Diane Cilento, a tall, voluptuous, sometimes brunette /sometimes blonde beauty best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1963 Oscar winner Tom Jones, died in Cairns, in the north of Queensland, according to an online report in the Australian publication The Newsport/Port Douglas Daily. The report says Cilento was 81; as per the IMDb, she had turned 78 yesterday. The cause of death, “after a long battle with illness,” hasn’t been disclosed. [Addendum: it was cancer.]
Born to a family of doctors on Oct. 5, 1933, in Brisbane, Queensland, Cilento began her film career in British and British-set Hollywood productions of the early 1950s. By mid-decade, Cilento was already getting cast in leads and semi-leads, in mid-level fare such as Roy Ward Baker’s Passage Home (1955), opposite Anthony Steel and Peter Finch, and Alan Bromly’s The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1956), in the title role as an angel who, in order to fulfill her mission on Earth, pawns her stringed instrument in order to get some ready cash.
During that period, Cilento also did stage and television work, earning a Tony Award nomination as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for her portrayal of Helen of Troy in Jean Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates. On TV, she appeared opposite future husband Sean Connery in a 1957 ITV version of Anna Christie.
Among Cilento’s most important movies – there were less than 30 overall – were Michael Anderson’s hard-to-find thriller The Naked Edge (1961), starring Deborah Kerr and Gary Cooper in his last film role; Robert Stevens’ 1962 melodrama I Thank a Fool (1962), as Peter Finch’s mentally unbalanced wife under the care of doctor Susan Hayward – who had spent time in jail for supposedly euthanizing one of her patients; and Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a surprise box office and critical hit in Britain, the US, and elsewhere. Albert Finney starred in the title role, while the extensive cast included Susannah York, and the Oscar-nominated (all supporting) Cilento, Dame Edith Evans, Joyce Redman, and Hugh Griffith.
Though fine in the otherwise unwatchable Tom Jones, Cilento’s best roles would come later: she is outstanding as one of several stagecoach passengers in Martin Ritt’s underrated 1967 Western Hombre, starring Paul Newman. She’s just as good as a woman who goes berserk in Michael Campus’ dystopian sci-fier Z.P.G. (“Zero Population Growth”), opposite Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin.
Cilento also had notable roles in Carol Reed’s below-par The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), as the Contessina de’ Medici to Charlton Heston’s ludicrous Michelangelo and Rex Harrison’s hammy Pope Julius II; as one of the denizens of a weird hippie-ish commune in Robin Hardy’s classic horror thriller The Wicker Man (1973), starring Edward Woodward; and as Hannah Reisch in Ennio De Concini’s docudrama Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), a box office disappointment starring Alec Guinness as Adolf Hitler.
Following her 1973 divorce from Sean Connery, with whom she had been married since 1962, Cilento retired from movie acting. In the last four decades, she appeared in only two more films: in a supporting role in Tim Burstall’s Australian drama Duet for Four (1982) and Stephen Wallace’s The Boy Who Had Everything (1985), co-starring with her London-born son Jason Connery.
Cilento married author-screenwriter-playwright Anthony Shaffer (The Wicker Man, Death on the Nile, the play Sleuth) in 1985. The couple then moved to Australia, remaining married until Shaffer’s death in 2001. Cilento’s first husband (1955-1962) was Italian assistant director Andrea Volpe.
Since the mid-’80s, Cilento has operated the Karnak Playhouse, an open-air theater located in the Daintree Rainforest in Mossman, Queensland. Regarding the building of the Karnak Playhouse, Cilento once said: “One can be a dreamer and an idiot, and I don’t think that I care about whether people think I’m that.”
Perhaps that’s why on the website for Cilento’s one-woman show Woman Before a Glass, the story of Peggy Guggenheim, the actress is described as “feisty, uncompromising and free-spirited.”
In 2001, Diane Cilento was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for her contribution to the arts. Her autobiography, My Nine Lives, was published in 2006.
Arrangements are reportedly being made to fly Cilento’s body to Sydney, where she’ll be laid to rest in a Muslim ceremony. Cilento had become a student of Sufism in the 1970s.