Know Your Character Actor – Edna May Oliver

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July 20, 2013 by smumcounty

Edna May Oliver

Edna May Oliver was born Edna May Nutter in 1883 in Malden, Massachusetts, a direct descendant of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams. She left school at the age of fourteen to pursue a career on stage and found her first real success on Broadway in 1917 in Jerome Kern’s musical “Oh, Boy”. Other Broadway parts followed, including the role of Parth in the original 1927 production of the musical “Show Boat”. In 1923 she had her first film role in “In Name Only”. Other film roles followed and by the 1930’s she was one of the most recognizable character actors working in film.

oliver-ladies-juryWith what she herself referred to as a “horse-face”, Edna May specialized in playing sharp tongued spinsters and dour matrons. With a face that can kindly be termed ‘interesting’ Edna May worked more than most other pretty ingenues. But Edna May was more than just a homely appearance. Though often with a tough exterior she was able to imbue each of her roles with a warmth that made her characters stern but sympathetic.

Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy in "David Copperfield"

Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy in “David Copperfield”

Some of her most notable roles came in film versions of classic British works: The Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” (1933), Miss Pross in “A Tale of Two Cities” (1935), Aunt Betsy in “David Copperfield” (1935), Juliet’s Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” (1936), Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940).

Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers

Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers

Unusual for a character actor, she was given the lead in a series of films based on the spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers from the popular Stuart Palmer novels, playing opposite another popular character actor, James Gleason. She made three movies in total for the series, her participation in which ended when she left RKO and signed with MGM in 1935. In 1939, she was nominated for an Oscar for a supporting role as Widow McKlennar in “Drums Along the Mohawk” losing out to Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind”. Edna May’s career ended abruptly in 1942 when she died of an intestinal ailment at the age of 59.

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940):

“David Copperfield” (1935)

TCM’s Tribute to Edna May Oliver:

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One thought on “Know Your Character Actor – Edna May Oliver

  1. J.Manieri says:

    I believe the film clip is from David Copperfield. Fabulous movie. Loved her in Pride and Prejudice, she was so deliciously nasty. Once again. I never knew her name, but she was wonderful. Thanks for bringing another wonderful character actor to light.

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