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Cummings, Constance (1910–2005)

In a career on stage and screen lasting 70 years, Constance Cummings delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with her performances and dazzled them with her beauty.

Bernard Shaw, admittedly susceptible, had taken one look at her when she sought his permission to play Joan, and at once consented. Too excited to be nervous, she asked: "How can you tell I'll be any good, if you've never seen me on stage?" GBS responded: "I can tell, child, I can tell." He surely recognised the pure-hearted self-confidence her beauty had given her, and that this was perfect for his heroine.

When her teenage prettiness was opening doors for her in New York and Hollywood, she sailed through them with aplomb, her considerable talent protected by an integrity that she was to bring to every role she played. Her remarkable career, beginning as a chorus-girl on Broadway, culminated when she became Laurence Olivier's leading lady during a stint (1971-73) at the National Theatre. Few others in his company had starred in Hollywood, or would win an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for a stage appearance at the age of 68.

All her life Cummings worked both here [England] and in the United States, where she was born in 1910 in Seattle, Washington. She wanted to become a ballet-dancer, but at a time when her country had few troupes of merit, so after her New York training she settled for the chorus in Treasure Girl (1928), where her dazzling looks caught the eye of Sam Goldwyn. She was rushed to California for a Ronald Colman film scripted by Frederick Lonsdale, the English playwright. She told a friend: "I didn't get up a Lonsdale speech, 'cos he'd have seen top actresses doing it." She read some Shaw, and got the part, only to be thrown out ten days later.

A rival studio snapped up the unknown for the second lead in Night After Night (1932), Mae West's first film. Much later she made clear that Mae West was not her favourite lady. Filming with Harold Lloyd in Movie Crazy (1932), however, was another matter – a "sweet darling man" who would listen respectfully while a prop-man told the master comedian that his newest idea was a dud.

It was in Hollywood that Cummings met another playwright, Benn W. Levy, wintering there and writing scripts. Her film career took her back to England and there she married Levy and later starred in London and New York in plays he wrote and directed for her – Young Madame Conti (1936), The Jealous God (1939), Clutterbuck (1946). These were boulevard comedies, but Levy had a sophisticated literate wit. He served as Labour MP for Eton and Slough before his death in 1973. In between these comedies his wife continued to appear in films, most winningly in Noel Coward's screen adaptation of his Blithe Spirit with Rex Harrison and Kay Hammond.

The beguiling, husky lilt on her always American tones was admirably suited to the London productions of such outstanding New York successes as Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (1942) and in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1964). Forcefully and fervently as she played in this last, the best remembered of her American roles was as the downtrodden, drug-sodden Mary Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1971) – and indeed, with her clinched fists juddering in tense frustration over the vanity of Laurence Olivier as her gone-to-seed actor husband, she discovered a power to reach and touch the emotions which she had not been able to stoke up earlier in her Juliet and Saint Joan for the Old Vic in 1939.

She was the first to acknowledge that she had not matured as an artist until she dared, under the influence of Frank Hauser of the Oxford Playhouse, to tackle a part she felt to lie wholly outside her range, the sadistic lesbian Inez in Satre's Huis Clos (1962). Good looks and a graceful presence were not much help here. But it was a revelation –  "I found bits of the woman in myself," she said later. "Never be afraid of making a fool of yourself. You really can't keep your dignity, your armour propre, you've got to throw your bonnet over the windmill and go for broke." She felt she had done so in playing Inez, and thought: "Marvellous. I'll do anything now, whether I feel it's me or not". She exhibited the same splendid recklessness when, again, for the Old Vic, she made a fearsome Agave in The Bacchae (1973) and a tragically wistful Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard.

More recently Cummings astonished both Broadway and London with a tour de force in Arthur Kopit's Wing's (1978) which won her the Tony. This was a harrowing study of mental disorder and showed the trials of a former aviatrix struggling to recover from a cerebral haemorrhage. There was extraordinary sweetness in her portrayal of Emily, talking gibberish half the time but feeling her way along the tightrope that is her precarious hold on sanity as she fights to recover the names of familiar objects and to relearn the process of thinking.

Although not truly a classical actress – she had never been properly trained in verse-speaking – and obviously relying in early years on her physical assets, Constance Cummings achieved success in highly emotional roles in later years, and could always win sympathy for attractive cases – as she did for for cruel Inez, crippled Emily, drug-addicted Mary – by an inner humanity and integrity which audiences immediately recognised.

Behind the scenes Cummings was a tireless committee member of the Royal Court and the Arts Council, and had been devoted to running a 600-acre Oxfordshire farm where she bred Friesians and bid at auctions for pedigree stock. On TV, she appeared notably in Robert Ackland's The Old Ladies with Wendy Hillier. She was appointed CBE in 1974.

She is survived by a son and a daughter.

Original publication

  • Times (London), 28 November 2005, p 55

Citation details

'Cummings, Constance (1910–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cummings-constance-20447/text32052, accessed 25 May 2019.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2019

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Levy, Constance
Birth

15 May 1910
Seattle, Washington, United States of America

Death

23 November 2005
Wardington, Oxfordshire, England

Cause of Death

general debility

Cultural Heritage