(b. 10 February 1898 in Adelaide, Australia; d. 3 January 1992 in Montecito, California), actress known for outstanding stage interpretations of Medea and Lady Macbeth and Academy Award nominee for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rebecca (1940).
Anderson was born Frances Margaret Anderson-Anderson, the youngest of four children of James Anderson-Anderson and Jessie Margaret Saltmarsh Anderson-Anderson. Anderson attended Rose Park (1908–1912) and Norwood (1913–1915) private schools in Adelaide. Her father, a silver mine owner, gambled away much of his wealth; after he deserted his family in 1903, Anderson’s mother supported her children by operating a grocery store. At age seven, Anderson saw the great opera singer Dame Nellie Melba perform and resolved to move audiences as she did. Taking voice and piano lessons, Anderson at first aspired to an operatic career as a contralto but soon decided to become an actress. Elocution lessons helped her win national recitation awards.
After her family relocated to Sydney, Australia, in 1915, “Francee Anderson” made her professional stage debut there later that year at the Theatre Royal with the Julius Knight Company as Stephanie in A Royal Divorce. She worked with this company through 1916. She also toured New Zealand in Turn to the Right, performed by a predominantly American cast, who urged her to act in the United States. In January 1918, accompanied by her mother (her strongest moral support until her death in 1950), Anderson left for Hollywood. She failed to impress the film producer Cecil B. DeMille and, after four months, moved to New York City. Anderson worked for $40 a week with the Emma’s Bunting Stock Company at the Fourteenth Street Theatre, where she progressed through the ranks (1918–1919). She toured with William Gillette in Dear Brutus (1920) and played with stock companies in Albany, New York, and Boston (1921).
Under the stage name “Frances Anderson,” she made her Broadway debut as Mrs. Bellmore in On the Stairs on 25 September 1922. In 1923 she adopted the stage name “Judith Anderson.” When she opened as Elise Van Zile in Cobra (1924), she propelled herself into higher spheres of professional acting and won sensational praise from critics and theatergoers alike. The playwright and producer David Belasco cast her in The Dove (1925). She even opened in vaudeville at the Palace in a “playlet” entitled Thieves (1926). In January 1927 she returned to Australia in Cobra and other plays until stricken with pneumonia. She returned to the United States, and by the end of the year, she had opened in New York as Antoinette Lyle in Behold the Bridegroom. She played the lead in Anna (1928) and, in the summer of 1928, replaced the vacationing Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize—winning nine-hour play, Strange Interlude. In 1930 she made her film debut in a small role in a short, Madame of the Jury.
On tour, Anderson appeared in Luigi Pirandello’s As You Desire Me (1930–1931). For the Theatre Guild, she appeared as Lavinia in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1932), which subsequently went on tour. From 1934 to 1936 she was busy with other plays, including her favorite role, the Woman, in the not-too-successful play Come of Age (1934). She starred as Delia Lovell in another Pulitzer Prize—winning play, Zoé Akins’s The Old Maid (1935).
In 1936 Anderson took on her first Shakespeare role when she played Queen Gertrude in the Guthrie McClintic production of Hamlet, with the famed Shakespearean actor John Gielgud in the title role and Lillian Gish as Ophelia. Anderson gave her first performance as Lady Macbeth in an Old Vic production in London opposite Laurence Olivier in 1937. Her first American Lady Macbeth opened in New York in 1941, opposite Maurice Evans. Anderson married Benjamin Harrison Lehman, a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1937; they divorced two years later.
Anderson made her film debut in Twentieth Century-Fox’s Blood Money (1933). She appeared in fifteen films released during the 1940s alone, followed by ten more over the decades through 1985. The only role for which Anderson was nominated for an Academy Award (as best supporting actress) was as the sinister Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), costarring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
During World War II, Anderson entertained Allied troops in live theatrical presentations on the home front and on bases close to the battle lines, especially in the South Pacific. Anderson said that the troops craved serious presentations just as much as the more popular musical and comedy routines. Her group of entertainers included a few instrumentalists, a singer, and a pianist. On film, Anderson was one of the many stars in Stage Door Canteen (1943) and acted in two wartime stories for Warner Brothers: All Through the Night (1942) and Edge of Darkness (1943). After the war, in 1946, she married Luther Greene, a theatrical producer; they divorced in 1951. Anderson never had children.
During the postwar period, Anderson erupted into the pages of theatrical history with her monumental interpretation of Euripides’ Medea (1947) a “free adaptation” written by the poet Robinson Jeffers. In 1948 Anderson was given a Tony Award and a Donaldson Award for her interpretation of Medea, was designated “first lady of the theatre” by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and was recognized with the award for diction by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
From 1950 to 1953 she was busy on Broadway, including a role in The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1950) and a dramatic reading of John Brown’s Body (1953). The 1950s also included tours of Medea to theaters in Berlin, Paris, and throughout Australia. Her varied film activities of the late 1940s and 1950s included the roles of Herodias in Salome (1953), the nurse in service to Pharaoh’s daughter in DeMille’s memorable remake of The Ten Commandments (1956); and Big Mama in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958).
In the 1950s Anderson ventured into television, when she starred in “The Silver Cord” (Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, 1951) and other dramatic works, including Macbeth (Hall-mar Hall of Fame, 1954), for which she received an Emmy for best actress. She received a second Emmy when Macbeth was reproduced in 1960. The American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy, in its opening season at Stratford, Connecticut, cited her Lady Macbeth for one of seven awards presented at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria (1955). Other honors throughout her career included an honorary degree from Northwestern University (1953), investiture at Buckingham Palace (12 July 1960) by Queen Elizabeth II with the insignia of a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and an honorary degree from Fairfield University (1964) upon the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
Anderson’s live performance scheduling did not slacken in the later decades of her life. In the 1960s there were tours in the United States and Canada as well as new productions, including Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960 and at the Old Vic. She followed in the tradition of Sarah Bernhardt and other tragediennes by playing the lead in a condensed version of Hamlet (1970–1971) and then performed again in Medea, this time as the Nurse.
Anderson’s television ventures during her final decades included a new production of Elizabeth the Queen with Charlton Heston (Showcase Theatre, 1968). As an octogenarian she played the role of the wealthy matriarch Minx Lockridge for Santa Barbara, a television soap opera; she appeared regularly on the show from 1984 through 1987. On 11 June 1984, New York’s Lion Theater was renamed the Judith Anderson Theater; the honored actress presented Lady Macbeth’s letter scene and expressed grateful words of tribute to her audiences, who had so motivated her throughout the decades. Suffering from cancer, she died of pneumonia at her home in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, California.
Though she was famed in the world of screen and television for her award-winning performances in Rebecca and Macbeth, Dame Judith Anderson shines forth most brilliantly on the pages of theatrical history for her classical style of acting in an almost eight-decade stage career. Her acting life offered a wide variety of stage roles not only in the development of female leads but also in an expansive range of theatrical genres, from plays of antiquity to contemporary works—in sharp contrast to Hollywood’s more restricted typecasting of her as suspicious or sinister characters, usually in secondary or supporting roles. She favored roles that allowed her to achieve the most “musical” interpretation of the language as she developed her characterizations, and she preferred works that engaged audiences in elevated contemplation or joyful appreciation of life. During the final decades of her life, she regretted the “ugliness and tawdriness” on stage and screen that deprived audiences of a meaningful theatrical or film experience.
The Dame Judith Anderson Collection, from 1915 through the 1980s, is held at the Department of Special Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the performing Arts at Lincoln Center has clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, and programs. For biographical information see Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger, eds., Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary (1989), which includes a bibliography, and William C. Young, Famous Actors and Actresses on the American Stage vol. 1 of Documents of American Theater History (1975). There is a short filmography in Christopher Young, “Judith Anderson: Her Grade-A Acting Ability Wasn’t Enough for Success on the Screen,” in Films in Review 21 (Apr. 1970): 193–196. Current Biography has entries in 1941 and 1961 as well as an obituary in the 1992 yearbook. See references to Anderson in Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre 1860–1985 (6th ed., 1986); Brooks Atkinson, Broadway (1970); and Ronald Hayman, John Gielgud (1971). For extensive bibliographies, primarily citing Hollywood journals, see Mel Schuster, Motion Picture Performers: A Bibliography of Magazine and Periodical Articles, 1900–1969 (1971), and Supplement No. 1, 1970–1974 (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times (4 Jan. 1992), Los Angeles Times (4 Jan. 1992), London Times (6 Dec. 1992), and Variety (13 Jan. 1992). Some of Anderson’s films are available on commercial videocassettes, and there are numerous recordings of her dramatic readings. For example, there are tapes of Medea at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a conversation (taped in 1976), including a monologue from Hamlet, with Clifton Fadiman for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara, California, available at the Library of Congress and elsewhere.