She was born in London. Her father, Cyril Conner, was originally a barrister, while her mother was Marie Stephanie Douglass. Both came from Newcastle upon Tyne. Penelope Gilliatt herself was brought up in Northumberland, where her father was director of the BBC in the North East from 1938–41, and she retained a lifelong love of the Roman Wall country. John Osborne, for a time her husband, once said in answer to her phone-call, that he was giving his all "for the burghers of Geordieland, your compatriots."
Penelope married Roger Gilliatt in 1954, and carried on using his name thereafter. Gilliatt wrote several novels, including One by One (1965),and A State of Change (1967). Her short stories were collected in Nobody's Business (1972).
As a film critic, Gilliatt wrote numerous reviews for The Observer before she began a column that ran for years in The New Yorker, in which she alternated for six-month intervals with Pauline Kael as that publication's chief film critic. Gilliatt's column ran from late spring to early fall, and Kael's for the remainder of the year. Her career as a film critic for The New Yorker ended in 1979 after it was determined that a Profile she had written of Graham Greene contained unattributed passages taken from a piece about Greene that had appeared in The Nation two years before. The fact checker had warned editor William Shawn of the plagiarism but Shawn published the article anyway. Following its appearance, Greene said that Gilliatt’s ”so-called Profile” of him was “inaccurate” and the product of a “rather wild imagination.”
In addition to her criticism, Gilliatt is remembered for writing the screenplay for Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), an accepting treatment of homosexuality. She won several Best Screenplay awards for the film, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award, Writers Guild of America, USA, and Writers' Guild of Great Britain. The screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.
Her novel Mortal Matters (1983), much concerned with shipbuilding and suffragettes, is largely set in Northumberland and Newcastle. There are several pages devoted to Hexham, and numerous mentions of Newcastle locations. She celebrates the achievements of the North East, including the vessels Mauretania and Charles Parsons' Turbinia. Gilliatt also praises the Torrens, the Sunderland-built ship on which Joseph Conrad served for two years from 1891.
Gilliatt was married to playwright John Osborne (1963-68), living at 31 Chester Square (London) in a house designed by architect Sir Hugh Casson. She gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Nolan, whom Osborne later disowned. The house was sold in the late 1980s, before she died from alcoholism. Following her divorce from Osborne, she had affairs with Mike Nichols and Edmund Wilson. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby was, for many years, her companion.
Assuming the voice of his heroine, the budding journalist Vivienne Michele in the 1962 James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming wrote, "My gods, or rather goddesses (Katharine Whitehorne and Penelope Gilliatt were outside my orbit), were Drusilla Beyfus, Veronica Papworth, Jean Campbell, Shirley Lord, Barbara Griggs, and Anne Sharpley."
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