Joan Greenwood, of the plummy feline voice, was born in the well-to-do London section of Chelsea, the daughter of renowned portrait painter Sydney Earnshaw Greenwood (1887-1949). Dancing from the age of eight, she took ballet lessons and later enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Graduating at age 18, Joan made her theatrical debut in Molière’s “Malade Imaginaire” at the Apollo Theatre. Performing some time later in Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women”, she was noticed by Leslie Howard, who cast the diminutive lass as his leading lady in his wartime flag waver The Gentle Sex (1943). From this time onward, Joan began to alternate between stage and screen, comedy and drama. She worked during the London Blitz and toured with the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA).
The theatre saw her in classical plays with the Donald Wolfit Company, ranging from George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (as Ophelia), and Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”. On screen she gave a strong, sensitive performance in Eric Ambler’s psychological thriller The October Man (1947). She was also effectively cast opposite Stewart Granger as the fragile, conflicted Sophie Dorothea, imprisoned in a loveless marriage, in Basil Dearden’s period romance Saraband (1948). Above all, she is fondly remembered for a trio of classic Ealing comedies, conveying a measure of eroticism while remaining quintessentially “correct” and “properly British”. She purred her way through Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) (as the beguiling, but manipulative Sibella) and as Scottish Peggy Macroon she taunted straight-laced Basil Radford in Whisky Galore! (1949). She was Lady Caroline Lamb in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) and she dutifully undermined idealistic, naive inventor Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) in The Man in the White Suit (1951).
In between her two other major screen roles–Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and lascivious Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones (1963)–Joan had a brief spell in Hollywood, paired again with Stewart Granger for Fritz Lang’s gothic period melodrama Moonfleet (1955). She did not enjoy the experience. Eschewing the trimmings of Hollywood stardom, she opted instead for the uncomplicated life at Ealing, where actors “washed their hair in buckets” and lived on “toasted sandwiches, chocolates and soup”.
Joan Greenwood died of a heart attack on February 28, 1987, less than a week before her 66th birthday.