Peggy Ashcroft is not a Dame to be trifled with. Watch her bristle if you make a fuss about the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that she’s favored to pick up next Monday (for her role as the kindly, mysterious Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India). Yes, she’s expected to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, but it’s really only a stopover en route to a reunion with family in Hawaii. Hollywood glamour is unlikely to seduce Ashcroft, who, at 77, is an authentic jewel in the British theater’s crown. “I’ve never really wanted to be a film star. It seems to lead only to tax problems,” she has said. And, to Ashcroft’s horror, it would raise the prospect of “having my nose straightened and my teeth fixed.”
Ashcroft almost turned down A Passage to India because of the bother. When director David Lean offered her the role two years ago, she squared her diminutive form and said: “Look, you know, Mr. Lean, I am 75 and I don’t know if I can take this on.” Lean was unperturbed. “I’m 75, too,” he told her. “I thought, ‘Oh, dear. I really don’t want to do it,’ ” recalls Ashcroft. “But it’s very difficult to turn down a Lean film. So finally I said, ‘Yes…please.’ ”
As a result, she’s the new empress of Indian extravaganzas. Besides her precisely shaded performance as Mrs. Moore, she appeared as the mesmerizing missionary Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown (now in its final week on PBS), a haunting performance that has kept Americans riveted to their TV sets for 14 weeks.
Ashcroft’s immersion in the Indian subcontinent began a few years ago, when she devoured Paul Scott’s four-volume Raj Quartet novels from which The Jewel in the Crown was derived. Later, hearing by chance that the novel would be made into a TV series, she told the director, “I want to be in it.” Soon Dame Peggy and her good friend, Rachel Kempson (Lady Manners in the series and the real-life wife of Michael Redgrave and mother of Vanessa and Lynn), left for Simla in the Himalayas. On one bitter cold day, the two grandes dames of the British stage huddled in the same bed sharing a hot-water bottle.
The stalwart Dame Peggy was born in Croydon, outside London, the daughter of an amateur stage actress and a real estate agent. A professional actress since 1926, she has played some 70 roles, ranging from Shakespeare’s wispy Juliet to Ibsen’s calculating Hedda Gabler, and made a few films, notably The Thirty-nine Steps and The Nun’s Story. “I don’t know what drives one on,” she once confessed, “except that it’s a way of life and you stick to it until your last.”