The actress Anne Heywood, born Violet Joan Pretty
Violet Joan Pretty was born on 11th December 1931 in Handsworth. Her father Harold was a former orchestral violinist, now working in factories. The family was not well off. She joined St Mary's School at the end of August 1938 from York Road School. The family had moved into a new council house at 147 Shaftmoor Lane after a year at 49 Lyncroft Road. During the War the family moved to Erdington, to 197 Bleak Hill Road, where they stayed until c.1950. Violet went to Fentham Road Secondary School. Her mother died suddenly when she was a few months past her thirteenth birthday, and she had to leave school at fourteen, in order to to look after the younger members of her family. This frustrated her wish to go on to art school. She worked for three months as an usherette at the A.B.C. Palace cinema in Erdington at the age of fourteen. Michael Blakemore has revealed that she worked previously at the Plaza, Stockland Green.
In 1947 Violet joined Highbury Little Theatre in Sutton Coldfield, remaining there for two years. In the same year she won Birmingham University's Carnival Queen title. Among a dozen more beauty titles the most prestigious one was in 1950, the National Bathing Beauty Contest, held in Morecambe from 1945-1980, and which from 1956 was called Miss Great Britain. Interestingly, another Birmingham girl, June Mitchell, had won three years earlier. As contestant number 16 accepted her £1000 prize and a silver rose bowl on 30th August 1950, who could have foreseen the amazing paths her career would take? (We are grateful to Morecambe Library for their help with this information).
In 1951 Violet had a part as a beauty queen in the film "Lady Godiva rides again". In the same year she was signed up by a Canadian compere called Carroll Levis, well known for his talent-spotting ventures. She featured prominently in one of his Discoveries shows for four years, touring at theatres around the country, and she appeared on television three times with the show. Around 1955 she was spotted by a talent scout for Rank while playing the principal boy in Aladdin at the Chelsea Palace. That year she changed her name to Anne Heywood, and in 1956 was given a seven year contract with Rank as an actress. In 1957 she had a part in "Doctor at large", and a string of other films followed. Some more interesting detail about her early life is in the Chicago Tribune's issue of 27th April 1958.
Probably the 1963 film "The very edge" gave a hint of what was to come. In that film she won praise for her portrayal of a wife who was assaulted in her own home by a psychopath (played by Jeremy Brett). Her husband found himself unable to cope with her troubled state. Her portrayal of the psychological bond she had with her attacker, of her dramatic confrontation with him, and of the assertiveness she needed to try to save her integrity showed she had the ability to explore deeper, troubled parts of the human psyche.
In the summer of 1964 filming started on the first Anglo-Czech co-production, a film called "Ninety degrees in the shade". Anne played a clerk involved in an intense physical relationship with her boss, who was stealing from the business. Investigators put pressure on Anne's character, who could not make herself reveal her lover's crimes, and she took her own life. The film was praised by Hitchcock, and won the International Critics' Prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Altogether Anne starred in over thirty films, in Italy and in Hollywood as well as in Britain, many produced by her husband, Raymond Stross, whom she married in 1960. She starred alongside Robert Mitchum in A Terrible Beauty (1960, also known as The Night Fighters) and Gregory Peck in The Chairman (1969), and starred in The Fox (1967), for which she won a Golden Globe for Actress in a Leading Role. In that film, adapted from a D.H. Lawrence novella, she played Ellen March, a woman in a lesbian relationship whose life is turned upside down by a rather silent and macho man who comes between her and her lover.
"The Midas run" was filmed in Italy in 1969, and Anne starred alongside Fred Astaire and Ralph Richardson. She also sang in the film. The producer was Raymond Stross, her husband. Fred Astaire was very annoyed that a revealing love scene between Anne and Richard Crenna had been inserted into the film after he had finished his contribution, in order to raise box office appeal. "They've forgotten a seven letter word - decency...They [sexual scenes] weren't in the script, or I wouldn't have done the film. People wrote and said they were surprised I would appear in such a film. I was as surprised as they were. I will not be a part of something crummy. I wouldn't go to work if I had to do something distasteful to me" (quoted in TV Guide, 11th April, 1970). In the film "I want what I want", made in 1970, Anne played a young man who wanted to be a woman, and who had the surgery following self-mutilation. This is another example of Anne exploring the anguish and suffering that can be associated with sexuality.
In fact Anne Heywood will probably be remembered for two rather different kinds of roles: nice girls, and then those exploring themes which extended the boundaries of "acceptable" content. Some of her films, like those involving nuns being tortured and raped, earned her the criticism of being involved in "exploitation". Anne herself was unapologetic about these kinds of roles. In 1969, in the magazine Life, she said: "I'm attracted to strange parts because they are more complicated than those of straightforward persons. You have to dig deep to find out how they tick. Besides, these are the kinds of pictures people want to see". Anne's husband, in an interview in Films and Filming in 1971, spoke in glowing terms about her contribution to the films: "Let me say that she has one of the finest minds, and one of the most enquiring minds, of any person I have met...She is dedicated - to an extreme. She has no ego other than the will to do her best. She is not prepared to give anything less than one hundred and one percent the whole time. This goes to the minutest details". Anne was the subject of a half-hour documentary broadcast on Sunday 26th November 1972 on BBC1. Michael Aspel told the story of the former beauty queen who had made it in the big time as an actress, and made a million along the way. Anne had overcome the handicap, as it were, of being a beauty contestant to be taken seriously as an actress.
It is interesting to mention local newspapers' approach to Anne. One the one hand, she comes from Birmingham and is therefore a local heroine, but the roles she has specialised in raise eyebrows. Perhaps the best expression of this tension is the biographical article in the Sunday Mercury in October 1992, written as Anne was about to visit Birmingham as guest of honour at the Birmingham International Film and Television Festival. The headline is: "Return of a girl who shocked the world!", yet the article spends half its time emphasising how Anne never used sex as a means to get on, and how important marriage and motherhood are to her. It is as if they assume that readers see screen roles as a simple reflection of personal behaviour, and need to prove that their heroine is not a sex-crazed person. At the same time, however, they are only too happy to stir up interest with sensationalism.
Raymond Stross died in 1988, and Anne later remarried, to George Druke, a former Assistant Attorney General of New York State. He died in 2021. She lives in Beverley Hills. Her life story has been described as Cinderella or rags to riches, but those labels perhaps don't emphasise enough her determination, her ambition, and the role of fate. In 1974, in an interview for the Birmingham Mail, she said: "Strangely enough, had I not left school early to help with the family, I would have taken up a scholarship to the College of Art, and never become an actress".
The best online list of her films is at the Internet Movie Database site, but not all dates are reliable.
Anne Heywood's details can be found by searching the Startiger site, but you have to register. The Glamour girls of the silver screen website has collated information from many sources, including this one.
Images of Anne Heywood can often be found at Moviemarket and on the various Ebay websites, and, of course, by doing image searches on search engines.
The information for this page has been put together mainly from resources in Birmingham Central Library. We do not know who may own the rights to the images below: if anyone does and wishes to claim the rights we will remove them from this page. We have no intention to infringe any copyright.