Oscar Profile #404: Brenda Blethyn

Born February 20, 1946 in Kent, England to an engineer and his wife, Brenda Anne Bottle was the youngest of nine children. Married to Alan Blethyn in 1966, she worked as a stenographer and bookkeeper for the British Rail Company until her divorce in 1973 when she enrolled in the Guildford School of Acting in Surrey, England. By the mid-1970s she was working on stage having joined the National Theatre Company in 1975 under her married name.

Blethyn made her TV debut in 1980, her best remembered role during the 1980s being one of the murder suspects in the 1983 BBC mini-series, Death of an Expert Witness based on the novel of the same name by P.D. James. Augmenting her TV career, she continued to appear on the British stage, most notably as Nora in a 1987 production of A Doll’s House and Billie Dawn in a 1988 production of Born Yesterday. She made her film debut in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film, The Witches in support of Anjelica Huston and Mai Zetterling..

Visiting a sister in the U.S., she was cast in Robert Redford’s 1982 film, A River Runs Through It as Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt’s mother and Tom Skerritt’s wife, but a career in Hollywood films wasn’t to be. Her big screen breakthrough came in 1996 at the age of 50 when she starred in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies for which she won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award for Best Actress. She was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Frances McDormand in Fargo. Two years later she received a slew of major nominations including Golden Globe and Oscar nods, but no wins, for Best Supporting Actress in Little Voice.

Blethyn received a third Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in 2000’s British comedy, Saving Grace and an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the 2001 American TV mini-series, Anne Frank: The Whole Story. She would later receive a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Pride & Prejudice, but failed to receive another for Wright’s 2007 film, Atonement. She ended the decade with as second Emmy nomination for a 2009 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Although she was heavily campaigned for major awards for 2009’s London River, none materialized. In 2010 she married second husband, Michael Mayhew after a 35-year engagement.

2010 saw the British release of The Calling featuring Blyth, Susannah York and Rita Tushingham as nuns in support of rising star Emily Beecham in a film that never made it the U.S. 2010’s Dead Man Running, in which Blethyn co-starred with 50 Cent never made to U.S. theatres either but was given a DVD release here.

Since 2011, Blethyn has been seen in the highly acclaimed British mystery series, Vera while continuing to appear in other films and TV productions made in-between filming of the series.

Brenda Blethyn shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 70.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS (1983), directed by Herbert Wise

This was the first of the P.D. James novels made into a British TV mini-series starring Roy Marsden as Inspector Dagliesh. Its leisurely pace gave Blethyn a stand-out opportunity as a major suspect in the murder of her cousin (Geoffrey Palmer), the pathologist of the title. Looking and sounding very much like a young Maggie Smith, Blethyn plays secretary to the pathologist’s new boss (Barry Foster) working in the same building. Blethyn’s lesbian lover (Fiona Walker) is also a suspect until she herself is murdered, after which Blethyn’s performance reaches full throttle as she confronts the person she believes to be the real murderer.

SECRETS & LIES (1996), directed by Mike Leigh

After twenty years of high profile stage work but barley being noticed on film, Blethyn became an international star at the age of 50 playing an uneducated factory worker who gave up a child for adoption in 1968. Thanks to a change in U.K. law that now allows adopted children access to their birth parents, she is contacted by the daughter now a working optometrist. The daughter, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, is black which comes as a shock to Blethyn who doesn’t remember sleeping with a black man. To her amazement, she finds she has more in common with this daughter than with the one she raised. Blethyn won awards galore, but no Oscar.

LITTLE VOICE (1998), directed by Mark Herman

Jane Horrocks had the title role, that of a shy girl who sings her heart out to records left her by her late father. Nightly, she sings along with the recordings of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and others. Blethyn plays her vulgar, hateful mother who allows her latest boyfriend, a sleazy talent agent played by Michael Caine, to exploit her. All three stars were nominated for Golden Globes and BAFTAs, with Horrocks and Blethyn receiving nods from SAG, but only Blethyn was nominated for an Oscar. She lost to Judi Dench as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE (2005), directed by Joe Wright

Blethyn had the plum role of the overbearing Mrs. Bennett, who fretted over the future of her five unmarried daughters in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel. Although Keira Knightley was singled out by the Golden Globes, Oscar and several critics’ groups for her portrayal of eldest daughter Elizabeth, Blethyn was the only performer singled out by BAFTA for her performance. Talulah Riley, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone were the other daughters, Donald Sutherland was Mr. Bennett, Matthew Macfayden was Mr. D’Arcy and Judi Dench was Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

VERA (2011-2019), directed by Various Directors

Blethyn plays Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope who leads a squad of detectives in the bleak North of England. Blethyn’s character is obsessive about her work and driven by her own demons. The premise is that if she’s lonely she doesn’t show it and faces the world with caustic wit, guile and courage. With her timeworn raincoat and disheveled appearance, she looks like Columbo but acts more like Britain’s Morse. The series, which consists of four 90-minute episodes per year, in now filming its ninth season to be aired early next year. Her first sergeant was played by David Leon (2011-2014), her current sergeant is played by Kenny Doughty.

BRENDA BLETHYN AND OSCAR

  • Secrets & Lies (1996) – nominated – Best Actress
  • Little Voice (1998) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress

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