Whitelaw's obits all stressed her working-class background and the fact that her mother encouraged her as a child to pursue acting as a way to get rid of a stutter. The young Billie had several roles on radio (including a regular one as a schoolboy) before she made her debut in theater in 1950 and appeared in her first film in 1953.
Some of the write-ups of her career cited her as “the female Albert Finney.” This could mean a number of things (a working-class heroine, a cranky person, a performer who did not document her life in public the way other performers do), but the comparison immediately brought to mind one of my favorite non-Beckett roles of hers, as the ex-wife in Finney's only theatrical feature as a director, the underrated Charlie Bubbles (1967), which I discussed recently on the Funhouse TV show. (She also played opposite Finney in Gumshoe.)
Whitelaw's character could easily have been depicted as a shrew, but while she keeps a “stern” bearing, she also lends the role a degree of weariness (that is the main thing about her role as a celebrity author's ex-wife, she wears the character's weariness with style). As scripted by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and acted by Whitelaw, Charlie's ex is a woman who has been through a hell of a lot with him but still loves him, although she knows it's best that the two of them now live apart.
She won a BAFTA Award in the Supporting Actress category for her work in the film. Here is her segment from the film:
While American viewers saw her in many films, including Hitchcock's Frenzy, The Krays (as Mama Kray), Quills, and the Simon Pegg-Edgar Wright pic Hot Fuzz, she is best remembered by those with any sense of memory as the villainous nanny in the original The Omen (1976).
Those who dig a bit deeper in cinema and theater – and really top-notch TV – know of her position as one of the foremost interpreters of Beckett's work, to the extent that he wrote plays with her in mind and restaged some of his older works with her in the female lead.
The pair first worked together in 1964 on his Play and thus began an on-and-off collaboration that spanned a quarter-century. Beckett referred to Billie as “the perfect actress” – one assumes he meant for his work, but that accolade can be stretched to include her other immaculate performances in more routinely structured plays and movies.
A New York Times article by Mel Gussow from 1984 discusses the methods that Whitelaw used when working with Beckett on his plays. The odd thing about the work she did for him is that it contained both an incredible degree of stasis and yet was physically demanding because of the repetitions or oddness of posture demanded by the activity in the piece.
In watching these pieces in a row to write this piece, I was struck by how much musical precision was involved in what she was doing. She also was indeed both lively in her performances while mostly called on to recite singsong dialogue in a hypnotic tone that mesmerizes the viewer (it also, naturally enough, could be seen as either abrasive or boring – two aspects Beckett seemed to have built into his work).
I will list these not in chronological order, but in order of importance. “Eh Joe” is a piece that Beckett wrote for TV in 1965 in which a silent man in an empty room hears a voice, that of his former love reminding him of his life. Whitelaw isn't seen here, she is the voice of memory (and conscience) in this 1988 production:
In “Footfalls,” Billie paces back and forth in a proscribed area onstage (in a spotlight), talking to her aged mother, who is only present as a voice, meant (again) to remind her of the past and provoke her:
The longest piece by Beckett with Whitelaw that we have available on video is a production of Happy Days that he directed in 1979. The play is an odd one, because it seems like it always existed, or had to have existed – if Beckett hadn't written it, another avant-garde playwright would've eventually come up with the metaphor of performers half-buried in sand onstage.
Her performance is fascinating in that, again, she delivers his stylized dialogue with immense care, yet still makes it sound like natural speech. The character she plays is the eternal optimist who refuses to think the worst of any situation, even as she is starting to disappear below the sand.
The one thing that weighs against the piece is its length – the first act is sublime, but the second act seems like the original draft of the play boiled down into a shorter length. It's impossible to say that a Beckett play “drags” (he didn't pace them in any ordinary sense, ever), but Happy Days does seem to reiterate its situation and its lead character's blind optimism one too many times. (That said, Whitelaw is fantastic.)
If I had to pick a favorite of all the pieces I'd gravitate toward Rockaby. The short one-act (running 18 minutes) was part of a longer one-hour 1983 documentary directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus about the U.S. debut of the play.
The piece is devastating. Whitelaw moves slowly in a rocking chair, looking paralyzed, while her voice is heard offering a singsong recitation of the dialogue. (“Time she stopped/going to and fro…close of a long day…”) She occasionally speaks along with the voiceover and a few times shouts out the most significant word in the play (and possibly in life?), “More!”
I've refrained from trying to analyze the plays as I've written about them here (my focus is on Whitelaw's performances), but this solid little piece is most clearly about aging and death. And, of course, wishing that – no matter how dull life can be – that there was “More!” to be had.
The most singularly amazing thing Whitelaw did was to become a mouth unleashing a torrent of words (and screams) in “Not I,” the 1973 concept piece (shot here for the BBC in '77) that is an astounding thing to behold. It's nearly impossible to describe what occurs in the play without making it sound pedestrian or too simplistically avant-garde. It simply must be seen.
It's incredibly intense and one of the all-time best depictions of insanity (and/or the fast rush of memory, which can be the same damned thing). This BBC airing of the piece brackets it with a very calm Whitelaw talking about the production of the piece, which is kinda weird – to have a “normal” intro and outro to such an extreme piece of raw emotion. It blunts the piece in a way, assuring us, “no, she's all right... she came through it okay...”
When asked about Beckett's death in 1989, Whitelaw remarked, “I’m the canvas who has lost the paintbrush.” A week before she died, the University of Reading purchased her Beckett archive (letters, costumes, scripts) for 35,000 pounds. The performances she gave, it goes without saying, are priceless.