The late great Anna Massey worked with everybody from John Ford to Hitchcock and Laurence Olivier to Noel Coward. To mark her sad passing at 73, Alan Corr recalls his 2008 interview with the veteran English actress
When the honour role of great British actresses is read out, Dames Dench and Mirren figure prominently but Anna Massey is all too often overlooked. You may find her name further down the credits, but Massey has been a mainstay of British drama since her stage debut aged 19.
I talked to her in 2008 about her role in the BBC’s four-part, £4 million pound adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s story of Tess Durbeyfield. Massey played Ursula D’Urberville, the mother of the caddish Alec who pursues Tess, and while Anna's screen time was sadly brief, her presence was powerful.
Massey, a cheery and witty performer, had a wonderful career. Her autobiography Telling Some Tales, came out in 2006 and while it is does contain some stories of luvvie good times she was quite blunt about some of the directors she’d worked with. She never had a high opinion of Otto Preminger who directed her in Bunny Lake is Missing and when it came to Hitchcock, who directed her in Frenzy, she says that he guided his actors with “consummate irony”.
What of Hitch's famous quote, “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.” “It was just one of those things that people say on the spur of the moment and it was a witty remark and people take it far too seriously,” Massey told me. “Hitchcock was very careful and very courteous. He did couch all that with irony but you couldn’t treat actors like cattle and get performances like he got out of people. He was lovely to work with, huge fun.”
I asked her about her about her old friend Dirk Bogarde and the book of his letters which had been published in 2008. “I heard they were not good. He became so terribly bitter as a man,” she said. “I thought it was terribly sad toward the end of his life. He became bitter about life, bitter about people.”
It’s a credit to Massey that she never became bitter herself. Her father, Canadian actor Raymond Massey, fled the family when she was only two and she later struggled with anorexia, low self esteem, and crippling stage fright. Her marriage to actor Jeremy Brett ended after four years when he left her for another man and she was estranged from her brother Daniel for 12 years.
“Well, what’s the point in being bitter?” she said and sounded startled at the suggestion. “One has to go through these things and resolve them or else the poison ends up in oneself. If something is irking you, you have it out with the person or thrash it out in some way that’s going to get rid of the problem. I see no point in hanging onto bile and bad thoughts. Better to clear the air.”
Massey was outstanding in a tv adaptation of Anita Brookner’s Hotel de Lac in 1986, made partially from her own money, and more recently savoured the chance to play Margaret Thatcher in the 2006 tv drama Pinochet in Suburbia. “I adored doing that,” she said earnestly. “One of the reviews said I went over the top but I promise you I was under the top compared to what she was doing. She was mad. She had that waxen mad look. The poor thing now is so ill, she doesn’t know where she is or if Denis is around. It’s rather tragic. Do you think power does that to people? Reagan was the same wasn’t he?”
After years of living alone, Massey married Professor Uri Andres, a Russian metallurgist, when she was 53 and they lived what she called a very quiet life in Shepherd’s Bush. It seemed she’d met everybody over the course of her career. “I might have met a lot of people very early on but now I meet very few people,” she said. “I’m not a very social bird and we lead a very quiet life so there are plenty of people who I would love to meet and plenty of people from history. I would have loved to have met Elizabeth I and Jane Austen. But I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t have liked to meet Thomas Hardy. I think he’d depress me!”