Colleen Dewhurst was one of America’s foremost actresses; her career spanned from Stage to
Screen to Television, earning her two Tony awards and three Emmy awards. She played mothers, as in her role in Murphy Brown, mother figures, like Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables and tragic or mysterious figures, like the mysterious seer Hepzibah in Kevin Sullivan’s film, Lantern Hill. Her penultimate stage performances included some of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest works A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah Wilderness! Some might say that as a woman from a generation that had struggled for equality, her career was enviable. In her autobiography, she recalls being approached by other women who expressed this exact sentiment.
“In the seventies, women with whom I had gone to college would come backstage to say how proud they were to watch my career, to know a woman who had done so much with her life. Several times following this statement was the remark, “I haven’t done much with mine”
Dewhurst didn’t subscribe to this belief; yes, she had achieved much with her life, she was a mother and had a prolific acting career, but she never looked down on the accomplishments of other women. In one of her notable roles as Avery Brown in the now classic Murphy Brown, for which she won an Emmy, she praised the show for depicting a woman on television who had real emotions and reflected the everyday American woman: “the insecurity written into Murphy Brown…is the inheritance of women everywhere. Murphy Brown is successful and vulnerable, sending a message to all women that even those who seem to have it all are frightened, and that being frightened does not have to stop you. Having it all is not the important thing; having a sense of your own self-worth is.”
From watching her performances, it was clear that Dewhurst also knew how to convey this vulnerability and sense of self-worth. She was an imposing presence and known to never hesitate to express her opinion in her distinctively big and throaty voice, but when it came to the characters Dewhurst played, which were often tragic, she conveyed an immediate relatability that made women in particular feel closer to her and identify with her characters.
And this could be because Dewhurst knew how to put a little bit of herself into the women she was playing. “I like Marilla,” she told Anne of Green Gables Director Kevin Sullivan, “It never bothers me what a woman supposedly is as long as I can find something to like about her. Playing Marilla is simply putting parts of myself to sleep and bringing out a very specific part of me.”
“Working with Colleen,” Sullivan recalls, “on the several projects we worked on together was like entering a privileged world of honesty and humor. I’d been a great admirer of her work in film and theatre. When I was putting together Anne of Green Gables, I always pictured Colleen in the role of Marilla.
Dewhurst’s career, that may seem so enviable to women of her own generation, was hard won through diligent work. She did all the regular jobs that one would expect of a young would-be actress like waiting tables and answering phones. It took her 13 years before she could call acting a living and she never took that for granted.
“Just as you have achieved something, God will always get you,” she once remarked on her accomplished career.
Through all of her roles she exhibited heart and soul again and again. That relatability that so pulls you in and makes the character cherished. She could have been your grandmother, your mother, the woman down the street or the woman you pass everyday as you go to work. Dewhurst knew how to fully exhibit the emotions and tribulations of everyday women and her legacy of terrifically superb acting in theatre, film and television is a testament to this.
And yet this virago of stage and screen was also deeply private in so many ways. When she found out she had cervical cancer in 1990 she refused to have any kind of treatment; so firm were her deep-rooted beliefs in her Christian Science religion. Her close friend and colleague Maureen Stapleton once commented:
“Colleen looked like a warrior, so people assumed she was the earth mother. But in real life Colleen was not to be let out without a keeper. She couldn't stop herself from taking care of people, which she then did with more care than she took care of herself. Her generosity of spirit was overwhelming and her smile so dazzling that you couldn't pull the reins in on her; even if you desperately wanted to and knew damn well that somebody should!”
Colleen Dewhurst was born in Montreal in 1924 and died at Flood Farm, her residence in South Salem, New York in 1991 at the age of 67.