Monday, September 29, 2014

THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF JUSTINE WADDELL


                                                "And the storybook comes to a close,
                                                  Gone are the ribbons and bows . . . ."
                                                                -- from Pretty Maids All in a Row, the Eagles
                                                                   Joey Vitale and Joe Walsh

                In the year 2000, she was the undisputed new darling of the British entertainment world, and rightfully so.

                She was Justine Waddell, a strikingly beautiful Scotch-English Cambridge student who had taken time off from her studies to perform brilliantly as the starring ingénue in a succession of superb television dramatizations of nineteenth century literary classics and other distinguished productions.

                In her first appearance on the screen, she literally glowed in the title role as the ethereal, mentally mysterious adolescent, Millie, in Catherine Cookson's The Moth.  In an auspicious opening scene, she emerged from out of the night like an angelic visitation in a glowing white hooded cloak, seeming to float through the air in a hauntingly gorgeous vision like the very embodiment of Claire de Lune.  After a subordinate role as Countess Nordston in a film version of Anna Karenina, she played the innocent and vulnerable victim of a diabolical, switched-identity murder plot in Wilkie Collins' masterpiece, The Woman in White.  Waddell's soft-spoken, low-key character was overshadowed by Tara Fitzgerald's portrayal of the novel's resolute lady avenger, but Waddell played her supporting part in the submissive, yet appealing, tone demanded by the story.

                        Justine Waddell, unforgettably beautiful as Tess of the D'Urbervilles

                Ms. Waddell then advanced to a pair of moving and memorable starring roles in two of the most beautifully produced and acted period pieces that have ever graced a television screen.

                There have been numerous television and cinema productions of Hardy's great tragic novel, Tess of the D'urbervilles, but A&E's 1998 presentation stands out as a genuine masterpiece of quality television drama.  From her opening scene with a bevy of white-gowned dairy maidens dancing in a pastoral rite of spring, to her tragic exit in the shadows of Stonehenge, Ms. Waddell's luminous beauty and simmering dramatic conviction produced a perfect portrayal of the iconic Tess against the lush backdrop of the Wessex landscape.  In an unusually demanding and physical role that placed the young actress center-screen for nearly the entire three-hour production, Waddell conveyed the doomed milkmaid's pastoral innocence, suppressed passion, and enormous moral fortitude and strength in a magnificent performance that would have been a delight to Thomas Hardy himself (who was said to have been enamored of his own lovely literary creation).  An excerpt of one of her more riveting scenes from the film is embedded below.

         A compelling excerpt from Ms. Waddell's stellar portrayal of Tess in the A&E production

                Although Waddell's sublime performance in Tess did not receive the widespread public attention it deserved – Tess's relentlessly tragic story might be a bit too grim for contemporary audiences -- her next leading part certainly did.  Her sparkling role as the irresistible Molly Gibson (one critic was so smitten she said you "could eat her with a spoon") in the BBC's mini-series production of Elizabeth Gaskell's classic Wives and Daughters proved a smashing and celebrated success with British viewers, as well as the critics.  The show was deservedly showered with prestigious awards, including a Broadcasters' Guild Best Actress award for Ms. Waddell.

                Surrounded by a stellar and seasoned ensemble cast that included a virtual A-list of the British acting elite – Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes, Rosamond Pike, Ian Carmichael, Tom Hollander, and many others – Waddell still managed to somehow steal the show with her appealing portrayal of a genuinely attractive and noble heroine.  In a video "short" feature on the making of the mini-series, fellow cast member Bill Paterson (who played Molly Gibson's father) explained the unusual appeal of Ms. Waddell's Molly:  "Molly is one of the best human beings I suppose you can come across in literature. . . .  Something saintly comes out of her, but not cloying."

                After the spectacular success of Wives and Daughters, the sky seemed the limit for Ms. Waddell.  A wave of laudatory publicity and acclaim followed, including cover stories in chic magazines like Harpers and Queen.  Meanwhile, the U.S. broadcast of the popular mini-series brought the classy British starlet to the favorable attention of American audiences.

                Justine Waddell possessed every quality one would expect in a serious, thoughtful, and glamorous actress of the first order.  She seemed destined to become one of the genuinely accomplished and classy superstars of her era – rather a brunette British version of Grace Kelly.

                                  Waddell as a spot-on Natalie Wood in the TV bio-pic

                Physical beauty is commonplace in the acting profession, but the chestnut-haired Ms. Waddell's stunning, delicately-featured visage stood out even in that brilliant company.  A slim, wasp-wasted 5-foot-7, she had the easy, athletic grace of a Hepburn – whether Katherine or Aubrey (who were, interestingly, both the same height as Waddell).  But the most conclusive proof of her truly extaordinary beauty is this:  she was selected to portray the illustrious Natalie Wood -- who has been accurately described as the most beautiful actress of her era -- in Ms. Wood's televised bio-pic, and the reviewers were astonished at the spot-on likeness of Ms. Waddell's portrayal.  Her successful roles also included some of the most iconic "beauty parts" in literature, including the man-killer Estella in Dickens' Great Expectations and the lovely embodiment of the "child of nature" she portrayed in Hardy's Tess

                Superior intelligence and scholarship, on the other hand, are not commonly found in the acting world, any more than they are commonplace elsewhere.  But Justine Waddell managed to earn her B. Phil. in Political Science and Sociology at Cambridge University's elite Emmanuel College, even while she was meeting a demanding schedule of film and theatrical engagements.  Moreover, Waddell performed her demanding literary roles with an intelligence and sensitivity that clearly reflected the understanding she had gained from actually reading and grasping the novels in question.  And her refreshingly thoughtful responses to interviewers' questions (see below) reflected an incisive and original mind that is rare in the often superficial circles of the entertainment world.

                Superior dramatic talent also seemed to come naturally to Ms. Waddell.  Wholly apart from serious television dramas, she simultaneously developed her acting skills in the demanding arena of the British live theatre, where she excelled.  She earned "sensational reviews," as well as a nomination for an Ian Charleson theatrical award, for her role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Chekhov's The Seagull, and also excelled in the London presentation of Chekhov's Ivanov.  One need only view several of the excerpts from her performances in Tess and Wives and Daughters, published on YouTube, to recognize this lady's exceptional dramatic ability.

                Finally – and most importantly to SR – Justine Waddell appeared to possess a refreshing sense of decency and moral integrity not commonly found among stunningly beautiful British celebrity actresses.  It was not merely that all of the roles that led to her stardom as a princess of the costume drama could be described as edifying and admirable – the kind of performances one would be quite comfortable viewing with one's teenage daughters.  Although there is much to be said for that factor alone in this era of general cinematic depravity.  More tellingly, in an interview with the BBC ("Justine Waddell Plays Molly Gibson") regarding her celebrated role as Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters, Ms. Waddell offered some interesting comments lamenting the sexual precociousness of contemporary teenagers:

                        "The other attraction for the actress was the character's purity.  'Molly
                is very caring about people' Waddell says.  'It's good that she takes people on
                trust.  I like the fact that she is old-fashioned and sexually naive, too -- she
                doesn't give a damn about what she looks like.  Nowadays teenagers are so
                sexually precocious; we've lost that sense of childish innocence."

                  These personal qualities did not arise mysteriously out of whole cloth.  On the contrary, Justine Waddell was blessed with superlative genes and what must have been a highly educational and cosmopolitan upbringing.  Her father was Gordon Waddell, also a Cambridge graduate, who had been the captain and star rugby player for the Scottish national team.  He was also a member of the South African Parliament – Ms. Waddell was born in Johannesburg and lived there until she was eleven -- where he was a staunch opponent of apartheid.   Mr. Waddell was also a prominent and successful international businessman.

                Given all this, one would need to search hard indeed to find an actress with greater promise and prospects than those facing Justine Waddell at the turn of the last century.

                But just when she seemed so surely destined for an illustrious and positive career, something went wrong.  Seriously wrong – at least professionally. 

                Around the turn of the century, she made an abrupt transition from the refined precincts of serious literary period pieces and costume dramas to the crass and crude arena of the big-screen cinema.  Perhaps she felt the need to step out of the Victorian confines of high-wasted gowns and drawing rooms, to explore the brave new world of latex-suited "action girls."  Whatever the motivation, the change of scenery and sensibility just didn't work for Ms. Waddell.

                Her first foray into a big-screen starring role was in what seemed like the hundredth remake of the increasingly tiresome Dracula saga – in this case, what was first dubbed as Wes Craven's presentation of "Dracula 2000."  The new twist of this version was that the ubiquitous vampire (played by Gerard Butler, later to gain superstardom as the sculpted Spartan-king of 300 fame) was presented as the reincarnation of Judas Iscariot, who preened and "vamped" in determined pursuit of the virginal Mary Heller (Waddell's role), the daughter of an hereditary vampire slayer.  Although the movie gave Waddell the "opportunity" to emerge from nineteenth century gowns and drawing rooms as a 21st century vampire slayer, it was otherwise a popular and critical bust.  Her venture into the vampire world did more to dim her star, rather than brighten it.

                After the Dracula fiasco, this talented and lovely A-list actress inexplicably descended into what can only be described as a netherworld of flawed and failing films.  Starting with a British-made romantic comedy bust (The One and Only), descending through several profoundly awful "action" thrillers that thrilled no one (Chaos and Thr3e), and then meandering into a bizarre art film in which Waddell presented an exotically gorgeous image for the cameras in a stunning Chinese-empress-inspired costume, but had little to say dramatically or otherwise (The Fall) – Ms. Waddell's choice of roles seemed to go from bad to worse.

                More recently, she has found herself in secondary roles in such dubious productions as something called Killing Bono (about a British rock group frustrated by their inability to match the rise of U2) and The Enemy Within (a  German-produced docu-drama about the career of the much maligned anti-communist U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy).

                It might not have been so depressing if the elegant Ms. Waddell had merely been victimized by unfortunate roles in awful films.  But it was worse than that. 

                Perhaps motivated by her evident intellectual curiosity and adventuresome cultural tastes, Waddell accepted a role in a futuristic, semi-sci-fi Russian-made film about a group of jaded Russian elitists who pursue a source of extreme rejuvenation at an abandoned radiation-collection site in the Mongolian outlands. Waddell learned to speak Russian in preparation for this strange film (released in 2011), but apparently not well enough to speak her own lines, which were dubbed by a native Russian woman.  The film purports to be in the art film genre, and bears certain rough parallels in its relentlessly depressing plot to Anna Karenina (Waddell's character falls into doomed adultery with a swaggering horse-lover and commits suicide by high-diving into the path of a train). Wholly apart from the film's dramatic flaws and commercial obscurity, Ms. Waddell inexplicably made an abrupt and regrettable deviation from the admirable personal modesty of her prior film career. To put it as delicately as possible, she appears in scenes which would have made Molly Gibson blush crimson and which we can only hope were filmed with the assistance of a body-double.  It would be bad enough had Ms. Waddell stooped to such embarrassing scenes in a prestigious cinematic masterpiece; to have made them in an obscure Russian misadventure is doubly depressing, especially for those who fell in love with her charming and edifying portrayals of demure heroines like Molly Gibson.
     
                Measuring Ms. Waddell's beauty, brains, and acting credentials against the succession of awful films in which she found herself cast upon moving into big-screen cinema, one can only remark:  What was her manager thinking?  In today's cultural wasteland, genuine theatrical treasures like Waddell are depressingly rare, and the career of one of the very finest of her generation was literally being wasted on a succession of sordid or superficial cinematic disasters.  It would not take a theatrical genius to recognize that these crass or bizarre productions would not provide a flattering showcase for an elegant and edifying talent such as Waddell's.

                On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that a deeply intelligent, highly educated, independent woman like Ms. Waddell would defer to her manager or agent in setting the direction of her movie career. It is possible that she was completely indifferent to a career of conventional film stardom, and deliberately bypassed more popular, commercially oriented roles in favor of more original or adventuresome productions. But a moment's consideration undermines that proposition; the films in which she appeared on abandoning the refined world of the costume drama were so consistently awful that it is most unlikely that a lady of Ms. Waddell's intelligence would deliberately seek them, given reasonable alternatives.

                One is ultimately left to hazard a depressing explanation for Justine Waddell's disappointing "fade-out" from the heights of early stardom in beautiful and edifying period pieces to lesser roles in the netherworld of vacuous contemporary film flops.  The world of popular culture and cinema in the 21st century places a premium on the vulgar, the vacuous, and the sexually provocative.  The very qualities that enabled Ms. Waddell to portray virtuous nineteenth century heroines with such conviction, intelligence, and authenticity were likely incompatible with the tasteless and superficial priorities of those who control the boorish star-making machinery of these cultural dark ages.  Waddell may have been relegated to the cinematic obscurity in which she found herself simply by the philistene tastes of the times.

               Sadly, to paraphase the Eagles' song, "Gone are the ribbons and bows" of Justine Waddell's early triumphs in the costume dramas and period pieces of quality television drama.  But fortunately for those who appreciate such cultural treasures, they will be preserved and appreciated in the proper places long after her unfortunate misadventures on the big screen are quietly forgotten.

13 comments:

  1. I thought she was haunting in "Great Expectations" which featured another actor Ioan Gruffudd, who' had problems with early career promise..

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  2. Well I really do hope she comes back, I loved her in the mystery of Natalie Wood, and I was surprised for reviewers like Roger Ebert and people like them to give her movies 4/4, 7.5/10 ratings! Yeah sure, some of her other movies like Dracula 2000 might've not done well, doesn't mean she can't make a HUGE comeback! If she does, I'll definitely root for her, she deserves an academy award and definitely deserves the spotlight respect of a high profile actor. Justine, make a really good comeback!

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  4. A rare gem of a beauty , her acting was like a bliss in cinematic chaos , I saw Tess of deurbvilles and could not think of any one bringing justice to the role than Justin Waddell. I hope she realises her true talent and do what she does best.

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  5. A rare gem of a beauty , her acting was like a bliss in cinematic chaos , I saw Tess of deurbvilles and could not think of any one bringing justice to the role than Justin Waddell. I hope she realises her true talent and do what she does best.

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  6. The best Tess I've ever had the pleasure of watching. What a performance!

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    1. Indeed. Quite a few fine actresses have tried their hand at capturing "Tess" over the years, but none come close to Justine Waddell's moving and convincing portrayal.

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  7. For years I've silently wondered this about her career, until I just now stumbled across your blog and realized I'm not the only one confused. I so wish she had done more.

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  8. I have been thinking the same as everyone else. I first saw her in The Woman in White with Egg from This Life, now Walking Dead, and thought she was very good.

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  10. I actually went to school with her, was even in the same class. She got all the main parts in the school plays even then. What a talent!

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    1. Interesting. Was that at Cambridge University, or what we call high school in America? Was she a friendly and likeable sort of person?

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