In 1984, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Blair Brown were all nominated for best actress at the BAFTA TV Awards in London.
Yet an exuberant Australian, whose name seems to have been all but forgotten, took out the award instead.
Coral Browne took home the award for her role in the film An Englishman Abroad. It was a high point in her illustrious career.
But how did the woman who grew up in 1930s Melbourne and who was renowned for her almost comedic use of profanity, make it on both the stage and screen in London and Hollywood?
And isn’t it time more Australians knew about her?
From Footscray to London
Playwright Maureen Sherlock’s recent work is titled Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady.
She was inspired after discovering Browne’s memorabilia at Melbourne’s Arts Centre.
“There was no indication of the beauty that was going to be within these brown cardboard boxes,” she says.
Inside Browne’s boxes, she found a treasure trove of photographs, notebooks and letters from family, friends and lovers.
Sherlock learnt that Browne grew up in Footscray under the watchful eye of a pretentious parent.
“Her mother was very snobbish and decided that Coral was not going to have a Footscray accent and sent her to elocution lessons,” she tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.
Brown — the extra ‘e’ came later — landed her first acting role by accident while she was painting a set in the Playhouse theatre in Melbourne.
“One of the actresses fell ill and she was asked to take over the role which she did. And she went from there, really,” Genevieve Mooy says. The actor has played the lead role in some Australian productions of Sherlock’s play.
“That happened to her many times, that she kind of fell into the role because somebody had been unwell.”
Brown moved to England in 1934 when her parents gave her a return boat ticket for her 21st birthday.
“They didn’t think that she was ever going to make it [as an actress] so they thought ‘Let’s get this out of her system'”, Mooy says.
Her first break in the UK theatre world was in an understudy role in a touring company. When the production moved to the West End, the leading lady once again fell ill, and Brown was ready to take centre stage.
From then on, she was regularly in residence at the Savoy Theatre during the 1940s. Within a decade, she’d made a fortune and performed with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Gracie Fields.
She was often cast in the ‘vamps, floozies or trollops’ roles, in which she thrived, Mooy says. In some ways, this was inspired by her off-stage love affairs.
“She was very much the sort of experimenter and very brave in her sexual exploits.”
According to Sherlock, she had affairs with actors like Fairbanks and Paul Robeson, photographer Cecil Beaton and more, and her keepsakes were in her boxes.
“She has kept her telegrams and love letters from all of these guys that she was having affairs with,” Sherlock says.
“There are scribbled notes from Paul Robeson that say, ‘I can’t stand this. It’s been three days since I’ve seen you. I’m sending this via messenger, please respond immediately’. And you can just feel the tension.
“But yes, it’s just amazing to be able to go and hold these notes and letters and cards that she kept, which is interesting.”
She also had affairs with women, something her second husband Vincent Price joked about.
“When Coral was near death, the local priest asked Vincent if she had any favourite hymns. And Vincent said ‘Yes, she had some favourite hymns. She had quite a few hers as well’,” Sherlock says.
Browne made the shift to Hollywood and Broadway, after she toured the US with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Again, she was a success, appearing in films such as Auntie Mame and The Night of the Generals with Omar Sharif.
In 1968, Browne filmed one of the first lesbian love scenes in a mainstream film in The Killing of Sister George, opposite actor Susanna York.
“The director [Robert Aldrich] told them from the start that he couldn’t write the scene, so he said to them both, ‘Well just make it up as you go along’. And Susanna York was quite terrified of this whole thing,” Mooy says.
But between filming and the movie’s release, the US movie industry implemented a new rating system. The film received a X rating for its sex scene, which inevitably impacted its success at the box office.
Aldrich spent thousands of dollars battling the rating through the courts but his lawsuit was dismissed.
Browne met her second husband Vincent Price – the American actor and master of horror films — when they were cast in the movie Theatre of Blood. He played a Shakespearean actor seeking revenge on his harsh critics, and she played one of the critics.
They fell in love, and she married him when she was 59.
“It was a love match late in life, but it was a real love match. What she didn’t realise was that he was married at time, and she had to wait for him to divorce,” Mooy says.
As well as being a talented actress, Browne was also very resilient.
Just before she began filming her BAFTA-winning role in An Englishman Abroad, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She went into the filming, knowing that as soon as it was finished, she would have to go into hospital,” Sherlock says.
She continued to fight the disease for the rest of her life. About a decade later, in 1991, Browne died of breast cancer, aged 77.
Wit sparkles beyond the grave
Browne’s story is brought to life in Sherlock’s play This F***ing Lady, and it surprised even those who thought they knew her.
Price’s daughter, Victoria, reached out to Sherlock after seeing it in London.
“She sent me an email saying, ‘This f**king lady was my stepmother’,” the playwright says.
The pair eventually met.
“[Victoria] actually said she found out things about Coral that she didn’t know. It was wonderful .”
Browne was much loved. When she was living in Los Angeles, she and Price befriended Australian comedian Barry Humphries.
When she died, he put his sadness into words.
“She left behind an emptiness, a gap, a void, a trough. The world is quite a good deal less since Coral Browne f***ed off,” Humphries wrote.
“Her beauty and her shining wit sparkle beyond the grave. The girl who didn’t give a shit, preposterously brave. And yet we also mourn for her, her genius to a front. The phoney and the crashing bore, the coward and the c***.
“Loyalty and love she lavished free on lowly friends and well-born, like Murdoch, Melba and like me, she was marvellously Melbourne.
“Uniquely minded, queen of style, no counterfeit could coin you. Long may you make the angels smile until we all f*** off and join you.”
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