For an actress who was the pet of the densely linguistic George Bernard Shaw, Wendy Hiller was a remarkably physical actress. At least, that's what my notes are overflowing with - bullet points about how she holds herself, or moves, or doesn't. But this physicality is never at odds with Shaw's politically and socially pointed scripts, because Hiller's movements and vivid expressions are all in service of corroborating the words her character's speak, and how she delivers them. Throughout the highlights of Hiller's limited film career, this approach has its successes and it has its limitations. In the first two films that brought her Oscar nominations, separated by a clean twenty years, we can see a remarkable progression.
Pygmalion, the film that brought Hiller to global attention, casts her as Eliza Doolittle, a rather mangled posy seller who crouches on the streets and speaks out of the side of her mouth, missing out half of her letters. As becomes even clearer having watched the second Shaw-Hiller cinematic adaptation, Major Barbara, Hiller's natural mode is the creature Eliza is transformed into by Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard, whose brisk, emphatic style nails Higgins' scholarly fascination), rather than the bedraggled creature we meet initially. Indeed, the mode of Hiller's most famous characters is exactly this sort of poised but earthy character, one whose control is constantly poised, never quite a facade but certainly a conscious effort. When strong emotions really get to her, Hiller's change in body is always noticeable, even if her characters quickly gather themselves back to their smooth gait and implacable stare.
The clean structural arc familiar both in Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady, exposes Hiller's approach so thoroughly and openly that, to some extent, it gave away too much. Her Eliza Doolittle is a very accomplished technical accomplishment, carefully charting the physical education that less prolifically accompanies Higgins' vocal teachings. She progresses from a duckish walk and an unbecoming thrust forward when she speaks to a poised, straight posture and cleanly rounded vowels, taking in along the way a deliciously exaggerated sequence where Higgins takes her to tea with his mother. She performs her learning with robotic, stilted speech, sucking in her cheeks so the words seem to pop out of her mouth.
But Hiller rarely seems able to anchor this technique into a vibrant emotional experience of Eliza's journey (something Audrey Hepburn also suffered from years later), almost always seeming conscious of technique first and feeling second. To a certain extent, this makes narrative sense, reflecting Eliza's focus and dedication on improving herself. There is marvel in the scene where Eliza rails against Henry and comes to the realisation that her mode of expression has irrevocably changed - her "No! No. Thank you.", in one brief moment, charts this epiphany, a sharp rejection giving way to a sad, muted nicety, the choked sound of her "no"s one of the most peculiarly heartbreaking moments I've ever seen.
More often, sadly, Hiller gets trapped in theatric precision, the flight of any emotions betraying a long-limbed bodiliness that makes sense for neither cockney Eliza nor the newly cultured one, and her face restrained to a limited amount of expression that seem mostly to involve the shape of her eyebrows. These features hamper Major Barbara more (at least when her titular character is allowed control of the narrative, which wanders all over), where she's stuck in business mode, only occasionally pricking her smooth voicework despite different attitudes to the diverse characters around her, hitting emotional notes with completely inexplicable reactions, and seeming to forget to act at all when the camera isn't focusing on her.
Fastforward to 1958 and Hiller's victory in AMPAS' Best Supporting Actress category for her work as Bournemouth hotel owner Pat Cooper in Separate Tables. Though the film's split focus on a a sour David Niven being lusted after by a jittering Deborah Kerr, and a taunting Rita Hayworth bothering Burt Lancaster pays very few dividends, Hiller quietly brushes through the crowd to a worthy performance. Pat has Hiller's familiar smooth walk - carefully closing swinging doors behind her - and implacable orderliness, but it cracks sooner, and so Hiller can't try to build Pat through the same bag of techniques. And how, when it cracks! Taking aside John (Lancaster), it quickly becomes apparent that he and Pat are involved in a relationship, because Hiller suddenly gets to play sexy, and suddenly her sharp face softens in coy, cowed lust, her body undulating as she uncrosses her arms and leans towards him.
A third and final Oscar nomination followed for Hiller in 1966, with a supporting role as Thomas More's wife Alice in A Man For All Seasons - the period film a more traditional source of awards attention for British cinema than the contemporary films Hiller made her rare camera excursions for. Her tendency towards emotional compartmentalisation perhaps more sense in a historical context, and you certainly can't imagine Hiller being greatly successful in today's landscape, and not merely because roles relying so heavily on the face are so few and far between. But her linguistic alertness and her angular features make Hiller's legacy bigger than merely the first Elisa Doolittle of the silver screen. If nothing else, that surprising but deserved Oscar win will keep her as a stop on any obsessive's tour of the past, and maybe, like me, they'll stay longer than expected.