Henry V movie (1944) actress Renée Asherson dead at 99: Laurence Olivier leading lady in acclaimed Shakespearean classic
Renée Asherson, a British stage actress featured in London productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Three Sisters, but best known internationally as Laurence Olivier’s leading lady in the 1944 film version of Henry V, died on Oct. 30, ’14, in the London district of Primrose Hill. Asherson was 99 years old. The exact cause of death hasn’t been specified.
She was born Dorothy Renée Ascherson (she would drop the “c” some time after becoming an actress) on May 19, 1915, in Kensington, London, to Jewish parents: businessman Charles Ascherson and his second wife, Dorothy Wiseman – both of whom narrowly escaped spending their honeymoon aboard the Titanic. (Ascherson cancelled the voyage after suffering an attack of appendicitis.)
According to Michael Coveney’s The Guardian obit for the actress, Renée Asherson was “scantly educated” at Maltman’s Green girls’ school in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, later attending finishing schools in Switzerland and France. Coveney adds that while an adolescent Asherson suffered from anorexia; but ill health or no, she decided to study acting at London’s Webber Douglas school.
Her stage debut took place in 1935, when she landed a walk-on – and was hired as Juliet’s understudy – in the John Gielgud-directed production of Romeo and Juliet, with Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternating as Romeo, and Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. From then on, Asherson would keep herself busy on the London stage and in repertory theaters, including a number of Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic, among them The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello.
‘Henry V’ 1944: Laurence Olivier leading lady
In 1943, Renée Asherson began working on Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V (a.k.a. The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France). She was cast – purportedly in place of Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, so her leading man wouldn’t have megastar-wattage competition – as the French Princess Katherine de Valois, who daintily attempts to learn English words with the assistance of her attendant (Ivy St. Helier).
Unlike Kenneth Branagh’s more straightforward 1989 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, the highly stylized Olivier version – which he also directed, produced, and co-adapted – was a piece of World War II morale-boosting propaganda, with the French standing in for the Germans.
But war propaganda or no, Henry V was to remain Renée Asherson’s most notable film. Released in the Los Angeles area in 1946, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Olivier lost to Fredric March for his performance as a returning World War II veteran in William Wyler’s eventual Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives, but the British star was given an Honorary Oscar “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”
More Renée Asherson movies
Renée Asherson’s “clarity of diction, open demeanor, bright blue eyes and retroussé nose were distinct physical hallmarks,” Michael Coveney asserts in The Guardian. “She often seemed to combine the kittenishness of Vivien Leigh with the grace and watery-eyed gravity of Celia Johnson, as she progressed from leading Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic before the second world war to West End stardom soon after it.”
Unfortunately, little of that Vivien Leigh-Celia Johnson mix could be seen in Asherson’s few movie appearances – 18 in all – as she was almost invariably featured in minor supporting parts. Even in her heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, she was mostly stuck playing her leading men’s decorative love interest.
Besides Henry V, in 1944 she could be seen in a small role in Carol Reed’s World War II drama The Way Ahead, starring David Niven, and adapted by future two-time Oscar-winning actor Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Topkapi) from Eric Ambler’s story.
The following year, Asherson had another supporting role – as RAF pilot John Mills’ somewhat stiff romantic interest – in another World War II drama: Anthony Asquith’s flag-waving The Way to the Stars / Johnny in the Clouds, written by Terence Rattigan and co-starring Michael Redgrave. Also in 1945, in the small role of Iras, she supported Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh in Gabriel Pascal’s color production of Caesar and Cleopatra.
Among Renée Asherson’s handful of other movies in the ensuing 56 years were the following:
- Jack Lee’s motorcycle-racing melodrama Once a Jolly Swagman / Maniacs on Wheels (1949), as Dirk Bogarde’s romantic interest – though facing competition from Moira Lister.
- The Cure for Love (1949), a romantic comedy featuring Asherson opposite stage and (sporadic) screen star, and husband-to-be Robert Donat (Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Best Actor Oscar winner for Goodbye Mr. Chips). Donat also directed and co-adapted Walter Greenwood’s Lancashire-set play about a working-class sergeant (Donat) returning from the war only to find himself torn between two women (Asherson and the more vulgar Dora Bryan, who died last July). Four years earlier, both Donat and Asherson had acted in The Cure for Love on the London stage.
- John Boulting’s all-star biopic The Magic Box (1951), with Robert Donat as British film pioneer William Friese-Greene and Maria Schell as his wife. Asherson, Glynis Johns, Stanley Holloway, Laurence Olivier, Margaret Rutherford, Dennis Price, Michael Redgrave, and former Hollywood silent film star Bessie Love were among the many names seen in small supporting roles or cameos.
- Brian Desmond Hurst’s World War II drama Malta Story (1953), starring Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Steel. In a minor role as a character named Joan Rivers, Asherson played Steel’s Malta-based romantic interest.
- Val Guest’s classic B sci-fier The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), in which the Cold War between the reckless governments of the United States and the Soviet Union heats up after their nuclear-bomb testing knocks the Earth out of its orbit, placing it on a collision course toward the Sun. Janet Munro, Leo McKern, and Edward Judd were the film’s leads, with Renée Asherson in another small supporting role (plus Michael Caine in a bit part).
- Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), starring Christopher Lee in the title role, and featuring Asherson as the Tsarina Alexandra and Barbara Shelley as one of her ladies-in-waiting and Rasputin’s object of (sexual) desire.
- Robert Hartford-Davis’ The Smashing Bird I Used to Know / School for Unclaimed Girls (1969), with Renée Asherson as a Lana Turner-like older woman enamored of the much younger, no-good Patrick Mower, who happens to lust after Asherson’s daughter Madeleine Hinde – who ends up in a reformatory school after stabbing her mom’s man.
- Douglas Hickox’s black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), starring Vincent Price as a gone-mad Shakespearean actor – shades of Ronald Colman in A Double Life – out to do away with the critics who had bypassed him for an acting award. As the wife of doomed theater critic Michael Hordern, Asherson is one of a number of veteran British film and stage stars featured in small roles, alongside the likes of Diana Dors, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, and Coral Browne.
By then in her mid-80s, Renée Asherson was last seen on the big screen as the elderly, blind medium in Alejandro Amenábar’s supernatural drama The Others (2001), a sort of reboot of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Nicole Kidman in a role akin to Deborah Kerr’s in the 1961 film version of James’ novella, The Innocents.
Robert Donat and more Renée Asherson stage roles
Renée Asherson made her West End debut in Enid Bagnold’s 1943 backstage drama Lottie Dundass, also featuring Ann Todd and Sybil Thorndike. In 1945, she played Juliet to Basil Langton’s Romeo. “In a husky alto she breathed all the world-defiance which such self-deceivers delight in,” wrote renowned theater critic Kenneth Tynan. “She was tormented and fragile and she dealt in just the right, headstrong way with her unreasoning parents and that sordid nurse. She looked as if she wanted to be someone’s mistress.”
According to The Guardian obit, Laurence Olivier “was keen” for his Henry V leading lady to work with him at the Old Vic, but Asherson’s career “had taken a decisive turn elsewhere.” That was her meeting the married Robert Donat while the two were starring in The Cure for Love on the London stage in 1945.
Donat’s marriage had by then disintegrated; he and his first wife would be officially divorced in 1946. At that time, the father of three lived with Asherson in Three Kings Yard, Mayfair. The couple, who also worked together in Much Ado About Nothing in 1947, with Asherson as Beatrice and Donat as Benedick, would be married in 1953.
Their union, however, wouldn’t last very long. Robert Donat suffered from serious bouts of asthma and related ailments, which made him difficult to live with. By the time of Donat’s death of cerebral thrombosis at age 53 in June 1958, he and Asherson had been living apart for two years, though a reconciliation was reportedly in the works.
West End star: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ ‘Three Sisters’
By then a London stage star, in 1949 Renée Asherson played Stella Kowalski, the sister of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, in the Laurence Olivier-directed production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Two years later, in a revival of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Asherson had one of the title roles alongside Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton, in a production that also featured Ralph Richardson, Diana Churchill, and Harcourt Williams.
Also in the ’50s, she was featured in West End productions of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife and Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Other West End roles included those in Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest; Philip Levene’s Kill Two Birds; and Robert Bloomfield’s Portrait of Murder, with Phyllis Calvert and George Baker.
In later years, at various locales, Renée Asherson was seen in a revival of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate, opposite Alastair Sim and Patricia Routledge; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with John Clements, Margaret Leighton, and Hugh Paddick; and JB Priestley’s When We Are Married, with Peggy Mount, Hugh Lloyd, and Fred Emney.
Television: Working ‘for the money’
If the information on the IMDb is accurate, Renée Asherson was first seen on television in 1939, in an experimental BBC broadcast of Walter Hudd’s play Smiling at Grief, in the role of Sybil. She returned to the medium in the early ’50s, but would only become a regular TV performer from the 1960s on, apparently for financial reasons.
Upon his death in 1958, Robert Donat had left all he had to his three children from his first marriage. As Asherson later explained, after having previously “worked only for the love, [I] now had to work for the money.” In the ’70s and ’80s, she would find recurring roles in the British TV series Clayhanger (1976), Armchair Thriller (1978), and Tenko (1981).
Also of note, Asherson had key roles in the following:
- Rodney Bennett’s John Mortimer-written Edwin (1984), as retired judge Alec Guinness’ possibly unfaithful wife.
- David Giles’ Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: A Murder Is Announced (1985), starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.
- Geoff Posner’s Sir Norbert Smith, a Life / Norbert Smith, a Life (1989), as the dotty wife of Harry Enfield’s somewhat senile Norbert Smith in this parody of the British film industry of the last century (with Smith as a sort of Laurence Olivier).
- Jack Clayton’s deliberately paced Memento Mori (1992), playing opposite fellow veterans Thora Hird, Maggie Smith, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, and Maurice Denham, in this generally well-received adaptation of Muriel Spark’s darkly comic novel about old age, senility, and death.
Renée Asherson’s last television role was in a guest spot in “The Killings at Badger’s Drift,” the 1997 pilot episode of the series Midsomer Murders, starring John Nettles, Daniel Casey, and Jane Wymark.
In The Guardian, Michael Coveney describes Renée Asherson as “mordant, witty and constantly sociable,” adding that she spent “her last years in apartments in London.” Journalist Neal Ascherson, whose credits include scripts for the documentary series The World at War (1973-74) and The Cold War (1998), is her nephew.
Emma Thompson, Kim Hunter
 Kim Hunter won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for reprising her Broadway performance as Stella Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie version, which also starred Vivien Leigh as Blanche (Jessica Tandy on Broadway) and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski.
Bonar Colleano played Stanley on the London stage.
Kenneth Tynan quote and Renée Asherson quote about having to work for money via The Telegraph.
Image of Laurence Olivier and Renée Asherson in Henry V (1944) movie: Two Cities Films / Eagle-Lion / United Artists.
Robert Donat and Renée Asherson The Cure for Love image: London Film Productions / British Lion, via the Robert Donat website.
“Blind medium” Renée Asherson The Others image: Las Producciones del Escorpión / Dimension Films, via Fernby Films.
Image of Anthony Steel and Renée Asherson in Malta Story: General Film Distributors / J. Arthur Rank Organisation, via British Pictures.