From the 1920s through the 1970s, Celia Johnson was an English actress who enchanted audiences with her performances on theater and television. No other English stage actress has ever reached the heights she accomplished in her playing career, which spanned over sixty years. She was born into a well-educated, well-respected, and rich English middle-class family and preferred to appear on stage rather than on television. This actress was known for adding a y-noise to some vowels, making her speaking stand out from the crowd. She quickly rose to prominence on stage as a result of her genuine, fresh, sensitive, and engaging performance, which lacked any false notes, sentimentality, or deceit. Her voice lacked the power required for heroic roles at low volumes, which was a disadvantage. While others were cast in all classical parts, she was exclusively cast in modern plays. She was part of a new breed of natural actors who were better at acting under the supervision of directors rather than agent managers. She rose to recognition and popularity on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway stages, respectively.
Childhood and Adolescence
Celia Johnson was born Celia Elizabeth Johnson on December 18, 1908, in Ellerker Gate, Richmond, Surrey, England. Robert Johnson, her father, was a doctor from Cambridge, Essex. He was also the Duke and Duchess of York’s physician. Ethel Griffiths was her mother.
Celia was the second of the Johnson family’s three children. Pam was her older sister.
She had a passion for performing since she was a child, and she used to put on plays with other kids. During the First World War, Celia and Pam made headlines when they organized a spectacle called “King Cophetua and the Beggar
Maid” to raise donations for the Red Cross camp in Richmond Park.
Celia and her sister received private tuition and entered in April 1919 at the ‘St. Paul’s Girls’ School’ after passing the admission test on the second attempt. During her time at this school, she learned to play the oboe, studied music under Gustav Holst, excelled in gymnastics, and appeared in four French plays.
She applied to the “Royal Academy of Dramatic Art” in 1926. She passed the test and was offered a spot at this institute to study acting. She demonstrated her acting abilities in French plays when she was there.
She enrolled in Pierre Fresnay’s ‘Comedie Francaise’ in Paris to pursue acting.
Career of Celia Johnson
Celia Johnson returned to England and hired Aubrey Blackburn as her agent to help her get theatre opportunities. He landed her a part that paid her 3 pounds every week.
In 1928, she made her stage debut as ‘Sarah Undershaft’ in Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Major Barbara,’ which was performed at the ‘Theater Royal’ in Huddersfield.
She went on to act in a few additional plays, including A. A. Milne’s ‘To Have the Honor,’ among others.
She moved to London in 1929 to star in Sir Nigel Playfair’s ‘A Hundred Years Old,’ which was performed at the ‘Lyric Theater’ in Hammersmith.
She acted in some French and experimental pieces at the ‘Arts Theater Club’ when her career was stopped.
In the film ‘The Artist and the Shadow,’ she landed a role as a French artist’s model who spoke terrible English. Her realistic performance earned her wonderful accolades, but the production was a disappointment.
In 1930, she starred alongside Sir Gerald du Maurier in the film ‘Cynara.’
She initially visited the United States in 1931 to perform as ‘Ophelia’ in ‘Hamlet’ at the ‘Broadhurst Theater in New York.’ After returning to London, she acted in a few minor roles before starring in ‘The Wind and the Rain’ for two years, from 1933 to 1935.
Her stage career took off in 1940 when she played ‘Elizabeth Bennet’ in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Mrs. De Winter’ in ‘Rebecca.’
In 1942, she made her feature film debut in Noel Coward’s ‘In Which We Serve,’ in which Juliet Mills and Richard Attenborough both made their film debuts.
She also starred in the 1944 film ‘This Happy Breed,’ directed by David Lean and scripted by Noel Coward.
In 1947, she starred in ‘This Happy Breed,’ and in 1953, she co-starred in ‘Captain’s Paradise,’ opposite Alec Guiness.
In 1945, she starred alongside Trevor Howard in Noel Coward and David Lean’s film “Brief Encounter.” In 1947, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the picture, which was released in 1946.
Because her girls were small at the time, she focused more on her family than on the theater during WWII.
She starred with Ralph Richardson in ‘The Grass is Greener’ in 1952 and ‘The Flowering Cherry’ in 1957. ‘Ten Minute Alibi,’ ‘Sometimes Even Now,’ ‘Journey’s End,’ ‘As It Was In The Beginning,’ ‘The Reluctant Debutante,’ and ‘Kingfisher’ are among her other credits.
She starred alongside Maggie Smith and Michael Redgrave in the play ‘The Master Builder’ for the ‘National Theater Company’ in 1964, and in the play ‘Hay Fever’ in 1965. She earned a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role in the film “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969.
She spent the majority of her her career on stage, but she also performed in television shows.
Achievements & Awards
In 1945, Celia Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
In 1946, she received the ‘New York Critics Award’ for her film ‘Brief Encounter.’
In 1958, she was awarded the ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ for her contributions to the theater.
She was nominated for the ‘BAFTA Awards’ five times and won in 1969 and 1973.
In 1970, she received the ‘Society of Film and Television Arts’ award for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’
In 1981, she was named a Dame of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knighthood.
Personal History and Legacy
On December 10, 1935, she married Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother and a travel writer.
From this marriage, she had three children: a son named Nicholas and two daughters named Kate and Lucy.
She had measles when she was quite little, and it affected her eyesight for the rest of her life.
Celia Johnson died on April 26, 1982, in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, England, following a stroke.
On December 18, 2008, a blue plaque was placed in her honor at her childhood home in Richmond.
Estimated Net Worth
Celia Johnson’s net worth or net income is estimated to be $1 million – $8 million dollars. She has made such an amount of wealth from her primary career as an actress.
Celia Johnson refused to write her memoirs because she believed that once the play was over, everything would be gone.