As part of its activity in collecting materials relating to prominent Australians, programs and ephemera documenting all aspects of Dame Judith Anderson’s career on stage both in Australia and overseas are being added to the PROMPT collection. Material on her career in film and television is not generally collected, although a few items directly related to her stage roles have been acquired.
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Frances Margaret Anderson-Anderson was born in Adelaide, 10 February 1898. At an early age she was attracted to the stage inspired in part by witnessing a performance by Nellie Melba. Frances failed at music but was successful with elocution and drama lessons and won several competitions. Soon she was performing ingenue roles for amateur theatre companies in Adelaide and Sydney.
In 1915, at the age of seventeen, she made her professional debut at the Theatre Royal, Sydney under the name of Francee Anderson playing the role of Stephanie in A royal divorce. The company was headed by Julius Knight the enormously popular English actor who frequently toured to Australia to play romantic and swash-buckling roles for J. C. Williamson. Judith Anderson later credited Julius Knight with providing the basis of her acting skills. The Knight company included some American actors and Francee Anderson was sufficiently influenced by them to try her luck in the United States rather than the more traditional drawcard of London. She travelled to California with a letter of introduction to Cecil B. De Mille. However Hollywood showed no interest and she went on to New York. More rejections followed including one by the famous David Belasco. After a period of illness and near poverty she gained work at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York with the Emma Bunting Stock Company in 1918-19. She toured with other stock companies until September 1922 when she made her Broadway debut in On the stairs using the name Frances Anderson. Twelve months later she had changed her name to Judith Anderson. Her first major success on Broadway was in 1924 in The cobra. She was a well-established young star by the time she returned to Australia in 1927 for a tour of three plays, including The Cobra.
Her long career was centred on the American stage although she appeared with the Old Vic Company in London and on three occasions toured to Australia. She excelled in playing strong women gripped by powerful emotions, whether in plays by Eugene O’Neill, in highly charged contemporary dramas and historical period pieces, or later, in the mid 1930s, in Shakespearean roles including Lady Macbeth opposite Laurence Olivier and Gertrude in Hamlet opposite John Gielgud.
In 1947 she starred in a new version of Euripides’ tragedy Medea,“…a role which she seemed to have been born to play ” according to the New York times. She toured in this role to Germany in 1951 and to France and Australia in 1955. In 1971 she realised a long held ambition to play the role of Hamlet which she did on a national tour of the United States at the age of 73.
Her career embraced radio and, later, television notably the popular soap opera Santa Barbara (1984). She made her movie debut in 1930, beginning a career in film which spanned over fifty years and included roles such as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Big Mama in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a hot tin roof (1958), the Sioux squaw in A man called horse (1970), and the Vulcan Princess in Star Trek lll (1982). She made one Australian film Inn of the damned directed by Terry Bourke in 1973.
Judith Anderson settled in the United States and lived in California. She married twice. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1960. A Broadway theatre was named in her honour in 1984. She died on January 3rd, 1992 in Santa Barbara, California.