Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sad passings

Georgy Girl (1943-2010)

She was the warm, approachable Redgrave. The one you could sit down with for a cup of tea and not feel intimidated. She was to her dynastic acting clan what Sarah Ferguson was to the British royal family. She was the actor who first caught everyone’s attention in Silvio Narizzano’s 1966 movie Georgy Girl in a role for which she deliberately put on 14 pounds and then, later in life, became the pitchwoman for Weight Watchers.

And, by the way, having merely heard or read the words “Georgy girl” (if you’re not too young), just try getting the words and melody of that Seekers song out of your head.

Her older sister Vanessa was always more famous and, it has to be said, more respected. Lynn was not at all snobby about the roles she took. And while Vanessa has long been a political firebrand in British politics, Lynn emigrated and became an American. When the two performed Chekov on the stage together in 1991, they had a public spat when Vanessa referred to Americans as “imperialist pigs.”

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t really know how much sibling rivalry there was between the two of them, but they were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in the same year, 1967 (Lynn for Georgy Girl and Vanessa for Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). Neither won, however, and the Oscar went to another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Taylor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Lynn never did win an Oscar, although she was nominated again in 1999, for playing the stern housekeeper of director James Whale (Ian McKellen) in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters. Vanessa, on the other hand, was nominated a total of six times, winning once, in 1978, for playing the title role in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia.

While Vanessa might have been a self-styled champion of the proletariat, Lynn was the one who actually seemed completely comfortable rubbing shoulders with the unwashed masses. She was always showing up on American television shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder, She Wrote. TV series in which she starred included the miniseries Centennial, the sitcoms House Calls, Teachers Only, Chicken Soup, Rude Awakening and the animated Me, Eloise. Her last appearance was on an episode of Ugly Betty. In the third season of Desperate Housewives, she and Paxton Whitehead played the parents of Dougray Scott’s posh twit love interest for Teri Hatcher.

On the big screen, she had no compunction about playing someone like Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker or any other number of varied roles like Dr. Van Helsing in National Lampoon’s Disco Beaver from Outer Space. She wasn’t afraid to take on, in TV remakes, roles made famous by others, like the governess in Dan Curtis’s The Turn of the Screw, the Evelyn Varden role in The Bad Seed, the Bette Davis part in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (opposite sister Vanessa in the Joan Crawford role) and the Wicked Witch of the East in the animated Lion of Oz.

But in addition to her early, defining role of Georgy, allow me to remember in particular three other film performances in which she shone if not dominated. She played the woman whom Geoffrey Rush eventually marries in Scott Hicks’s much admired biopic of pianist David Helfgott Shine. She was a disturbed Ralph Fiennes’s landlady in David Cronenberg’s Spider. And she was the perplexed Aunt Millicent in P.J. Hogan’s rather magical live-action version of Peter Pan.

Inevitably, however, it will be that 1966 starring role we will remember Lynn Redgrave for. Then, now and forever in our memories she will always be swingin’ down the street so fancy free.

Nancy Hughes (1918-2010)

This is a hard thing to admit, but when I heard that Helen Wagner had died, I not only knew immediately who she was but it hit me like hearing about the death of a relative.

The reason that’s hard to admit is that I’m a guy and Wagner was a longtime soap opera actor. But she wasn’t on just any soap. She was—at least for a good many years—the pivotal character in the granddaddy of televised daytime serial dramas, As the World Turns. ATWT was the first one to go 30 minutes, way back in 1956. And it has been going ever since. Wagner spoke the very first line and was a member of the cast as recently as last April when the show celebrated its 54th anniversary and four months after it was announced the show would go off the air in September. That should be, and is, some kind of record.

Think about it. She played the very same character regularly for more than half a century. Early on she had a few roles on the stage, and she appeared on a few other TV programs in the 1950s, including The Guiding Light, in which she originated the role of Trudy Bauer Palmer in 1952. But other than that, she just played Nancy. She never even got to play Nancy’s evil twin or Nancy’s clone or some Nancy in the future that traveled back in time. She just played the same old Nancy Hughes—day in and day out, year in and year out, decade in and decade out.

The character is familiar to me because ATWT is the only soap my mother watched. And during the 1950s and 1960s, she watched it faithfully. It was on our TV when I was toddler, and it was on our TV when I came home from school for lunch. The Hughes family were like some alternate reality in our living room. ATWT wasn’t interesting like other TV shows. It seemed like nothing ever, or only rarely, happened. It was almost always grown-ups talking. Just like boring old real life. It was like that family was progressing in real time, just like our family. Except that occasionally there would be a fatal accident or other crisis. And, over time, Nancy’s grandson, whose birth I could remember, somehow got to be several years older than me.

I was freed from the show when I stopped being around the house at lunchtime. Mom gave up on it when it began following the trend of other soaps with more edgy and unrealistic storylines—in other words, when it finally started to get interesting. But in later years, Mom would tune in every once in a while, just for the heck of it, and among all the young, beautiful actors she would spot good old reliable Nancy at a party. Could Helen Wagner have dreamed what she was getting into when she signed that first 13-week contract back in 1956?

As children, we confuse actors with the roles they play. Even to this day, it is hard to get my head around the fact that Wagner wasn’t really Nancy Hughes. And I suppose that for a thespian that is pretty much the ultimate compliment.

-S.L., 6 May 2010

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive