Collier, Constance (1878–1955)

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Collier, Constance (1878–1955)

British actress. Born Laura Constance Hardie in Windsor, England, on January 22, 1878; died in Hollywood, California, on April 25, 1955; daughter of C.A. Hardie (an actor) and Lizzie (Collier) Hardie (an actor); granddaughter of Leopoldina Collier , who brought one of the first ballet companies to England; married actor Julian L'Estrange, c. 1905 (died 1918).

Selected films:

Intolerance (1916); Tongues of Men (1916); The Code of Marcia Gray (1916); Macbeth (1916); Bleak House (UK, 1920); The Bohemian Girl (UK, 1922); Shadow of Doubt (1935); Professional Soldier (1936); Girls' Dormitory (1936); Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936); Wee Willie Winkie (1937); Stage Door (1937); A Damsel in Distress (1937); Zaza (1939); Susan and God (1940); Kitty (1946); The Dark Corner (1946); Monsieur Beaucaire (1946); The Perils of Pauline (1947); Rope (1948); An Ideal Husband (UK, 1948); Whirlpool (1950).

The daughter of actors, Constance Collier was named after a character in Shakespeare's King John, the play in which her parents were touring at the time of her birth. Her mother Lizzie Hardie rejoined the company when Constance was only three weeks old, supposedly leaving the infant wrapped up in a blanket on her dressing table while she performed. As a youngster, when Collier was not appearing with her parents on stage (at three, as a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream; at six, as one of the children in The Silver King), she was often left in the care of the land-lady of whichever theatrical boarding house they were able to find. Her father C.A. Hardie was an alcoholic who was often ill, and her mother was never steadily employed, so Constance's young life was a constant round of agents' offices, tours, and education on the move. She attended a single term in boarding school (described as the most horrible experience of her life), after which her formal education ended.

Collier's theatrical career got under way when, after lying about her age, she was employed by George Edwardes, who trained her as one of his famous Gaiety Girls (a chorus of beautiful young women named for the Gaiety Theatre). After singing and dancing lessons, she made her first appearance in A Gaiety Girl (1894), which was followed by The Shop Girl (1895). Life began to change for the young teenager when, like all the Gaiety girls, she was showered with public adoration, attended the best parties, and won the attention of a number of men. During those heady years, she was engaged twice: once to a millionaire 35 years her senior and once to a married man. Finally deciding that she wanted to become a serious actress, she signed on for a provincial tour in the second company of An Ideal Husband, an experience she hated. After roles in two flops, she became an artist's model to support herself between short-lived stage engagements. In 1898, after a chance meeting with playwright H.V. Esmond, she was offered the part of Chiara the Gypsy in One Summer's Day, her breakthrough role.

In 1901, Collier was engaged by actor-manager Beerbohm Tree to play at His Majesty's Theatre, where, after a resounding success as Pallas Athene in Ulysses, she was rewarded with a long-term contract. (During the run of Ulysses, she was still under contract at the Drury Lane Theatre to play in Ben Hur and for a time managed to perform in both plays each night.) Her success in Ulysses was followed by the role of Roma in The Eternal City, a performance that the actress found beyond her experience. Although the public appreciated her efforts, the critics were less impressed. J.T. Grien found her talent limited: "She may disturb but she does not move us. She imposes but she rarely impresses." Adding to Collier's woes was a lunatic extra who, during the run of the show, threatened and nearly killed her.

While with Tree, Collier played numerous roles, including Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Viola in Twelfth Night, Julie de Noirville in A Man's Shadow, and Portia inJulius Caesar. Around 1905, while on tour with the company as Nancy in Comyns Carr's version of Dickens' Oliver Twist, she married Julian L'Estrange, an irresistible—and irresponsible—young actor. Collier claimed that their careers kept them apart so much that the marriage seemed more like "an intermittent love affair." The arrangement may have been for the best, given L'Estrange's reputation. (He died in 1918, during an influenza epidemic.)

In 1908, Collier made her first appearance in New York, as Ann Marie in Samson. From then until 1914, she divided her time between London and New York. Throughout the years of the First World War, she played in a number of all-star revivals to raise money for charities. She produced Peter Ibbetson and also played Mary, Duchess of Towers, which remained her favorite role of her career. In 1916, she made her Hollywood film debut in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance and would continue to make infrequent appearances in films through the 1940s. In 1918, she again toured the United States and appeared with her husband in An Ideal Husband.

In the early 1920s, Collier became seriously ill, possibly because of diabetes. Partially blind and barely able to stand unassisted, she was sent to Switzerland for treatment, the first patient in Europe ever to be treated with the drug insulin. By September 1923, after a full recovery, she was playing the Duchesse de Surennes in Somerset Maugham's comedy Our Betters. During the run, she collaborated with Ivor Novello on a play called The Rat, which they then produced. She joined forces with Novello again for Downhill, which drama critic James Agate attacked harshly as "the purest trash put together for the purpose of exploiting Mr. Novello's personal attractions." Criticism aside, the play made them both a lot of money.

In 1928, Collier returned to New York for a revival of Our Betters, her first comedy role in the States. For the next ten years, she traveled back and forth between England and America, enchanting audiences in hits like Hay Fever, Dinner at Eight, The Torch Bearers, Aries is Rising, and Curtain Going Up. Noel Coward, visiting the actress at her New York hotel during this time, described her as "presiding from her bed, attired in a pink dressing gown, with a Pekinese in one hand and a cigarette in the other." Collier spent her later years in Hollywood, where she continued to make movies, mostly playing irascible eccentrics.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Collier, Constance (1878–1955)

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