Plowright, Joan (1929—)

views updated

Plowright, Joan (1929—)

English actress. Name variations: Lady Olivier. Born Joan Anne Plowright on October 28, 1929, in Brigg, Lincolnshire, England; only daughter and one of three children of Ernest Plowright (a newspaper editor) and Daisy Margaret (Burton) Plowright; attended Scunthorpe Grammar School; attended summer drama course at Hull University; attended Laban Art of Movement Studio, Manchester; graduate of the Old Vic Theatre drama school, London, England; married Roger Gage (an actor), in 1953 (divorced 1960); married Laurence Olivier (an actor), on March 17, 1961 (died 1989); children: (with Olivier) daughters Tamsin Olivier and Julie-Kate Olivier ; son Richard Olivier.

Selected theater:

made stage debut as Hope in If Four Walls Told (Grand Theatre, Croydon, 1951);

made London debut as Donna Clara in The Duenna (Westminster Theatre, 1954); appeared as Cabin Boy in Moby Dick (Duke of York's, 1955); joined the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, London (1956); appeared as Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife (1956); made New York debut in an Ionesco double-bill in which she played the Old Woman in The Chairs and the Pupil in The Lesson (Phoenix Theatre, 1958); appeared as Jean Rice in The Entertainer (Palace, 1957, NY, 1958); appeared in the title role in Major Barbara (Royal Court, 1958), as Beatie Bryant in Roots (Royal Court Theatre, 1959), as Daisy inRhinoceros (1960), as Josephine in A Taste of Honey (NY, 1960), as Constantia in The Chances (Chichester Festival, 1962), as Sonya in Uncle Vanya (Chichester Festival, 1962); joined the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic (1962); appeared in the title role in Saint Joan (Edinburgh Festival, 1963), as Maggie in Hobson's Choice (1964), as Hilde in The Master Builder (1964), as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing (1967), as Masha in Three Sisters (1967), as Teresa in The Advertisement (1968), as Rosalind in Love's Labour's Lost (1968), as Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1970), as Jennifer Dubedat in The Doctor's Dilemma (Chichester Festival, 1972), as Rosa in Saturday, Sunday, Monday (Old Vic, 1973), as Irena Arkadina in The Seagull (Lyric Theatre Company, 1975), as Alma in The Bed Before Yesterday (Lyric Theatre Company, 1975), in the title role in Filumena (Lyric Theatre Company, 1977, NY, 1980), as Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1983), as Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World (London, 1984), in Mrs. Warren's Profession (1985), in The House of Bernarda Alba (1986).

Selected filmography:

Moby Dick (1956); Time Without Pity (1957); The Entertainer (1960); Uncle Vanya (1963); Three Sisters (1970); Equus (1977); Britannia Hospital (1982); Brimstone and Treacle (1982); Wagner (1983); Revolution (1985); Drowning by Numbers (1988); The Dressmaker (1988); I Love You to Death (1990); Avalon (1990); Enchanted April (UK, 1992); Last Action Hero (1993); Dennis the Menace (1993); The Summer House (1993); Widow's Peak (1994); Hotel Sorrento (Sorrento Beach , 1995); A Pyromaniac's Love Story (1995); Jane Eyre (1996); Mr. Wrong (1996); 101 Dalmations (1996); The Assistant (1997); Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within (1998); Tea with Mussolini (1998); Dance with Me (1998); Frankie and Hazel (2000); Dinosaur (2000). On television: "Stalin" (1992).

One of Britain's most acclaimed actresses, Joan Plowright rose to prominence in the late 1950s and has remained in the theater's higher echelons ever since. Now in her 70s, she has meticulously honed her craft, and with each new role seems to set a new standard of perfection.

Plowright was born on October 28, 1929, in her parents' home in Brigg, Lincolnshire, and was raised in a solid middle-class family. Her father Ernest Plowright was the editor of the local newspaper, the Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, and her mother Daisy Burton Plowright dabbled in amateur theatricals. "Mother produced plays for the local youth club and painted scenery in the garden," Plowright recalled. "In many ways she'd have loved to act herself, but she said she couldn't have taken the rejection and that she didn't have the endurance." According to her younger brother David, Joan was naturally assertive. "She couldn't accept that just because she was a girl she couldn't be captain of the football team. Her independence and competition were obvious at an early age." When Plowright was a teenager, she attended a summer drama course at Hull University, and after high school spent a year at the Laban Art of Movement Studio in Manchester. She then won a scholarship to the Old Vic School. Daisy sent her daughter off with a reality check. "You're no oil painting, my girl, but you have good, useful eyes and, thank God, you have my legs and not your father's."

In 1951, Plowright made her stage debut in repertory at the Grand Theatre in Croydon, where she played Hope in If Four Walls Told. She then joined the Bristol Old Vic Company and toured with them in South Africa. On tour, she met her first husband, actor Roger Gage. "We got engaged on the boat," she explained. "I think it was all that hot sun. We were married for seven years and did remain friends after the divorce." Following her marriage, Plowright continued to perfect her craft in a succession of repertory companies, playing a wide range of roles, including classical, Shakespearean, and modern. In July 1954, she made her London debut as Donna Clara in a musical version of Sheridan's The Duenna, but she did not receive critical notice until a year later, when Orson Welles cast her as the cabin boy in his production of Moby Dick. Roger Gellant remembered Plowright in the role as a "small frightened, half-demented creature with eyes like boot-buttons."

Plowright came into prominence in 1956, as Margery Pinchwife in a revival of The Country Wife, performed with the English Stage Company which had recruited her earlier that year. "Joan Plowright jumps to the forefront of our young actresses with her lively performance in the title role," reported Frank Granville-Barker; "she is all cunning and mischief, a richly endearing flirt." Just a year later, Plowright took over the role Dorothy Tutin had played in The Entertainer, opposite legendary actor Laurence Olivier, whom she found a bit intimidating at first. Twenty-two years younger than Olivier, Plowright played his daughter in the play, and a romance began. (Olivier was married at the time to his second wife, actress Vivien Leigh , who in 1960 would obtain a divorce from the actor on the grounds of adultery, naming Plowright as correspondent. Plowright would end her marriage to Roger Gage around the same time.)

Plowright's career continued to blossom. In January 1958, she made a stunning New York debut in a double bill of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson, described collectively by Walter Kerr as "two calculated journeys into unreason." The duet of plays called for the actress to begin the evening as a senile 94-year-old crone and end it as a teenage hussy, a feat she handled with aplomb. She extended her New York stay with a Broadway run of The Entertainer a month later. Although most of the reviews centered on Olivier's performance, Plowright was not overlooked, with the American critics calling her portrayal of the loyal daughter "fresh," "forthright," and "completely realized."

Returning to England, Plowright was notable in the title role of Shaw's Major Barbara and as Beatie Bryant, the daughter of inarticulate Norfolk farmers, in Roots, a role which Richard Watts, Jr., proclaimed "places her, at once, among the important actresses of the contemporary theatre." In April 1960, she and Olivier were again on stage together in Ionesco's Rhinoceros. That year, Plowright also triumphed on Broadway in Shelagh Delaney 's A Taste of Honey, playing a neglected teenager who becomes pregnant by a black sailor. "The evening's treasure," wrote Howard Taubman in The New York Times (October 5, 1960), "is Joan Plowright's haunting performance of the girl. Through voice, accent and movement, she captures the shell of cynicism that the girl has grown to shield herself from her hopelessness…. Miss Plowright gives the play its affecting core." For her performance, Plowright received a Tony Award as the Best Dramatic Actress of the Year, as well as the 1961 New York Drama Critics Award.

In March 1961, with both their divorces granted, Plowright and Olivier were married by a justice of the peace in Wilton, Connecticut. "Because we were both so aware of it when we married," Plowright said later, "we didn't want all the legend stuff—he had had it and didn't want it any longer, and I had never had it and didn't like it anyway. It was simply a man and a woman living together. I married a man, not a myth." For his part, Olivier found some of his mother's aggressive nature in Plowright. "Ever since my mother's death, I've been looking for someone like her," he said. "Perhaps with Joanie I've found her again." Olivier biographer Donald Spoto writes that Plowright seemed to be the right choice for Olivier as he entered yet a new phase of his acting career: "Joan provided fresh ideas, a blunt, modern and unself-conscious style of life—and the gratification of an intelligent young woman's attention. And in a way—since they planned a family—he had married a mother figure in order to make her one." Indeed, the marriage produced three children (two girls and a boy), and endured until Olivier's death in 1989.

Plowright's working momentum dipped following her marriage, mostly due to her growing responsibilities at home. Nonetheless still pursuing her career, she created some of her most memorable roles with the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, of which her husband served as director from its inception in 1963 until 1974. Notable among them was the title role in Shaw's Saint Joan (1963), which T.C. Worsley of The New York Times called "one of the great definitive performances of a great role," Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing (1967), Masha in Three Sisters (1967), Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1970), and Rosa in Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1973). In 1975, with the Lyric Theatre Company, she alternated the role of Irena Arkadina in The Seagull with that of Alma in the Ben Travers farce The Bed Before Yesterday. The latter role surprised critic Sandy Wilson: "To be honest I had not fully realized that she is one of the greatest comediennes of our generation until I saw her play Alma Millett, but I will go further than that and say that this performance is the funniest to be seen in London since Bea Lillie went into retirement."

In 1977, Plowright was on Broadway again, in Filumena, which had run for two years in London. "It allows Miss Plowright to spend three acts looking noble, hard-done-by and as queenly as the statue on the prow of a ship," wrote British critic John Barber. Plowright then returned to England, where she continued to perform with the National Theatre and in West End productions.

Plowright reprised several of her best stage roles in films, notably Jean Rice in The Entertainer (1960), Sonya in Uncle Vanya (1963), and Masha in Three Sisters (1970). During the 1990s, while her stage career slowed, she pursued film opportunities more aggressively, creating another round of impeccable characterizations in such movies as Enchanted April (1992), The Summer House (1993), Widow's Peak (1994), and Tea with Mussolini (1998).


Current Biography 1964. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

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

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts