Monday, 9 December 2013
A woman's weapon is her tongue
[With great rival and fellow Hermione Baddeley]
Madame Alvarez, Bianca de Passe, Lady Effigie Munster, Eulalie Shinn, Lady Bracknell, Madame Armfeldt - Hermione Gingold made a bit of a film career out of playing battleaxes and elderly harridan matriarchs.
She had successfully cultivated a singular on-stage persona over the years - described by one critic thus: "Blatant as ever, deafeningly loud, strutting like a parody of every tragedy queen, male or female, since time began, she was in splendid relishing form, her lips drawn back over fangs and her voice swooping campingly through a whole two octaves of sneer." Ken Tynan called her a "burbling dragoness fully capable of withering her husband with a single fire-darting glare. Needless to say, much of what Miss Gingold does is strangely hilarious. No actress commands a more purposeful leer; and in nobody's mouth do vowels more acidly curdle".
In real life, she was no less terrifying. Making a late appearance on the Merv Griffin talk show, the previous guests on which were Zsa Zsa Gabor and Charo - who had been cat-fighting for most of the show - Hermione strode out carrying her toy terrier and said in stentorian tones, "You don't mind if I bring out another bitch, do you?". When asked whether her most recent husband was dead, "That's a matter of opinion," she replied.
Her own life - as candidly outlined in her biography (which she finished in its final form a year before her death) How to Grow Old Disgracefully, a cherished copy of which resides on our shelves here at Dolores Delargo Towers alongside the CD of John Murray Anderson's Almanac - was just as full of anecdotes about her outrageous behaviour, not least Miss Gingold's decision in 1971, aged 74 and previously twice married, to get engaged to a 33-year-old London antique dealer.
Miss Gingold began her career in 1911 as a child actor with Noel Coward in Where the Rainbow Ends, and ended it as he narrator in Side by Side by Sondheim in 1978. Although she was a stalwart of the stage in London's West End before, during and after WW2, it was not until she wowed Broadway in the aforementioned Almanac that she achieved world-wide fame, and the film parts beckoned.
Her most famous screen appearance was of course her part as the retired courtesan in Gigi (and where would that dreadful film have been without her?), although her television appearances - particularly in America - were no less memorable. Here is her brilliant version of I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You from Evita:
"“It would appear that I have tried everything except incest and folkdancing.”
"To hear an audience laugh is the greatest thrill in the theatre."
"Really, sex and laughter do go very well together, and I wondered - and I still do - which is more important."
"Fighting is essentially a masculine idea; a woman's weapon is her tongue."
Most definitely one of our icons.
Hermione Ferdinanda Gingold (9th December 1897 – 24th May 1987)