Peter Dewar has always lived here.
    Writing about the West has opened his eyes to its many heroes.

    In an old photograph taken during the 1920s, eleven year-old Coral Brown is cradling a puppy in a Footscray backyard. The young teen with long dark curls is wearing a drab, oversized dress and smiles gently in the direction of the camera. Coral looks the very picture of a homely, working-class lass … something, soon about to change.

    Fast forward a decade. On the other side of the world to the smells and smoke of a factory-laden inner west, Coral is a rising star of the theatre. She conquers London’s West End; Broadway comes next, before the seasoned actress mesmerises audiences worldwide on the movie screen.

    In a career lasting almost 60 years, Coral’s star quality is beyond question. Harder to fathom is how the unassuming working-class girl in the family photo climbed to the top of show biz?

    The mention of ‘Footscray’ caught my attention during an episode of ABC’s ‘Late Night Live’. And in a conversation devoted to cultural heroes, I rediscover another inner west legend. This time it’s a girl who finds the courage, determination and unabashed self-belief to pave the way for an impossible journey.

    Coral is born in 1913 and lives in Gordon Street, then Hocking Street, Footscray. The family relocates to more affluent Kew when Coral is 14. 

    Coral’s mother was certain about one thing: her only child was not about to grow up speaking like a Footscray girl. Call it ‘snobbery’, but this woman’s insistence on elocution lessons for her daughter proves a godsend — Coral says as much years later.

    Her first big break comes working as a stage designer when a lead actress suddenly fell ill. Fate intervened, although not for the last time, and the part is offered to the up-and-coming actress. 

    A 21st birthday gift of a trip to England is the chance for Coral to further her ambitions. Ignoring the advice of a prominent actress to: ‘pack right up again and go home’, she joins a touring theatre company as an understudy. Coral will never look back.

    She makes it to the world-famous West End theatre precinct in London, and once again, Coral steps in after a leading lady is unable to perform. She establishes herself as a critically acclaimed, highly paid theatre actress who shares the stage with the leading lights of English theatre … names like Judie Dench.

    An Aussie accent doesn’t work for an actress overseas during the days of our sunburnt country’s cultural cringe. While Coral is forced to mold her voice in keeping with British actresses, the girl from the west is not about to lose herself: ‘Affected people give me a pain,’ she tells an Australian reporter. 

    On and off the stage, Coral is a force to be reckoned with. Her personal life is ‘liberated’ for the times; some call her, ‘sexually-adventurous’ and, in serial love affairs, Coral is associated with the who’s who of the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

    Coral adds an ‘e’ to her surname, providing an air of sophistication to her birth-name, a more sun flattering ‘Brown’. But there’s no chance the star will be labeled ‘pompous’. Her vocabulary, better suited to a building site, takes care of that. ‘Listen dear, you couldn’t write f**k in the dust on a Venetian blind,’ Coral famously tells the critic of a script.

    During the 1950s to 1960s, Coral stars in West End and Broadway productions. She also establishes herself in film, television and radio. Movies, ‘Auntie Mame’ and the groundbreaking, ‘The Killing of Sister George’ are among her most memorable. 

    While touring Russia with forerunner to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Coral encounters an exiled British spy (he walks drunk into Coral’s dressing room and throws up). Their meeting is made into the critically acclaimed film, ‘An Englishman Abroad’ in which Coral plays herself, and wins the 1984 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) best actress award for her performance. 

    Coral is married to agent Philip Pearman until his death, and later remarries Hollywood legend and horror film villain, Vincent Price. They live in Los Angeles until Coral dies after a battle with cancer in 1991 with Vincent at her bedside.

    It’s said the actress harboured ambivalent feelings towards her country of origin. There’s none of that on her 1948 Melbourne visit when Coral shows a keen interest in Footscray’s affairs: ‘What a pity!’ she tells a local journalist after learning that her old private school, Claremont College in Pickett St, had been closed. 

    Coral’s stepdaughter, Victoria Price, has written about her troubled relationship with the woman the world knew as a glamorous, potty mouthed and sexually liberated acting talent. However, in a recent, loving tribute, Price reminds us of Coral’s better nature: ‘She was always a fierce defender of someone she loved (often those whom society reviled) and was never afraid to call out hypocrisy.’

    Friend to the underdog … saying it, exactly how it is. Sounds very westie to me. 



    Peter Dewar
    Peter Dewar
    The west is my lifelong home, and I love writing about its people, history and places of interest.

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