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Johnson, Celia


Nationality: British. Born: Richmond, Surrey, 18 December 1908. Education: St. Paul's Girls' School, London; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married the writer Peter Fleming, 1935 (died 1971), one son and two daughters. Career: 1928—stage debut in Major Barbara, Huddersfield; 1934—film debut in Dirty Work; 1945—role in Brief Encounter gave her an international reputation; 1964–65—played in The Master Builder and Hay Fever in National Theatre season; 1971—played Gertrude in Hamlet, London. Awards: Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Brief Encounter, 1946; Best Supporting Actress, British Academy, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969. Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1958; Dame Commander, 1981. Died: 25 April 1982.

Films as Actress:


Dirty Work (Walls)


We Serve (short); A Letter from Home (short)


In Which We Serve (Coward) (as Alix Kinross)


Dear Octopus (The Randolph Family) (French) (as Cynthia)


This Happy Breed (Lean) (as Ethel Gibbons)


Brief Encounter (Lean) (as Laura Jesson)


The Astonished Heart (Darnborough and Fisher) (as Barbara Faber)


I Believe in You (Dearden) (as Matty); The Holly and the Ivy (O'Ferrall) (as Jenny Gregory)


The Captain's Paradise (Kimmins) (as Maud St. James)


A Kid for Two Farthings (Reed) (as Joanna)


The Good Companions (Lee Thompson) (as Miss Trant)


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Neame) (as Miss Mackay)


Les Misérables (Glenn Jordan—for TV)


The Hostage Tower (Guzman—for TV); Staying On (Narizzano—for TV)


On JOHNSON: book—

Fleming, Kate, Celia Johnson: A Biography, London, 1991.

On JOHNSON: articles—

Obituary, in Films and Filming (London), June 1982.

Annual Obituary 1982, New York, 1983.

Wilson, Elizabeth, "Home Front Hero," in Sight & Sound (London), January 1992.

* * *

Night. A suburban English railway station. As a train approaches at speed, a neatly dressed woman, bleak despair in her eyes, steps to the edge of the platform—and, at the last second, hesitates. Rachmaninov thunders on the soundtrack; the lights of the rushing train slap across the woman's face as she stands horrified by the nearness of death.

The dramatic climax of Brief Encounter also proved to be the climax of Celia Johnson's screen career. No matter what other roles she played, the near-adulterous, near-suicidal, suburban wife of David Lean's film was the part she was remembered for. Not without reason: the film's classic status rests on the intelligence, subtlety, and emotional honesty of her performance.

Not that Johnson made many films—less than a dozen features in all, and few of them particularly distinguished. The best were probably the three she made for Lean, all scripted by Noël Coward. In Which We Serve offered her little more than a cameo role, though beautifully executed; and she was clearly less than comfortable with a working-class part in This Happy Breed. Her range was a narrow one; within it she could be superb, but outside it her subtlety looked merely overcautious.

She also possessed a notable talent for sophisticated comedy, often displayed on stage but all too rarely on screen. As one of Alec Guinness's bigamous wives in The Captain's Paradise, she made the material seem better than it deserved; but her finest comic performance on film was in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where her delicately acidulous Scots headmistress nearly stole the picture from Maggie Smith—no small achievement.

That was her last film, though Staying On, made for TV, reunited her with her co-star of Brief Encounter, Trevor Howard, and demonstrated that in the intervening years her playing had lost nothing of its warmth and quiet skill.

—Philip Kemp

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