Leighton, Margaret (1922–1976)

views updated

Leighton, Margaret (1922–1976)

British actress who won two Tony awards. Born on February 26, 1922, near Birmingham, England; died on January 13, 1976; eldest daughter and one of threechildren (two girls and a boy) of Augustus George Leighton (a businessman) and Doris Isobel (Evans) Leighton; attended the Church of England College, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England; married Max Reinhardt (a publisher), in 1947 (divorced 1955); married Laurence Harvey (an actor), in 1957 (divorced 1961); married Michael Wilding (an actor), in 1964.

Selected theater:

made acting debut as Dorothy in Laugh With Me (Birmingham Repertory Theater, September 4, 1938); joined the Old Vic Company, 1944; made London debut as the Troll King's Daughter in Peer Gynt (New Theater, August 1944); appeared as Raina in Arms and the Man (September 1944), Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (September 1944), Elena in Uncle Vanya (January 1945); made New York debut with the Old Vic Company as Lady Percy in Henry IV (May 6, 1946); appeared as Harriet Marshall, Wilhelmina Cameron, and Hope Cameron in The Sleeping Clergyman (1947), Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1949), Celia Coplestone in The Cocktail Party (1950), Masha in The Three Sisters (1951), Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (Shakespeare Memorial Theater, 1952), Ariel in The Tempest (Shakespeare Memorial Theater, 1952), Rosalind in As You Like It (Shakespeare Memorial Theater, 1952), Orinthia in The Apple Cart (1953), Lucasta Angel in The Confidential Clerk (1953), Mrs. Shankland and Miss Railton-Bell in Separate Tables (1954, New York, 1956), Rose in Variations on a Theme (1958), Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (New York, 1959), Elaine Lee in The Wrong Side of the Park (1960), Ellida in The Lady from the Sea (1960), Hannah Jelkes in The Night of the Iguana (1961), Pamela Pew-Pickett in Tchin-Tchin (New York, 1962), She in The Chinese Prime Minister (1964), Stephanie in Cactus Flower (1967), Birdie in The Little Foxes (New York, 1967), Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (Chichester Festival, 1969), Lettice Mason in Girlfriend (1970), Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals (1971), Elena in Reunion in Vienna (1971), Matty Seaton in A Family and a Fortune (1975).


Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948); The Winslow Boy (1948); Under Capricorn (UK/US, 1949); The Astonished Heart (1950); The Elusive Pimpernel (The Fighting Pimpernel, 1950); Calling Bull-Dog Drummond (1951); Home at Seven (Murder on Monday, 1951); The Holly and the Ivy (1952); The Good Die Young (1953); The Teckman Mystery (1954); Carrington V.C. (Court Marshal, 1954); The Constant Husband (1955); The Passionate Stranger (A Novel Affair, 1957); The Sound and the Fury (US, 1959); Waltz of the Toreadors (The Amorous General, 1962); The Third Secret (1964); The Loved One (US, 1965); Seven Women (US, 1966); The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969); The Go-Between (1971); Zee & Co. (X Y & Zee, 1972); Lady Caroline Lamb (1972); A Bequest to the Nation (The Nelson Affair, 1973); Galileo (US/UK, 1975); From Beyond the Grave (1975); Dirty Knights' Work (1976). Television: "Great Expectations" (1976).

The daughter of a British businessman, Margaret Leighton knew from an early age that she wanted a career on the stage. "In ignorance, I just liked the idea of it," she said, "and I felt sure I could make a living at it." She left school at age 15 to audition for Sir Barry Jackson at the Birmingham Repertory Theater. Jackson hired her as a stage manager and gave her a small role in Laugh With Me (1938), which served as her professional debut. In January 1941, Leighton left for a stint with the Basil C. Langton's Traveling Repertory Company but returned to the Birmingham Repertory in 1942. For the next two years, she immersed herself in the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekhov, rehearsing days and playing nights. "I was convinced that the entire world existed within that theater and the two streets I walked through to get there," she said in a later interview with the New York World-Telegram (June 10, 1946).

In 1942, at the invitation of Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, Leighton joined the Old Vic Company at the New Theater. (The original theater had been bombed in 1941.) She made her London debut with the company in August 1944, playing the Troll King's Daughter in Peer Gynt. In her next performance, as Raina in Arms and the Man, the young actress captured the attention of critics. "Margaret Leighton, tall, slender and fair … was an enchanting Raina, with a shy humour lurking behind the romantic dignity," reported Audrey Williamson . Leighton went on to a variety of roles, including Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodville ) in Richard III, Yolena in Uncle Vanya, Roxanne in Cyrano, and Sheila Birling in An Inspector Calls. She made her New York debut with the Old Vic in May 1946, playing Lady Percy (Elizabeth Percy [1371–1417]) in Henry IV (Part I and II), and stayed on with the company for some time in repertory. By the time of her return to England, she had matured considerably as an actress. "She had crossed more than the ocean," wrote W.A. Darlington, "she had put behind her that invisible line which divides promise in an artist from achievement. She had always been good to look at, but good looks matter surprisingly little on the stage unless they are illuminated from within; as she now was."

The year 1947 was a banner one for Leighton. She earned critical acclaim for undertaking three roles in a single play, The Sleeping Clergyman, in which she portrayed a betrayed young woman, a murderess, and an international pacifist. "Margaret Leighton, appearing in three nicely contrasting roles, merges as an actress of exceptional versatility and delightful stage presence," reported Theater World. "One noticed in her an ability to change with complete naturalness even the timbre of her voice." The year also marked Leighton's film debut in Bonnie Prince Charlie, and her marriage to the publisher Max Reinhardt (not to be confused with the German director). Although her film career always remained secondary, she went on to make a number of memorable movies, including The Go-Between (1971) for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Meanwhile, Leighton's stage career was marked by her continual growth and refinement

as an actress. In 1951, she appeared in a remarkably successful London revival of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, with a cast that included Sir Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson . "The most exciting performance is Miss Leighton's," reported William Hawkins in the New York World-Telegram and Sun. "This actress made her mark on Manhattan five years ago with Olivier and Richardson in the Old Vic. Since then she has grown in command and expressiveness, until she is most striking."

In 1952, Leighton joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theater Company at Stratford-on-Avon for the season. She turned in a number of winning performances, included one as Lady Macbeth (Gruoch ). Kenneth Tynan described her in the famous sleepwalking scene as "gaunt, pasty, compulsive," but also noted that "to cast a woman as attractive as Miss Leighton in the part is like casting a gazelle as Medusa." The season at Stratford also impacted on Leighton's personal life. The actress began a lengthy and passionate affair with actor Laurence Harvey, which eventually resulted in her divorce from Reinhardt in 1955. She would marry Harvey in 1957.

In 1954, Leighton turned in a much-lauded performance in the Terence Rattigan double bill, Separate Tables, playing Mrs. Shankland in The Window Table and Miss Railton-Bell in the second offering, Table Number Seven, two very different personas. "Miss Leighton's cold, regal, artful portrait of the worldly woman is brilliant enough by itself," wrote Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times. "But it seems all the more remarkable when she comes on in the second play as the lifeless young woman with the tearful voice and the futile mannerisms." The actress repeated her performance in New York in 1956, winning a Tony award for her effort. She received a second Tony, as well as a Variety Award and a Newspaper Guild Page One Award, for her performance as Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, which opened at New York's Royale Theater in December 1961. Around this time, Leighton's marriage to Harvey ended, and in 1964 she wed actor Michael Wilding.

Margaret Leighton continued to work steadily in England and America throughout the mid-1970s, even after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1970. In 1972, she performed as Elena in Reunion in Vienna to rave reviews. The actress was named Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1974 and a year later performed in her last play, A Family and a Fortune, with Alec Guinness. By this time, she was confined to a wheelchair, but despite great pain she stayed for the year's run of the play. Leighton died on January 13, 1976.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1957.

Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus and Robertson, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Leighton, Margaret (1922–1976)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article