22 December 2014

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

Acclaimed British actress Billie Whitelaw, famous for her roles on stage and screen, has died yesterday at the age of 82. The Coventry-born star, who was made a CBE in 1991, worked in close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, who described her as a perfect actress. She gained an international audience for her role as the chilling Mrs Baylock in the horror film The Omen.

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 2420, 1965. Photo: publicity still for The Comedy Man (Alvin Rakoff, 1964) featuring Kenneth More.

Willowy good looks

Billie Honor Whitelaw was born in Coventry on 6 June 1932. Her family moved to Bradford to escape German bombing. Her father died from lung cancer there when his daughter was just 10.

When the young Billie developed a stutter, her mother enrolled her in a local drama group in an effort to boost her daughter's confidence. Her drama training secured her some spots on BBC North's Children's Hour. Her stage debut came at the Prince's Theatre, Bradford, in a 1950 performance of Pink String and Sealing Wax.

Her willowy good looks also made her something of a regular face in British films of the decade. She made her film debut in Joseph Losey's first British feature The Sleeping Tiger (1954), followed by roles in the war drama Carve Her Name With Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958) and Hell Is a City (Val Guest, 1960), starring Stanley Baker.

After working with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop she joined the National Theatre, playing Desdemona to Laurence Olivier's Othello at the Chichester Festival in 1964.

Billie Whitelaw met the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, with whom she would enjoy a 26-year professional relationship. She became his muse. He would write parts in experimental plays for her which she would often perform to the point of exhaustion.

Her first performance in a Beckett work was Play, which had its London debut in 1964. Many of the parts were physically and emotionally demanding. In Happy Days she was buried up to her waist in sand for her performance.

She stopped performing Beckett's works when he died in 1989 but she remained the keeper of his flame through her one-woman lecture tours.

In 1966, she divorced her first husband, actor Peter Vaughan, bringing to an end what had become an increasingly troubled relationship.

Hayley Mills
Hayley Mills. East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 3042, 1968. Photo: Warner Bros.

Chilling nanny

In the mid1960s, Billie Whitelaw was attracting bigger film parts. There were Baftas for her performance opposite Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, 1967) and for her role as the mother of Hayley Mills in the psychological thriller, Twisted Nerve (Roy Boulting, 1968).

Billie Whitelaw won much acclaim for her portrayal of Mrs Baylock, the chilling nanny of the demon child Damien in The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976). Many critics felt she gave the best performance in the film and it won her an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.

She also won praise for her role as the fiercely domineering and protective mother of the psychopathic Kray twins in The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990), which featured Spandau Ballet's Martin and Gary Kemp as her notorious sons.

After she stopped in the theatre, she did continue to act in films, such as in Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000) with Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet) and the comedy Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007). During her career, she appeared in more than 50 films.

Billie Whitelaw also found happiness with the writer and actor Robert Muller, whom she met in 1967 and with whom she had a son. Robert Muller died in 1998.

Whitelaw spent her final four years in Denville Hall, the retirement home for actors in north London, which was supported by Richard Attenborough. She died there in the early hours of Sunday 21 December 2014.

Trailer for Hell Is a City (1960). Source: leatherface1111 (YouTube).

Trailer for The Omen (1976). Source: Video Detective (YouTube).

Sources: Kevin Rawlinson (The Guardian), BBC, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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