Although five of Garson's seven Best Actress nominations came
for films in which she appeared in black and white, she was nonetheless
famous for her red hair, blue-green eyes and alabaster complexion.
Though EILEEN EVELYN GARSON claimed all her life to have been born
to George and Nina Sophia Garson in County Down, North Ireland on September
29, 1908, her birth certificate (discovered shortly before her death) revealed
she had been fooling the world for decades. Actually, her birth took place
four years earlier, in 1904, and in a small house in London. Her father
died when she was only four months old however, and little Eileen remained
with her mother in London where money was tight and she was frequently
sick with chronic bronchitis. As a youngster, she proved a very capable
student and eventually received a scholarship from the University of London
where she earned a B.A. degree with honors in French and 18th century literature.
Young Greer (a name derived from her mother's Scottish clan's name, MacGregor)
was expected to go into teaching, yet had caught the acting bug at an early
age and began to attend amateur dramatic society meetings in the evening
while she worked day-time jobs for Encyclopedia Britannica and a market
After finally joining the Birmingham Repertory Theatre full-time,
in 1932 Greer made her stage debut in "Street Scene" and was
acclaimed by the critics as a promising newcomer. Two years later she made
her London debut at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park and in 1935 made
her first West End appearance in "Golden Arrow" opposite Laurence
Olivier. The play was a flop, but both Garson and Olivier
received good reviews and her career continued to look promising. In 1937,
after a performance of "Old Music," MGM
head Louis B. Mayer visited
her and eventually talked her into signing a one year contract with the
studio for $500/week. She returned to Hollywood with Mayer,
but sat idly by for the better part of a year because the studio couldn't
decide what to do with her.
Garson receiving the 1942 Best Actress Oscar from the previous year's winner,
Eventually she returned to England where MGM's
Sam Wood was to film
GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939) with Robert Donat, and Garson made her film debut
as his inspirational young wife who dies in child birth, earning an Oscar
nomination for her performance. Suddenly MGM
seemed to have found Garson's niche, and she became one of Hollywood's
biggest stars of the 1940s earning five Best Actress nominations in a row
for such prestige films as BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST (1941), MADAME CURIE
(1943) and MRS. PARKINGTON (1944) (all opposite Walter
Pidgeon) as well as THE VALLEY OF DECISION (1945) with
Gregory Peck. She won her only
Oscar as the title character in the patriotic home-front drama and Best
Picture of 1942, William Wyler's
MRS MINIVER, which became
her most famous role and guaranteed her future typecasting as women of
noble, intelligent fortitude. Her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech
is now famous as being the longest in the history of the Academy Awards.
Though it is often reported as having been over an hour, historians now
record it as only having been about five and a half minutes long -- it
just seemed longer because it was at the end of a very long evening, and Garson decided
not only to thank everyone, but also to bring a few issues of her own to
the Academy's attention.
Garson had been married to British civil servant Edward Alec Abbot
Snelson in 1933, and though the marriage only lasted a few months, it was
not formally dissolved until the early 1940s. Following the filming of
MRS. MINIVER, Garson married
actor Richard Ney (almost fifteen years her junior) who had played her
son in the film, but they were divorced in 1947.
Her screen career declined
after World War II, and efforts to broaden her range of characters such as ADVENTURE
(1945) with Clark Gable and
JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948), although profitable, were not particularly well-received.
Between 1949 and 1953, Garson suffered through a string of lackluster box-office
disappointments including THAT
FORSYTE WOMAN (1949), THE MINIVER STORY (1950), and SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953),
all of which co-stared Walter Pidgeon
with whom Garson had made four of her most successful films in the early
1940s. The commercial failure of THE MINIVER STORY, the sequel to Garson's
Oscar-winning blockbuster MRS.
MINVER (1942), was also a personal disappointment to Garson who had
contributed ideas to the screenplay and in which she had given one of the best
performances of her career. Following a small role in JULIUS CAESAR (1953)
and a flat comedy entitled HER TWELVE MEN (1954), Garson asked to be
released from her MGM contract.
In 1949 Garson had married Texas cattle rancher and oil man Elijah E. "Buddy" Fogelson
and the couple maintained residences in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New Mexico,
where Garson became involved in farming and breeding race horses. Garson did
not stop acting altogether after her 1954
departure from MGM however. In 1958 she took over the title character
from Rosiland Russell in Broadway's "Auntie Mame," and in 1960 made an Oscar-nominated
comeback film performance as Eleanor Roosevelt in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO
(1960). Her seven total Best Actress Ocsar nominations have only been bettered by
three other actresses-- Katharine Hepburn
(12), Bette Davis and Meryl Streep (10 each).
Garson continued to make occasional appearances in film and on television
in the '60s and '70s, though her last roles were in Disney's
THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (1967) opposite Fred
MacMurray and in a mini-series version of "Little Women"
for NBC in 1978. Garson became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951 and in
1977 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ulster. Later
she turned her attention mostly to philanthropic causes related to the
performing arts, being especially supportive of the theatre division of
the Meadows School of Arts at Southern Methodist University where in 1990
she gave $10 million toward the construction of the school's Greer Garson
Theatre. In 1980 she suffered a heart attack, and a year after her husband
died, underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 1988. The British government
named Garson an honorary Commander of the British Empire in 1993. She died
of heart failure on April 6, 1996 at the age of 91 and is buried in Texas.
To the end of her life, her motto was always, "Keep your horizons
wide and your waistline slim."