Dame Wendy Hiller, 90, one of Britain's finest actresses and George Bernard Shaw's chosen leading lady, died May 14 at her home in Beaconsfield, west of London. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Miss Hiller, a 50-year veteran of the stage and screen, was a tall, handsome woman with regal bearing and a rich, distinctive voice. In later life, she frequently was cast in aristocratic roles that suited her natural hauteur.
She won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in "Separate Tables" (1958) and was made a dame -- the equivalent of a knight -- in 1975.
She achieved fame early in her career as a girl from the slums in the 1934 Manchester Repertory production of "Love on the Dole."
Playing that role in London, she caught the eye of Shaw, who cast her as Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion" -- both on stage in 1936 and on screen two years later.
Miss Hiller was at home in roles that required a peppery, wry quality, whether as Shaw's pert heroines or as the imperious traveler in Sidney Lumet's film of "Murder on the Orient Express."
In the '80s, that style served her well in playing Oscar Wilde's inimitably snobbish Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and the elegant Southern-Jewish widow in "Driving Miss Daisy."
While projecting great warmth in person, on stage and screen she could be forbidding. Her stage persona always seemed too knowing, even skeptical, to play either the innocent or the ingenue.
Miss Hiller was a native of England's northern city of Manchester, where her father was in the cotton spinning business. He thought her Lancashire accent might harm her marriage prospects, so he sent her to a school in Bexhill, south of London, so she could learn to speak like a proper lady.
There, she developed a "deep, burning passion" for the stage.
"I just thought I'd always wanted to show off; quite honestly, acting is showing off," she said in an interview with the Associated Press shortly after her 80th birthday.
Her parents' reaction? "Looking back, it must have been something they had to brace themselves to face -- their only daughter going into the theater."
She joined the Manchester Repertory Theater at age 18, and four years later won the lead in "Love on the Dole." It was a hit that carried her to London and Broadway, and led to Shaw's offer of leading roles in theater festival productions of "Pygmalion" and "Saint Joan" in 1936.
"Love on the Dole" brought happiness as well as fame -- in 1937, she married Ronald Gow, a stage-struck schoolmaster who had adapted the play from Walter Greenwood's novel. Gow died in 1993.
After her appearance in Anthony Asquith's film version of "Pygmalion," Miss Hiller starred in 1941 in Shaw's "Major Barbara," one of her most memorable film roles.
She remembered Shaw as "awfully polite, a dear gentleman."
"I didn't appreciate it at the time," she told the Associated Press. "When you're young, you're stupid. If someone had said to me, 'Will you play "Saint Joan" with six rehearsals?' and then halfway across the Atlantic came the cable, 'Would I play "Pygmalion" as well?' I mean I'd have a sort of nervous collapse now. Then, I didn't . . .
"I was unbelievably lucky," she said. "Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, were so kind to me, and I remember sensing that they would have been far more warm and intimate if I hadn't been so shy and nervous.
"Years later, I realized that GBS and Mrs. Shaw were holding out hands of friendship to me. But I was young and stupid, and felt one mustn't intrude on those outstretched hands."
Her performance as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" won raves from critics.
In 1988, she played a cantankerous Southern Jew in American writer Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy."
"Luckily, West End audiences seem to rather like very old people," she said. "They think, 'My God, we saw her acting in the war and there she is still doing it,' and mentally they give you a sort of prize for sheer survival, as long as you turn up every night and remember most of the lines.
"Not that it ever gets any easier to do."
Survivors include two children.