Constance Cummings, 95, a versatile actress whose series of dramatic triumphs on the American and British stage culminated in a Tony Award for Arthur Kopit's "Wings," died Nov. 23 in Oxfordshire, England. No cause of death was reported.
Born in Seattle, Ms. Cummings rose swiftly from the chorus to featured parts on Broadway ("you should have seen those high kicks of mine").
Lured to Hollywood in 1930, she showed a lovely Cinderella quality in forgettable melodramas and soon left for England to enhance her stage career. She had married Benn W. Levy, a British playwright and stage director who became a Labor Party politician and anti-nuclear campaigner.
Ms. Cummings played repertory roles at the Old Vic theater in London and showed herself adept in her husband's light comedies as well as in the role of the title character in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." At the time, theater critic James Agate called Ms. Cummings "an incontestably fine emotional actress, up to anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter."
By the early 1950s, she began to focus almost entirely on darker-themed works. She was the wife of an alcoholic actor in Clifford Odets's "Winter Journey," a predatory spouse in Joseph Kramm's "The Shrike" and the cruel lesbian Inez in Jean-Paul Sartre's "Huis Clos (No Exit)."
Ms. Cummings once said of Inez: "I found little seeds of her dreadfulness in myself, things I could build on. It was a marvelous liberation. I'd never opened myself before and taken such a plunge."
An acclaimed 1964 London staging of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" united her with Ray McAnally as combative alcoholic spouses George and Martha. And in 1971, as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, she was said to equal the pathos of Laurence Olivier in a production of Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical drama "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Her finest reviews were for "Wings" (1979), about an aged aviatrix and wing-walker who teeters between lucidity and stroke-induced confusion. New York Times critic Richard Eder called her performance "one of those occasions where an actor and a role meet and strike an incandescent life out of each other."
Constance Halverstadt was born May 15, 1910, to a lawyer and a concert soprano. Dancing from an early age, she made a professional acting debut at 16 with a San Diego troupe.
After chorus parts on Broadway, her breakthrough occurred when producers of the Ring Lardner-George S. Kaufman comedy "June Moon" (1929) asked Ms. Cummings and the other understudies to play leading roles in a Saturday matinee performance. They wanted to see who might be suitable leads in the road company production.
Ms. Cummings told the Times of London: "It just so happened there wasn't much going on in the theater at that time, and a roving reporter on the [New York] Sun heard that this was happening, so he went in and saw the play, and wrote a charming little piece saying how nicely we had done it. And the next thing I knew, I was being given a film test and taken out to Hollywood to play the leading lady to Ronald Colman" in the film "The Devil to Pay!"
Producers then replaced her with Loretta Young. A sympathetic Colman ordered a powerful agent to find Ms. Cummings work, saying, "Look, just get her one job in any film so that when she gets back to New York she can say, 'Oh, well, I just did a different film.' "
Columbia pictures picked up her contract and cast her opposite Walter Huston in Howard Hawks's drama "The Criminal Code" (1931). The next year, studio chief Harry Cohn tried to dissuade her from acting in Harold Lloyd's now-classic farce "Movie Crazy" (1932), telling her "Harold Lloyd only wants dumb blondes; his leading ladies are nothing."
She later said: "I'd read the script and I thought it was delightful. I'm not sure how I did it, but in the end I convinced [Cohn]. It was the first time I raised my voice in Hollywood."
She appeared in more than 20 films during the next five years, working with such directors as Frank Capra ("American Madness," 1932), William Wyler ("Glamour," 1934) and James Whale ("Remember Last Night?" 1935).
Of the last, she once laughed about how it sneaked into theaters just before a crackdown on impermissible onscreen behavior: "I don't think there's ever been a movie that made drinking look so glamorous and chic. That's the whole point, though. Somebody has been murdered, but we're all so hungover we can't remember a thing."
Perhaps her best-known screen role was in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" (1945) as the humorless second wife of writer Rex Harrison. She is taunted by the ghost of her mischievous predecessor, played by Kay Hammond. But as film critic Ronald Bergan noted in the London Guardian: "The problem was that Cummings was far more attractive than Kay Hammond in the role of Harrison's first wife."
In a sporadic film career, she also shone in "The Battle of the Sexes" (1959) as an American efficiency expert sent to update an Edinburgh, Scotland, textile firm. Peter Sellers, as a meek accountant, tries to kill her.
Ms. Cummings remained a prolific actress on British television and radio until recent years. Off-Broadway in 1982, she won raves in Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden" as the wealthy widow to Irene Worth's mysterious governess. At 90, she toured in Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."
After her husband's death in 1973, she divided her time between her London home, designed by architect Walter Gropius, and a dairy farm in Oxfordshire. At both redoubts, she was considered a delightful and unpretentious hostess.
She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974.
Survivors include two children.