We are happily informed that one of the finest-ever films about Winston Churchill, featuring the late Lee Remick as his mother in Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, is now available on CD from Amazon. It was originally a television documentary, “The life and loves of Jennie Churchill,” broadcast on ITV in Britain and PBS in the USA in 1974.
On 4 May 1991 the International Churchill Society held a dinner for Lee, then dying of cancer, on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, to present her with our Blenheim Award for notable contributions to our knowledge of the life and times of Winston Churchill. It was a bittersweet occasion, Lee’s last appearance in public. But we did her proud, thanks to the participation of a special guest, Gregory Peck, who started off with a droll story:
It was my privilege to work in only one film with Lee. It was called “The Omen.” It had to do with Satanism. It had some horrifying special effects; it was a spine tingler, excruciatingly suspenseful—and complete nonsense—and a blockbuster! People lined up for blocks to see it. While the studio executives took bows as the money rolled in, only Lee and I knew the secret of the film’s extraordinary success: We did it! It was our special artistry, our sensitive portrayal of a married couple very much in love, to whom all these dreadful things were happening. We provided the human element that made it all work.
He said all this very much tongue-in-cheek. Then he added what he had really come to say:
There cannot be another American actress so well suited, by her beauty, her high spirits, her intelligence, and more than that, by the mystery of a rare quality which I would call a depth of womanliness, to play the mother of Winston Churchill….Playing opposite this clear-eyed Yankee girl with the appealing style and femininity that graces every one of her roles just simply brings out the best in a man.
Lee was not a Lady Randolph lookalike, wrote critic Stewart Knowles: “What cast the illusion were clothes, wigs, and the talent of a great actress.” She was one of the most remarkable actresses America ever produced—from her debut in “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) and “The Long Hot Summer” (1958) through her Oscar nomination as the wife of Jack Lemmon in “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) and her final film, “Emma’s War” (1986). She won seven Emmy nominations for her outstanding roles in television docudrama, including the role of Eisenhower’s wartime chauffeur/mistress, Kay Summersby, as well as Jennie Churchill.
Although it was a great honor to welcome Gregory Peck (and amusing to watch people’s reaction as he walked with us through the ship’s corridors to our dinner), it was a very sad night, for Lee was swollen with medications and just barely able to speak. Her husband, the British film producer Kip Gowans, made sure to tip Greg in advance, for he hadn’t seen Lee in years and would otherwise have been unprepared for the change her illness had wrought—which, great man that he was, Mr. Peck never hinted he had observed.
We played excerpts from “Jennie” before giving her the award, and I noticed when the lights came back on that she was in tears.
“I was beautiful then,” she said wistfully.
“But Lee,” I said, “you still have those eyes…”