confronted with debilitating terminal illness (though not all sources note his death as suicide.)
She went back to Broadway in '65, appearing in The Right Honourable Gentleman with Alan Badel and Charles Gray, then filmed a supporting role in The Night of the Generals, which came out in 1967. Here, she was one of the few captivating presences in what should have been an engrossing murder mystery, but instead turned out to be a fairly static and numbing viewing experience. A solid cast included Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif (reunited after their Laurence of Arabia triumph), Donald Pleasance (her Dr. Crippen costar), Tom Courtenay, Christopher Plummer and Joanna Pettet.

She played the mother of Pettet and the wife of Charles Gray, who she'd just appeared on stage with, and perhaps it was he who suggested her for the part. By now, elegantly snobby characters were easy for her, but she was nevertheless interesting. It was mostly O'Toole's waxen, bizarre characterization (which manages the impossible in that he overacts tremendously while barely moving his face!) that sank the film and robbed it of any potential mystery. (Some reports say this was intentional due to his dislike of the director Anatole Litvak.) This film ran into a tad of difficulty with the soon-to-be-extinct Motion Picture Code over implied cunnilingus performed on Pettet by Courtenay, but one would need opera glasses and a good imagination to make out anything much from the finished product.

Browne would really delve into the salacious with her next film, The Killing of Sister George. What sounds like a murder mystery is, in fact, a searing drama (adapted from the stage play) about a trio of lesbians. Beryl Reid starred as a beloved soap opera star (her character is Sister George, a nun and nurse) who is loud and brash in real life and has a live-in, childlike lover played by Susannah York. York tends to get the brunt of Reid's career frustrations as she fears her character may be getting killed off, hence the title. Browne plays a refined television producer who is not only an adversary of Reid, due to her destructive behavior, but who also sets her sites on York since she is a lesbian herself.

Browne was purportedly bisexual in real life, so the idea of an all-female love scene should not have, perhaps, been the most challenging thing in the world to take on, but her costar York's discomfort with it made for much on-set tension. York reportedly fled the set in tears at times. (Somehow, she eventually got over this apprehension and did another lesbian scene with Elizabeth Taylor a few years later in X, Y & Zee...) At any rate, naysayers made fun of Browne's seductive approach. One British critic wrote that “she twiddled with Susannah York's nipple as if trying to find Radio Three.” The controversial scene got the movie slapped with an X rating (this was at the onset of the ratings system when X was similar to the current NC-17, though whatever its called, that rating tends to crush most films' chances at the box office.) Ironically, Polly Bowles, who Browne replaced for the film version of Auntie Mame, had worked in the stage version of Sister George, albeit in a role that doesn't appear in the movie.

Her own stage career continued all along, with a production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan another highlight. Her costumes (which she didn't care for) were by Cecil Beaton. Wilfred Hyde White was her costar in this rendition of the famous, four-act, Oscar Wilde play. They would later provide heavenly voices together in Xanadu and die in the same month as one another.

George's director, Robert Aldrich (whose success with The Dirty Dozen the year before made it possible for him to do this picture with less broad appeal) counted it as his favorite work. He liked Browne, too, and used her in his next movie (which happened to be released first as it turned out!) The movie was The Legend of Lylah Clare, a hooty, campy, gothic mystery drama about a film director turning an unknown actress into a recreation of a previous, wildly famous, earlier one who had died. Kim Novak, who knew a thing or two about playing this sort of dual role from Vertigo, was cast as Lylah Clare and her mousy imitator. Peter Finch played the director. Browne was cast as a brittle gossip columnist, a skeptical, imposing monster with a cane and metal braces on her legs!

Another round of stage work at this time included the Joe Orton play What the Butler Saw, which was considered very provocative at the time. Ralph Richardson costarred with her in this production, which was not successful and was, in fact, attacked by critics and audiences, though the script was better appreciated with the passage of some time.

Browne found herself working with Peter O'Toole once more in the outrageous 1972 comedy The Ruling Class. The plot concerned the death of a member of the House of Lords and his estate being left to his son, O'Toole, who is insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ. Browne plays one of several people attempting to manipulate him into handling things her way and eventually tries to seduce the younger man, with dangerous results.

She began to take on interesting roles in the British series BBC Play of the Month. She'd appeared on the program once in 1969 for Charley's Aunt (as Donna Lucia), but in 1972 recreated her role of Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windemere's Fan and was the title character in Mrs. Warren's Profession (as shown here.) A fourth appearance later had her playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.

In 1973, Browne took a role rather outside her comfort zone. Vincent Price was making another in a long string of horror films, this one called Theatre of Blood, and the script called for a gallery of theatre critics who are paid back in spades for denying Price their approval and an important acting award. Price sets out to kill each one of them in ways that mirror his beloved Shakespearean characters. Her pals Charles Gray, Robert Morley and Michael Hordern were signed on to play a few of the critics/victims and Diana Rigg (cast as Price's daughter) was keen to introduce Browne to Price. Browne played the sole female critic, shown here getting more than she bargained for in the beauty chair (with Price in gay hairdresser drag and a cohort whose identity I won't give away!), but, more importantly, she found herself completely enamored of Price.

Trouble is (and Rigg apparently didn't know this), Price already had a wife! He'd been married to his second wife Mary Grant, a stage and film costumer designer, since 1949. The mutual admiration between Price and Browne was not to be denied and before long, he was getting a divorce in order to be free to marry Browne. Both actors were over sixty, but presumably were averse to simply living as a couple out of wedlock in 1973. When they went to buy a bed that was backordered three months, Browne reportedly looked at the salesman and exclaimed, "Look at us! Do you think we have that long?" Price, an avid collector of many priceless paintings, was forced to part with quite a few of his treasures during the dissolving of his marriage.

Browne and Price emerged, nonetheless, as a devoted and complimentary couple, even though she was once quoted as having said, “I married Vincent Price very late in both our lives. It was chiefly because, even if Vincent can be a bit moody and frightening at times, loneliness is even more frightful. Without a husband, even an actress doesn't get invited out much.” In truth, she became rather territorial about him, causing some distance between him and his children (particularly his son.) They had many common interests and enjoyed their home life together. They even took to filming Nestle instant soup commercials, amusingly depicting their personal life puttering around in the kitchen. (The “soup” they peddled, however, looked more like something out of one of Vincent's gory movies!)

She had a small (too small!) part in Paul Newman's 1975 film The Drowning Pool as the infirm, but commandeering, mother-in-law of Joanne Woodward. Her precocious granddaughter in the film was played by teenaged Melanie Griffith. Over the course of the following year, she toured in a production of Charley's Aunt. Browne had a cancerous tumor removed from her calf around this time and began to wear slacks (or long gowns) for virtually every occasion rather than allow her legs to be seen as less attractive than they had previously been.

The opportunity to act regularly with husband Price came in 1979 when the pair were asked to star in a TV series called Time Express. This was a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Fantasy Island in that Price and Browne ran a train service that allowed chosen customers to step back in time in order to either discover facts they cannot otherwise obtain or to right a wrong that they have done. Most stories included some sort of twist. The program was yanked after only four episodes, a disappointment for the couple.

Browne was approached to play Gertrude in a prestigious televised rendition of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, opposite Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart, but opted instead to do voice-over work on the kitschy musical Xanadu! Claire Bloom took the role in the well-received teleplay instead. Browne had not, however, given up on acting. She drew upon her own experience in order to come up with another interesting part for herself, this time as herself!

In 1958, she had been part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. She traveled to Moscow to perform Hamlet and during one intermission was startled by a disheveled, vomiting man in her dressing room. He turned out to be a notorious English traitor, Guy Burgess, who had given classified info to the USSR and had then fled there to live. The two struck up a tenuous acquaintance with her acknowledging his charm despite the deeds he'd done and eventually arranging for him to receive a new, tailored suit. Now twenty-five years later, the story was turned into a one-hour TV special called An Englishman Abroad with Alan Bates as Burgess and Browne portraying herself! Longtime pal Charles Gray costarred. As it was set in Russia, the actress was decked out in fur coat and hat and took pains to try to turn back the hands of time in her appearance. Both actors were given British Academy of Film and Television Awards for their work. During this project, she discovered a cancerous lump in her breast.

In 1984, she worked with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti in the whimsical comedy American Dreamer, all about Williams, ghost writer for a series of spy novels, who is injured in an accident while visiting Paris and wakes up believing she is the female character she's been writing of, an international spy. Browne plays the somewhat eccentric author whose name typically appears on the novels that Williams writes.
What would turn out to be her final feature film, Dreamchild, was released in 1985. She played the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves, a woman who, as a child, served as the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Her memories of the man (played by Ian Holm in the movie) are bittersweet to say the least and she struggles with the idea of honoring him. Through recollections on her way to the tribute (and representations of the Wonderland characters supplied by Jim Henson), she begins to shift her point of view towards the man who found her to be his literary inspiration. Peter Gallagher, shown here, also starred as a reporter who is covering her arrival to the event. The work she did in this film garnered her some of the best notices of her film career, with even Pauline Kael expressing admiration for her acting.

Sadly, Miss Browne was about to enter the final stages of a battle with breast cancer. She and Price continued to enjoy themselves at home and socially, shown here at an Oscar ceremony, but her acting days were over. She died on May 29th, 1991 at the age of seventy-seven, after a period of being bedridden.. Revered as much for her acid wit as for her formidable acting talents, there are many examples of her hilarious sarcasm. During a mid-'60s presentation of Oedipus, the set included an enormous golden phallus, prompting her to remark, not softly, to her male companion, “Well, it's no one we know, darling.”

Once, she described a disappointing leading man as being “ten stone of condemned veal.” On the subject of Godfrey Tearle, an actor who spent his last years in the company of Jill Bennett who was nearly fifty years his junior, she said she never understood what he saw in her until she saw Bennett eating an ear of corn on the cob once! After Betsy Bloomingdale had been the indirect subject of a scandal involving her husband's lenghty, S&M-tinged affair with a younger woman, she spotted her and said, “There goes Betsy, thin as a whip!” Her salty language meant that many of her zestiest quotes couldn't be printed in the mainstream media.

A fiercely loyal friend, she was of particular comfort to Joan Rivers in 1987 when her husband Edgar killed himself. The always impeccably-dressed Browne flew to Rivers' side in only a bathrobe and slippers. (My God, someone should have had a tape recorder on when those two were together!) When one Hollywood writer sniffed that the screenplay for her beloved An Englishman Abroad wasn't particularly great, she spat back, “Listen, dear, you couldn't write fuck on a dusty venetian blind.”

Some of her sexual conquests are startling, from black singer-actor Paul Robeson to primarily-gay designer Cecil Beaton. She pragmatically described her intimate times with Beaton as akin to being taken for a sailor! Her life and career have been covered in two books, published within a year of one another, The Coral Browne Story by Barbara Angell and Coral Browne: This Effing Lady by Rose Collis. She is also prominently covered in Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, written by her step-daughter Victoria who felt resentment towards her while having no choice but to admit to Browne's talent, wit and charisma. As a sophisticated, elegant persona who could also deal out delicious barbs, Coral Browne was a type that is in short supply nowadays. Like most captivating people, she left us wanting more. We think The Underworld is a perfect place to display a little “Coral!”


normadesmond said...

i've told this story on the interwebs before:

1980s. back bay, boston.
the corner grocery/bakery i visit
every day before i get to work.

i'm standing there, kibbitzing with my emmettl the baker when i woman interrupts us asking, "excuse me, do you know where the bah-nah-nahs are?" i choke. it's coral. i behave as one would expect, tongue tied, unable to really articulate a coherent sentence.

i think she really loved that i knew who she was and how i gushed over her. i'd asked her why she was there. vincent was in town filming spots for "mystery." she said vincent needed a banana for his cereal. i'm not sure, but i think she told me they were at the copley plaza. why the plaza didn't have a banana, i couldn't say. maybe because it was PBS, the prices' were in town on their own nickel?

i had my peewee herman t-shirt
on and she affirmatively
commented on it.
i never took the shirt off.

Poseidon3 said...

I love that story, Norma, and have never seen/heard it, so it's most welcome here! It's always wonderful meeting someone so special in person. (PS - I had a Pee Wee Herman t-shirt, too! Mine was about nine photos of him with various colored backgrounds - kinda Warhol-ish.) Thanks!

normadesmond said...


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Lovely stuff again. I wish I had seen Coral on the stage. I was hoping I could tell you that delicious bon mot of hers at the Oedipus play! The book by Rose Collis is a great read about the kind of theatre people we just don't have any more.
I understand her role in Lylah Clare with the leg clamp was meant to be showbusiness columnist Radie Harris - whatever, the film just isn't quite good or camp enough.
Her Vera Charles certainly steals the show from Roz, no mean feat!

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Dear TCM - if only we had the US version here in the UK! A Nancy Kwan day ! I would love that ...
Perfect description of Lotte in Mrs Stone, no one does decadence like Lenya - Anne Bacroft just did not compare in the Helen Mirren later version [2002?], there may have been more nudity but less corruption, the height of Anne's decadence seemed to be stealing the chocolate biscuits!

Poseidon3 said...

I DVR-ed Tamahine. Probably will watch it tomorrow. Last night, I saw Nancy Kwan and Pat Boone in The Main Attraction, a bizarre circus movie with Keiron Moore and Mai Zetterling, too. Boone was trying (and not really succeeding) in playing a drifter/rebel character.

Scooter said...

Love Coral Browne, love the post!

HarpoSnarx said...

I always loved Coral Browne. I read somewhere Barry "Edna Everage" Humphries said of her at a memorial service,

"She left behind an emptiness/A gap, a void, a trough/The world is quite a good deal less/Since Coral Browne fucked off."

I can just hear that delighted, salty Vera Charles-like cackle from that great stage above. As always I'm late but no less appreciative of your tributes!

Poseidon3 said...

Never too late, Harpo! I am always alerted to comments left here no matter how old the post is. Thank you for sharing that hilarious bit of poetry. I once got to see Dame Edna live and it was a hooty experience! Thanks also for your kind remarks,