With CBS’s Beacon Hill hardly living up to its hype as the new soap of the sophisticates, the real class of the TV season may not be that British imitation but rather a genuine import, premiering on PBS this week: Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill. And the woman who plays Sir Winston’s ambitious, impetuous mum could snake her way into Yankee hearts as inextricably, say, as the characters of Upstairs, Downstairs or The Forsyte Saga. But, unlike Jean Marsh or Susan Hampshire in their time, the title character in Jennie needs no introduction to America: she is New England-born Lee Remick, a star since she played the hillbilly drum majorette in A Face in the Crowd back in 1957.
Jennie’s casting is not all that incongruous. Remick had an haute-bourgeois, finishing-school girlhood, and Jennie Jerome (1854-1921) was herself a Brooklyn-born expatriate. Lee had angled for the role since the late ’60s, when Ralph Martin’s racy biography of Lady Churchill became a best-seller. She put the idea to her agent while still in the States. But only when she transplanted herself into a new life in London did she get her shot.
“I think I understood Jennie,” says Lee. “Today she would have been running for political office in her own right, not merely in a supportive role.” As for Jennie’s purported 200 lovers by age 40, Lee scoffs, “It probably was more like 20 all-told. There was a lot of elaborate flirtation but less casual sex than now.” Lee ought to know, after struggling in and out of 80 costumes for the seven-episode series. “Those bustles, tightly-laced corsets, hoops and petticoats put the lie to notions about ‘let’s go upstairs, darling, for half an hour.’ It would take half an hour to get out of the gown.” As Jennie, Lee, now 39, ages from 18 to 67, a challenge since the episodes were not all filmed in sequence.
Lee—with her icy, blond, fragile beauty—was not exactly the image of the dark and smoldering Jennie. Physically, a closer lookalike was Anne Bancroft, who played her in the movie Young Winston (which Remick made a point of not seeing, though she admires Bancroft as an actress). Among other divergences to be bridged, Jennie was a social lioness, while Lee is a homebody. “Very nesty,” in the words of her second husband, director William Gowans. If there were no other source of empathy, at least, both Jennie and Remick had two children by their first husbands.
Kate and Matthew were 9 and 7 when Lee separated from Bill Colleran, a producer-director of TV specials for the likes of Garland and Sinatra. That same year, while in Brussels shooting Hard Contract, she met William (“Kip”) Gowans, who was the first assistant director. “Both of us were very unhappy at the time,” she remembers. He was still married to British TV actress Valerie Gearon and had two young daughters, Nicola and Justine, now 10 and 9. A year later the super-discreet Remick turned up corespondent in Valerie’s divorce suit, married Kip and moved to London for keeps. “This is my husband’s country,” Lee says, “where his life and work are. I need my family, and I want them to need me.”
Their sole residence is a five-story, $200,000 Georgian house in the pricey St. John’s Wood enclave in central London. Lee hasn’t been completely anglicized, enjoys baking American-style cookies in her American-equipped kitchen and, when she returns to her native land, running amok on shopping sprees with the kids at Remick’s, her father’s department store in Quincy, Mass. But the sign on the door of the London master bedroom attests to her new continentalization and sense of privacy—it says ‘Do Not Disturb’ in three languages. “Our idea of a vacation is to stay at home and enjoy it,” says Lee.
After making Jennie last year, a couple of TV movies (one, Hustling, will be rerun next month), the recently released feature Hennessy and the upcoming Birthmark, opposite Gregory Peck, Lee is prepared to face up to her 40th birthday. “One is supposed to be wildly upset,” she says, with a smile that deepens her trademark dimples. “But I am not.”
That tranquillity, possibly stemming from her genteel upbringing, may account for the superstardom Lee never grasped after. “I have no regrets,” she says. “I’ve never been in a great flap about my career. My agents always thought I was crazy, and I suppose I could have made twice as many films, but I was well aware of how one’s personal life could be jeopardized. That was something I didn’t want to mess about.”