Brenda Fricker

Brenda Fricker

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent on November 11, 2007.

Brenda Fricker tilts her distinctive mane of grey curls forward towards me. ‘Can you tell I cut it myself?’ she asks me. ‘Be honest now. Well I did. One handed. It doesn’t look too bad does it?’

She recently broke her shoulder and elbow changing a light bulb which explains the arm in the sling, but she’s not happy with this version of events. ‘It’s a little dull, a little domestic’, she tells me. ‘We’ll have to think of something else for this. Maybe we can say I broke it on the ski slopes. Or something dirty. Something sex-related. Would that be ok?’

She tells me the pain has made her ‘a bit cranky’ and the pain killers are making her vomit but today she doesn’t seem irritable at all, instead facing down the situation with wisecracks and humour. ‘That’s necessity’ she tells me ‘I’d love to have someone who came running when I rang a bell, or a whole roomful of servants to shout at. But it’s just me.’

She puts a brave face on it but you sense sadness underneath and indeed for some of our chat she seems almost on the verge of tears. Truth be told it’s been a rough few months for her. Aside from the arm there was the day and night during the terrorist threat that she was trapped inside Glasgow airport – the experience terrified her so much it left her with a stammer – and she was also diagnosed diabetic. Then, more recently, she lost her dear friend and confidante, Anthony Clare, who counselled her through her depression, which she has suffered from, she says, since she was ten years old. ‘I took medication just to see what it was about’, she tells me. ‘But sometimes I’d just ring him and say ‘I need to be put into hospital, I’m not safe to myself.’ He was a huge help and a wonderful person.’

Those ‘madnesses’ she tells me, have their uses, and she has drawn on them over the years in her performances. She has of course had a singular career and is by far the most successful Irish actress ever, with an impressive list of television and film credits, the latest of which is a turn as a cantankerous old broad in How About You, an adaptation of a Maeve Binchy short story. The film – a heartwarming story of feuding inmates in a high class nursing home – reunited her with her old friend Imelda Staunton and also gave her the opportunity to work with Vanessa Redgrave, an experience she describes as ‘very special.’

Fricker’s most famous role though was of course that of Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1989. Coming after the bleakness of the ‘80s it was a moment that seemed to kick off a decade of prosperity and national confidence and home and she remembers it as being like ‘scoring a goal for Ireland, the best feeling in the world.’ She had been an outside bet that year and not everyone was thrilled at her surge up on the inside. Julia Roberts (who had been nominated and hotly tipped for Steel Magnolias) refused to speak to her, Oliver Stone ‘nearly knocked me down as he stormed past’ and Diane Wiest snubbed her at the show. ‘I suppose they are part of big studios that have put a lot of money into their films so it was natural they wouldn’t be thrilled’ she remembers. Back home the reception was also mixed. At the time Fricker was working on the BBC drama Casualty and almost nobody in the show congratulated her on her win. ‘Eventually the News of the World bought me a bottle of champagne and told me the BBC bought it and photographed me with it. I was mortified when I found out.’

At home in Ireland however people were jubilant. Her father, a subeditor with the Irish Times, who had gotten her first job as a journalist – ‘purest nepotism, darling’ – was awoken by Gay Byrne to the news that his daughter had won the Oscar. ‘He was thrilled, delighted I’d done well.’

To outsiders she tells me, they would have been a normal middle class Dublin family. ‘But behind the scenes there was a lot of violence and lies.’ The violence came at the hands of her mother, who was, she says ‘probably manic depressive.’

‘My relationship with her was tricky’, she tells me. ‘I’d say she had a tough old time inside that head of hers. I’m trying to forgive her. I have to do that. I’m getting there.’

Her father and mother died around the same time and it was also in the same year – ‘I couldn’t tell you which one – I’ve deleted it’ – that her husband, director Barry Davies died. ‘He fell down a stairs drunk. I was filming Brides of Christ in Australia at the time and they wouldn’t let me come home to the funeral because technically I wasn’t married to him at the time, we’d divorced. They were threatening legal action. If it was now when I’m bigger and bolder and wiser I’d have just walked out but I stayed and I missed the funeral and….’ Her voice trails off before she tries again. ‘You know there are some kinds of grief you’ll experience that will change the way you walk. That’s what it was like. I was going to buy a house in Terenure but I had to show that I was a widow for some legal reason. And I couldn’t do it. I didn’t take the house.’

Their marriage, she tells me, was ‘unconventional’. ‘But then, as Judy Dench says, all marriages are unconventional. He was a difficult man and I was a difficult woman. He was fiercely intelligent, far brighter than me, I think, and that was hard to be around sometimes. He was married but separated when I met him and we were married at Acton Town Hall. It was one of those things where we decided on a Monday and did it on a Friday. We were like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, we broke up and got back together a few times. I miss him terribly.’

The movie database website describes her as ‘frumpy, maternal’ and she admits she got into ‘a bit of a dangerous area’ of being typecast as a mother in the wake of her success with My Left Foot. ‘Which was strange in a way, not being a mother myself’. Did she ever have any regrets on that score? ‘Well I never had children but it wasn’t for want of trying. I would have liked children. But I have a wonderful niece and nephew. And I’m a grand-aunt now which sounds rather grand.’

She tells me that most of the people she knew in Dublin are ‘dropping like flies.’ They’re all dying on me. I’m getting to the stage now where I’m getting the phone out and going ‘he’s gone, she’s gone.’ She doesn’t keep in touch with Daniel Day Lewis (‘does anyone, other than the wife?’) but tells me that Shirley MacLaine is trying to get him to do a film on the life of controversial theatre critic Kenneth Tynan.

The painkillers are beginning to wear off and our tea has gone cold. And later on Brenda’s got a screening to attend with Maeve Binchy, who has, she tells me, been ill lately. ‘It’s tough at the moment because I can only get dressed once a day. So you’d better go before I really do get cranky’, she laughs giving me a very non-luvvie kiss on the cheek. Somehow I can’t imagine that.


~ by Donal Lynch on January 8, 2008.