Her career as a character actress is unparalleled.
For more than a half century, she was an extraordinarily durable performer on both sides of the Atlantic in films and tv. And in 1967 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for “her services to drama.”
One look at the woman above indicates Gladys Cooper was NOT just another character actress. For one thing, she wasn’t bad looking in an imperious sort of way. She was top notch playing aristocratic mothers and sisters. And, it turned out, a child model.
Born in London in 1888, Cooper was a striking presence (she modeled for photographers by age six) who knew she was destined for the theater from the beginning. After myriad stage roles in England over the years, she found herself in 1913 making silent films, and then, two decades later, her first “talkie” in the U.K.
By this time Hollywood “discovered” this proficient actress, and a Hollywood career began on a positive note. Her first picture was also Alfred Hitchcock’s first in America, 1940’s Rebecca, costarring Joan Fontaine, which won a best picture Oscar. Cooper played Laurence Olivier’s cheerful sister (she played his wife in 1941’s That Hamilton Woman), and made an impression. In a way it was a homecoming.
Fontaine later wrote about Hollywood’s profusion of class actors during the World War II years. The British are a cliquey lot. Not only on the set did Gladys Cooper (below left with Nigel Bruce and Fontaine) Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, George Sanders and Olivier hang together, but they would sit in one another’s dressing rooms, swapping theatre stories, recalling old chums from their Mayfair days.
A meatier part had Cooper as Bette Davis’ (of all actresses) domineering mother in 1942’s Now, Voyager — which won her one of the three best-supporting-actress Oscar nominations over her career. She looks (below) like one tough customer squaring off against Bette.
Cooper (below) is a bit more benign as the mother of Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 big screen version of My Fair Lady.
Besides voluminous stage and big screen appearances, Cooper did a ton of tv — more than 75 movie and tube credits overall — right up until the year she died (1971). A formidable presence to the end.