May 18, 1941 – Miriam Margolyes
“I’m not the sort of woman men boast of having slept with.”
The very embodiment of character actor, I just love every Margolyes performance I have seen, and she has had roles in some of my top favorite films: Romeo + Juliet (1996), Cold Comfort Farm (1995), The Age Of Innocence (1993), Little Shop Of Horrors (1986), but you kids probably know her best as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. I can proudly say that I worked in a film with Margolyes in 1990.
She began her career as the only woman in the 1962 edition of Cambridge Footlights revue sharing the stage the future Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and she went on to work with Barbra Streisand, Martin Scorsese, and me (we did a film together in 1990).
Margolyes works on stage, and in television and film in Europe, North America and Australia. She was Madam Morrible in the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked (2006-08). She won a BAFTA Award for The Age Of Innocence (1993) and the LA Critics Circle Award for her role in Little Dorrit (1987). I gave up counting her roles at number 101, but her credits include all sorts of genres: the voice of Fly the dog in Babe (1995), Yentl (1983), I Love You To Death (1990), Cats & Dogs (2001), and Magnolia (1999).
In the 21st century, she has played Gertrude Stein in Modigliani (2004), and was terrific in István Szabó‘s Being Julia (2004) with Annette Benning and Ladies In Lavender (2004), with fellow Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.
She has extensive television credits; and oh, she is a fantastic, favorite The Graham Norton Show guest.
So much work, so many credits, yet Margolyes has mused about why she hasn’t achieved the levels of success she thought she would:
”I’m grateful to be working at my age, genuinely humble. I’m still someone people want to watch, although I’m surprised I haven’t been more successful. I’d have thought my particular brand of quirkiness, combined with sharp intelligence and a fine voice, would have yielded more. But it hasn’t. Yet! Maybe it’s because I’m fat. It’s jolly hard to lose weight. I’m peeved, but it would be stupid to feel bitter. I don’t know why they don’t ask me to do things, but since they don’t, I’m not waiting, darling. Haven’t got time for that. Tick, tick, tick. Maybe it’s for the best, though. As Oscar Wilde says: ‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers’.”
On her BBC America Miriam’s Great American Adventure, she shared her road trip through the heartlands of Middle America to learn about the people. Here is a selection of her best quotes:
”I am prejudiced. I am prejudiced against people who voted for Donald Trump. I’m prejudiced against the rich. I don’t like people who have facelifts.”
”I just get so irritated because young people use the word ‘like’ all the time. It wasn’t ‘like’ Tuesday – it was either Monday or Wednesday or it was Tuesday. There is nothing like Tuesday. There is only Tuesday.”
”If you’re going to wear a lipstick, don’t pussyfoot around with pink. Get on with it.”
”Americans judge people very much by their outward appearance, and when I turn up looking like I do, it puts people off and they think I’m slightly mad.”
”Remember I’m English. We hug at the end of things, not at the beginning.”
In Miriam’s Big American Adventure, she jokes with a cowboy about the fact he’s never met a Jew before, and politely debates a Christian mother of 12, who is home schooling her kids to teach them Creationism. A group of survivalists stocking up on assault rifles tell her: ‘We’ve been preparing for the end of the world for the last 30 years.”
On a visit to Harrison, Arkansas, dubbed the most racist town in America, Margolyes asks to talk to the local Klu Klux Klan, yet they refuse, so she tracks down the leader of a local alt-right group named Pastor Mike who refuses to meet with a Jewish lesbian and only takes questions from the show’s straight male director via his headset.
Fortunately, Margolyes meets Zena Stephens, the first black female sheriff in Texas, leaving Margolyes with some optimism about America as she wonders just how united the United States really is:
”Trump says follow me and I will lead you to the promised land. And they believe him.”
Margolyes is a Palestinian Human Rights activist, a member of the British-based ENOUGH! coalition that seeks: “…a just settlement between Israelis and Palestinians”, and a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
Like me, Margolyes is an only child, and like me, she has found it a mixed blessing:
“I happen to think that being an only child is inevitably damaging in some way because it too intensely focuses you on your parents and deprives young people of the socializing they must experience in order to fruit properly. I was terribly anxious to make friends; and I’m still needing people rather more than I should be, even at this advanced age. I think my friends felt sorry for me and thought it would be good for me to see less of my parents.”
She admits to self-centredness, claiming it can be a hazard for the adored “only”, and she describes herself as “appallingly selfish throughout my life”.
For the past six years, Margolyes has toured the world in her critically acclaimed one-person show, Dickens’ Women, where she plays 23 of Charles Dickens‘ most colorful female and occasionally male characters. She writes that she shares with Dickens “an element of excess and a kind of willful greed for what we want”.
She explains that she had a promiscuous period in her early life that deeply hurt her partner Heather Sutherland a retired Australian academic. They have been a couple for 50 years, and finally cured of her randiness by three recent years of therapy.
“I used to sleep around and be silly because I thought I was an ugly, fat little person and couldn’t believe that anyone would want me. So I did it to prove I could get someone – and my partner felt terribly hurt.”
She also writes that coming out to her parents as gay when she was 20-years-old caused much misery. She shared everything with her mother, which she regrets:
“I used to get into bed with my mother every morning, almost until she died, and talk about everything. She was my closest confidante always. I had no secrets from her. She was overpowering, a huge personality who didn’t rein in her emotions. She was an exuberant, abundant person and a great, great character.”
The revelation shocked her mother and father, who wanted their only child to have a conventional Jewish marriage, with children. Shortly after Margolyes made the announcement, her mother had a severe stroke that crippled her. Margolyes:
“My mother was obsessive about me and a worrier by nature, so it can’t be the shock didn’t contribute to her stroke. Her death seven years later liberated me from her, in a way, because although she had met my partner by then and got on with her, Mummy would have had no scruples in trying to divide us. In some ways I think it was a good thing that she died when she did because she could have affected my relationship with my partner. Although my parents both liked her, they just didn’t approve of a same-sex relationship. Nowadays people say that you must let children be what they are, but when I was growing up, the parents defined the child – and my parents had a definite vision of how they wanted me to be.”
Margolyes’ father took the news badly also:
“He was appalled and disgusted and disappointed and made me swear I would never sleep with a woman again, although I knew perfectly well that was an impossible promise to keep. They made me swear on the Bible in the drawing room, in the most formal way, that I would never sleep with a woman again.”
Although she believes in Marriage Equality, Margolyes says she doesn’t feel the need:
“We don’t see the need for a civil partnership either, for any public demonstration of a life lived together for all this time. I think life is sweeter shared; and if anything were to happen to my partner, I would find it really hard without her because she’s the perfect person for my life.”
Margoyles says her father’s reaction was particularly extraordinary because he was a doctor and held progressive views about prejudices such as racism. However, he could not tolerate his daughter being a lesbian. Margolyes:
“The curious thing is that I embraced homosexuality with as much joy and delight as I’ve embraced everything else in my life. I really don’t bother much with sex any more. I’m not interested. But I remember it, very affectionately.”