Monday, September 21, 2020

Diana Rigg: In Memoriam

Dame Diana Rigg (1938-2020) as Emma Peel in the 1960s TV series The Avengers. (Photo: Terry Disney)

Diana Rigg, who died on September 10 at the age of eighty-two, belonged to the first generation of classically trained English actresses who were permitted to be devastatingly sexy as well as brilliant (Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren). Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1959, she became an international sensation over her three seasons as Emma Peel on the television series The Avengers. Mrs. Peel, as her sleuthing partner John Steed (Patrick McNee) always called her, could down a villain with a kung-fu kick and then dispatch him once again with a wisecrack, delivered with the effortless dryness of a perfect martini. And she wore leather!

Rigg played Emma Peel between 1965 and 1968, the year she entered the movies as Helena in Peter Hall’s modern-dress RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a terrible movie (the shots don’t even match) but she’s the only performer who isn’t defeated by it: as a mini-skirted schoolgirl Helena, she acts modestly and with complete naturalness, even when she’s directed to hug a pillar – which turns out to be her loveliest moment. But her first real movie was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), where she plays Tracy, the only woman who ever gets to wed James Bond. It’s the sixth film in the series, and the first not to star Sean Connery. Rigg’s leading man is George Lazenby, a handsome stiff, but she’s so exquisite and the movie is so engaging that, amazingly, he doesn’t spoil it; you simply can’t recall anything about him when you think about it years afterwards. In the opening scene she strolls into the ocean in a luscious butterfly-wing robe; Bond saves her from suicide and, not being a fool, proceeds to fall in love with her. The bouffant hairstyle she’s been given accentuates her high forehead, her elongated face and her swan’s neck; she looks like Nefertiti reincarnated as a sixties icon. The photographer, Michael Reed, lights her radiantly. Tracy is the first feisty Bond girl, the first witty one, and certainly the first one with authentic emotional depth. She’s also the first one to break your heart when the movie gives her a tragic ending.

Though she was a memorable Hedda Gabler on British TV in 1981 (in an otherwise dismayingly genteel production), as a rule Rigg combined a high-comedy coolness with tremendous warmth. Even as Hedda she isn’t a cold fish, because you’re always conscious of the misery beneath her hauteur and disdain. She doesn’t play her scenes with Denis Lill as Tesman as if she were being intentionally mean and condescending to him; it’s clear that her marriage was the desperate act of a woman with no better options, and now that she realizes, returning from the honeymoon, that she’s made a bad bargain she can’t help picking at him. Really, it’s as though she were picking at herself, taking herself apart. She could certainly play a villainess, as she did in the three-part Gothic Mother Love, which aired here on the PBS Mystery! series in 1990, and as Regan seven years earlier in the Laurence Olivier King Lear. But her genius was for revealing two opposites at the same time, the remote, sharp-edged exterior and the shattered woman inside. She’s at her most extraordinary as Lady Dedlock in the first BBC dramatization of Dickens’s Bleak House (1985), who has buried herself in a superficial aristocratic life, concealing the wound that can never heal, the loss of an illegitimate daughter in her youth; as her hidden story spins out, Rigg shows us exactly what it has cost her to obey society’s demands. She and Denholm Elliott (as John Jarndyce) give matching performances of tremendous stature. When Gillian Anderson took over the role in the remake twenty years later, I thought she proved herself a worthy successor to Rigg – and I could think of no higher compliment.

Rigg distinguished herself many times on the stage in roles I wish I had seen her play – Célimène in John Dexter’s version of Molière’s The Misanthrope, Phyllis in Follies in the West End, Ruth Carson in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day. (She originated the role in London; I saw Maggie Smith do it on Broadway.  Smith was marvelous; it would have been a treat to be able to compare their approaches.) I saw her live on three occasions: in Jonathan Kent’s production of Medea (she and the set were great; the show, alas, was not) and twice as Mrs. Higgins, in Pygmalion in London in 2011 and in My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center seven years later. She was the only bright spot in the first, one of many in the second. She had lost none of her sleek elegance, and not one ounce of her unflappable wit.

Just before Mother Love aired, Connoisseur magazine asked me to write a short piece about her. It was only the second season of her long-running gig as host of Mystery! and she was shooting her intros at WGBH in Boston, so I was instructed to invite her to dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, where she was staying. I hardly need say that I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was a Sunday night and the dining room was half-empty, but it seemed to me that everyone there was either staring at the peerless Diana Rigg or viewing me with baffled annoyance (as in “Who the fuck is he?”) Since most of the men of my vintage, who saw The Avengers as high school kids, and many of the women, had no doubt fantasized about her, no one else could believe my luck either. One of my dearest friends had been in love with her since he was in college, and I think that it may have been the only time in our forty-year friendship that his affectionate regard for me was challenged by his (understandable) envy. The future Dame Diana – she was knighted in 1994 – was generous enough to give me three hours of her time, and she was charming, funny, and unfailingly kind: of all the collaborators whose names came up during the evening, she made a small derogatory remark about only one, and it was on behalf of a beloved star she thought he had slighted. (And then she made me promise I wouldn’t repeat her comment in print.) In my professional career I can honestly say I’ve never spent a more delightful social evening. 

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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