Grand Dames and sinister old ladies – Cathleen Nesbitt (1888 – 1982)

Posted in Rewind by - September 03, 2014
Grand Dames and sinister old ladies – Cathleen Nesbitt (1888 – 1982)

A truly wonderful actress from both stage and screen, it’s always a joy to see Cathleen Nesbitt’s smiling old lady up on the screen. A prolific theatre performer but a late starter in movies, Cathleen brightened up many scenes, often unintentionally stealing the thunder from the movie’s main stars.

Cathleen Mary Nesbitt was born in Cheshire, England, on November 24th 1888, and made her London stage debut in 1910, aged 22. The following year Cathleen made her Broadway debut and, apart from one lead role in the 1922 romantic drama ‘The Faithful Heart’, Nesbitt would spend the next few years solely on the stage. After a handful of bit parts in British movies including ‘Pygmalion’ (’38), her film career took off in 1944 when she had a supporting role in ‘Fanny by Gaslight’, which was followed by a bit in the Margaret Lockwood melodrama ‘Jassy’ (’47). I particularly enjoyed Cathleen in the excellent British thriller ‘So Long at the Fair’ (’50), as the unhelpful and rather creepy owner of a French hotel where Jean Simmons’ brother has suddenly vanished from.

Nesbitt’s first Hollywood movie was the 1954 romance ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, as Louis Jourdan’s mother. Three years later she had one of her best roles as Cary Grant’s piano playing grandmother in ‘An Affair to Remember’ (’57), although in real life she was only 16 years Grant’s senior. While Nesbitt was given only a short screen time she still managed to make the part of wise Grandmere Janou a memorable one, and it remains one of her most fondly remembered screen characters. To me though, Cathleen will always be the kind and gossipy Lady Matheson from ‘Separate Tables’ (’58), who is one of the first guests to greet David Niven’s shamed faux major, at the breakfast table. After playing Hayley Mills’ grandmother in Disney’s ‘The Parent Trap’ (’61), she was great fun as Robert Cummings’ trendy mother, in the watchable romantic comedy ‘Promise Her Anything’ (’65), with Warren Beatty and Leslie Caron.

As the 1970’s approached, Cathleen’s roles became lesser, but still remained interesting and varied. She would play Richard Burton’s mother in two movies where he portrayed gay characters; 1969’s ‘Staircase’, and the gritty 1971 gangster flick ‘Villain’. At 87 years old, it was strange seeing Cathleen crop up in ‘French Connection II’ (’75), but she was terrific and very creepy as an elderly drug addict comforting Gene Hackman’s addled cop Popeye Doyle. A much lighter performance came next when she played the wonderfully named Julia Rainbird, in Alfred Hitchcock’s final movie ‘Family Plot’. It was a small but crucial role, and one which sets the darkly comic story in motion.

A minor but memorable part followed in the wonderfully atmospheric ghost story ‘The Haunting of Julia’ (’77), as the aged mother of a long dead child, now thought to be haunting Mia Farrow’s grieving mother. Nesbitt’s final movie was the little seen ‘Never Never Land’ (’80), a Peter Pan inspired tale in which she played an old lady who befriends a little girl called Zena, who has run away from her aunts and ends up in an abandoned London townhouse.

Married for over sixty years, with two children, Cathleen Nesbitt died in London on August 2nd 1982, aged 93. A great beauty in her day, Cathleen will mostly be remembered as a Grand Dame of the theatre, but she also made a big impact in movies on both sides of the Atlantic. Cathleen may have been small in stature, but she had a huge talent and with a twinkle in her eye, lit up the screen on numerous occasions.

Favourite Movie: Separate Tables
Favourite Performance: Separate Tables

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