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Greer Garson, Hollywood's British Rose

Updated on October 1, 2014

Hollywood's British Rose

Greer Garson was one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood during the 1940s. She started her movie career at a relatively late age and did not move to Hollywood until she was 34, which gave her a highly unusual career path in the movie industry of the day.

Nevertheless she was an immediate hit and between 1941 and 1945 she was nominated every year for the Academy Best Actress Oscar, winning it once for her performance in the title role in 'Mrs Miniver' in 1942. Her total of seven Best Actress Award nominations has been bettered by only three other actresses-- Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis.

Greer was a strikingly beautiful redhead but it was not her looks alone which propelled her to stardom, it was her great, seemingly effortless, acting ability, combined with a natural elegance and beautifully modulated speaking voice.

Greer Garson was made an honorary Commander of the British Empire in 1993.

Early Years

She was born Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson on 29 September 1904 in north- east London. Greer herself caused her biographers confusion by claiming, incorrectly, that she was born in 1908 in Ireland. Greer’s father died when she was two and she was brought up by her Scottish mother, whose maiden name was “Greer”, which itself was a contraction of the surname ”MacGregor”.

As a young girl, Greer spent many months of each winter in bed, suffering from bronchitis and she spent much of the time reading classics which was to stand her in good stead when she became an actress. She was educated at King’s College in London and went on to Grenoble University, getting a degree in French and 18th century literature in 1926. It was during her University days that Greer discovered her love for the theater and when she returned to London to start employment as a research assistant for an advertising agency, she joined a local amateur dramatics company and took part in as many productions as her new work would allow.

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A New Career

It soon became apparent that Greer had a great natural aptitude for acting and she took the decision to make acting her career. In 1931 she joined the Birmingham Repertory Company and appeared in her first professional role, strangely enough as an American Jewess, in Elmer Rice's 'Street Scene' in 1932. Critics acclaimed her performance and after several more much praised roles Greer moved to London to further her budding career.

In 1935 she made her West End debut in 'Golden Arrow' at the Whitehall Theater, opposite Laurence Olivier. Although the play was unsuccessful the performances of both Greer and Olivier were praised by the critics and Greer's career continued to prosper. She performed in a variety of West End plays and in 1937 she appeared in the first televised performance of Shakespeare when she starred in an excerpt from 'Twelfth Night'. In the same year she appeared in a play called 'Old Music' and by chance was seen by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM who was visiting London. He was impressed by the red-headed beauty and managed to overcome her initial reluctance to begin a movie career. (Greer had concentrated on the stage, believing that she was not photogenic enough for movies.) Greer signed a seven year contract with MGM and moved with her mother to Hollywood in late 1937.

1937 TV broadcast of Twelfth Night

1937 TV broadcast of Twelfth Night
1937 TV broadcast of Twelfth Night


Goodbye, Mr Chips
with Robert Donat

Greer had to wait patiently for the right role to come her way and she refused several offers to play supporting roles. In 1939 her patience was rewarded with her appearance as Kathy Chipping, the schoolmaster's wife in the acclaimed movie 'Goodbye, Mr Chips' for which she received her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Greer's role was a small one but pivotal to the movie. Her talent shone through and she became a Hollywood star almost overnight.


Pride and Prejudice
with Laurence Olivier

After a forgettable film called 'Remember?' Greer again received great critical and public acclaim with her performance opposite Laurence Olivier in 'Pride and Prejudice' and in 1941 she received the first of five consecutive Best Actress nominations for her portrayal of of Edna Gladney in 'Blossoms in the Dust'. 1942 saw the very pinnacle of her career with the film that made her a household name, 'Mrs Miniver'.

Mrs Miniver 1942

Greer co-starred with Walter Pigeon in the film which was directed by William Wyler. She played the title role as the strong wife and mother undergoing great physical and emotional stress in war-torn Britain.

The movie was a massive box-office success, breaking records across America, and was also critically acclaimed, receiving 12 Academy Award nominations, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Theresa Wright), Best Director (William Wyler), Screenplay, and Cinematography, as well as Greer's own Best Actress Award.

The movie was praised by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for its morale boosting qualities. It was a massive personal triumph for Greer and thrust her into the upper stratosphere of movie stardom.


The Valley of Decision
with Gregory Peck

For the remainder of the 1940s Greer was one the most famous women in America. She received her third, fourth and fifth Best Actress Award nominations for 'Madame Curie' in 1943, 'Mrs Parkington' the following year and for 'The Valley of Decision' in 1945, thus tying with Bette Davis's record of five consecutive Best Actress nominations, a record which still stands.

In 1945 Greer was paired with Hollywood heartthrob, Clark Gable, in his first film on returning from war service. The movie was called 'Adventure' and the copywriters had a field day with the line "Gable's back and Garson's got him!", which neither star liked. The film was not a success, nor was Greer's next movie, 'Desire Me' in 1947. She came back to form with 'Julia Misbehaves' in 1948 and 'That Forsyte Woman' with Errol Flynn the following year, both of which were warmly received but her career had turned a corner and she was never again to reach the heights of the early 1940s.

Decline

In the late 1940’s Greer met and married Buddy Fogelson, who was to be the love of her life, and she was able to relax into an intensely happy semi-retirement. Her film career after this time was relatively disappointing, particularly 'The Miniver Story' in 1950, an ill-judged attempt to cash in on the popularity of the original. After a successful appearance as Calpurnia in ‘Julius Caesar’ with Marlon Brando in 1954, Greer did not renew her contract with MGM when it expired in 1954 although in 1957 she made a triumphant return to the stage, earning rave reviews for her performance in ‘Auntie Mame’.

Greer still had one last great movie role to play. In 1960 she completely changed her voice and appearance to portray Eleanor Roosevelt in 'Sunrise at Campobello'. The film co-starred Ralph Bellamy as Franklin Roosevelt and during it Greer made a friend in Eleanor Roosevelt, whose life she researched thoroughly. She received her seventh and last Academy Award for Best Actress for her masterly performance.

During Filming - The real Eleanor Roosevelt has tea with the fictional one (Greer Garson).

Eleanor Roosevelt with Greer Garson
Eleanor Roosevelt with Greer Garson

Quote: "I always hedged whenever a member of the press asked me what I considered the greatest moment of my career. But since filming Sunrise at Campobello, I no longer hedge about the answer. The role of Eleanor Roosevelt has intense, personal meaning for me. I consider portraying her to be a great privilege." - Greer Garson, 1960

Greer continued to make occasional movie and television appearances. She made 'The Singing Nun' in 1966 playing Mother Prioress and then 'The Happiest Millionaire' in 1967. She made occasional television appearances including narrating 'The Little Drummer Boy', which has become a classic, much repeated program at Christmas.

Greer's Marriage to Richard Ney

Personal

Greer married three times. In 1933 she married a childhood friend, Edward Snelson, but the marriage failed almost before it started due to Snelson’s extreme possessiveness. When he went to India to work, Greer stayed in England with her mother. She and Snelson never spent any more time together but did not divorce until 1943 when Greer married her second husband, Richard Ney.

Ney was Greer’s co-actor in ‘Mrs Miniver’, playing her son. He was 11 years younger than Greer and, as her husband, was not able to cope with her years of success when his own career was going nowhere. He and Greer divorced in 1946.

In 1946 Greer met a Texan oil and cattle millionaire called E. E. "Buddy" Fogelson who was to become the love of her life. They married in 1949 and moved to his ranch in New Mexico. They also kept a home in Dallas, Texas, where in 1965, Greer set up the “Greer Garson Theater” facility at Southern Methodist University. It was here that she made her final performance on stage, in 1975, in 'The Madwoman of Challot'.

Greer faithfully nursed her husband after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1982, although she, herself suffered a stroke in 1980. After his death in 1987 Greer continued to act as administrator of his estate and the many charitable causes which they both espoused.

Greer Garson died in Dallas from heart failure on April 6, 1996. She was 91. She was buried in the Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas.

Marriage to Buddy

The Wonderful, Inimitable Greer Garson 1904-1996

Any Comments Welcome - I'd love to hear your thoughts on Greer and her films

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    • aaxiaa lm profile image

      aaxiaa lm 

      4 years ago

      For some reason she reminds me of Alex Kingston, another english rose :)

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