Remembering Lee Remick as Lady Randolph Churchill

Remembering Lee Remick as Lady Randolph Churchill

Lee Remick 1935-1991

May 2021 marks thir­ty years since we lost dear Lee Remick. She was the accom­plished actress who brought Win­ston Churchill’s moth­er vivid­ly to the screen.

One of the finest-ever Churchill films,  Jen­nie: Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, is avail­able on CD. 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. Co-star­ring with Remick were Ronald Pick­up as Lord Ran­dolph Churchill and War­ren Clarke as young Winston.

Lee and Greg

In 1991, two months before she died,  we held an award din­ner for Ms. Remick on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. It was a gala evening to cel­e­brate her film con­tri­bu­tion to our knowl­edge of Churchill’s life and times. And a bit­ter­sweet occa­sion, for she was strick­en with can­cer. This would be her last appear­ance in pub­lic. We did her proud, thanks to the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a spe­cial guest, Gre­go­ry Peck, who added lus­ter and elo­quent words.

It was fun to watch people’s reac­tions as Mr. Peck and his wife Veronique walked the ship’s pas­sage­ways. But sad­ly, Lee was swollen with med­ica­tions, bare­ly able to speak. Mr. Peck hadn’t seen her in years. Her hus­band, British film pro­duc­er Kip Gowans, briefed him in advance. The con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­al, Gre­go­ry Peck spoke as if noth­ing had changed:

It was my priv­i­lege to work in only one film with Lee. Its title was “The Omen.” The theme was Satanism. It had some hor­ri­fy­ing spe­cial effects. It was a spine tin­gler, excru­ci­at­ing­ly suspenseful—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 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.

“A depth of womanliness”

Lee in Lon­don, 1974. (Pho­to by Allen War­ren, Wiki­me­dia Commons)

He said all that 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.

Creating the illusion

Lee as “Jen­nie” (ITV)

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). She was Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed for play­ing the wife of Jack Lem­mon in “The Days of Wine and Ros­es” (1962). And again for her final film, “Emma’s War” (1986). She won sev­en Emmy nom­i­na­tions for out­stand­ing roles in TV docu­d­ra­ma. One of these was play­ing Eisenhower’s wartime chauffeur/mistress, Kay Sum­mers­by.  Anoth­er was for “Jen­nie.”

We played excerpts from the film before giv­ing her the award. When the lights came back on there were tears in her eyes.

“I was beau­ti­ful then,” she mur­mured wistfully.

“But Lee,” I said, “you still have those eyes…”

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