English actress who epitomised the Swinging Sixties and excelled in some of the classic films of the era
Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00
Susannah York, the actress who has died aged 72, was, along with Julie Christie and Sarah Miles, one of the quintessential faces of the 1960s, when her blonde hair and startling blue eyes won her an army of male admirers.
She starred with Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), for which she won a Bafta and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
She gave a fine performance as Thomas More's daughter in A Man For All Seasons (1966), and played what became a famous role as a section officer in Battle Of Britain (1969). She also won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Cathryn in the 1972 film Images.
But her most memorable performance was as Childie, the young lesbian in Robert Aldrich's film adaptation of Frank Marcus's hit play, The Killing of Sister George (1969). The film, which is now viewed by many as one of Aldrich's best, encountered numerous difficulties during and after the production, partly due to behind-the-scenes bitching between Beryl Reid and Coral Browne -- Susannah York's alcoholic co-stars, and rivals (in the film) for her affection.
It also ran into trouble on account of its most notorious sequence, an extended scene of lesbian lovemaking between Childie and Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) that was so explicit that it caused the film to be X-rated and banned in several locations. (It also caused Aldrich's long-time collaborator Frank DeVol to quit in disgust).
Susannah York was extremely uncomfortable playing the scene, but it carried a strong erotic charge, and her performance in the role of Childie demonstrated her versatility as an actress, allowing her to shed her typecast image as the demure English Rose.
All the same, Susannah York's memorable films were probably outnumbered by forgettable ones, and her career was shaped less by artistic ambition than by the need to support two children on her own. Never comfortable with her image as a film star -- "the blue-eyed, golden-haired ingenue", as she put it -- she later devoted herself more to the theatre, winning a new body of admirers.
She was born Susannah Yolande Fletcher in Chelsea on January 9, 1939, (although in her 'Who's Who' entry she put the year at 1942). Her father was a merchant banker, her mother the daughter of a diplomat. Her parents divorced when she was five and she rarely saw her father during her childhood; when her mother married a Scottish businessman and moved the family to Scotland, all contact was severed.
Susannah attended Marr College in Troon, Ayrshire, where her unhappiness bred a rebellious streak that manifested itself when, aged 13, she was expelled for swimming naked at midnight in the school pool: "My big mistake was my sense of fair play," she recalled. "I wasn't even caught in the pool but owned up anyway."
Stage-struck from the age of nine, when she played an Ugly Sister in a school production of Cinderella, Susannah went on to study at Rada. She was playing Nora in a Rada production of A Doll's House when a Hollywood agent approached her and offered to make her a star, landing her the part of Alec Guinness's daughter in Tunes Of Glory (1960). In 1961 she played the leading role in The Greengage Summer, opposite Kenneth More. Two years later she took the part of Sophie Western opposite Albert Finney in the Oscar-winning Tom Jones (1963).
She went on to appear with Elizabeth Taylor in Zee and Co (1972) and with Glenda Jackson in The Maids (1974).
In 1960 York had fallen in love with and married a Rada contemporary, Michael Wells. The wedding was front-page news, but as her career blossomed it swiftly eclipsed that of her husband, causing resentment and conflict. They had a son and a daughter, but the marriage eventually ended in a painful divorce in 1976.
Several romances followed, but motherhood and York's film career overshadowed all of them. As her domestic responsibilities continued to dominate her life, she found it increasingly difficult to land serious roles. She played Superman's mother Lara on the doomed planet Krypton in Superman (1978) and in its sequels, Superman II (1980) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). But in the late 1980s, as film and television offers dried up, she was forced to sell jewellery and paintings to pay the mortgage.
With her children grown up, she revitalised her stage career. In 1996 and 1997 she played Gertrude and Mistress Ford in the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Subsequently she wrote a critically-acclaimed one-woman show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women, with which she toured extensively in Britain and abroad.
York combined a keen sense of justice with a famously volatile temper. When she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? she caused controversy when she snubbed the Academy by declaring that it offended her to be nominated without first being asked.On the set of Freud, John Huston's 1962 film of the psychoanalyst (in which she played a hopeless neurotic), she was so outraged when Huston sarcastically suggested that Montgomery Clift should get a guide dog (after the actor confessed that his eyesight was failing) that she punched him.
She was associated with a number of causes, such as CND and the destruction of the rainforests, and she also took up the cudgels on behalf of Mordechai Vanunu, who was jailed for publicly confirming that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. While performing The Loves of Shakespeare's Women in Tel Aviv in 2007, she dedicated the performance to Vanunu, provoking jeers -- and some cheers -- from the audience.
Susannah York wrote two books for children, In Search of Unicorns (1973) and Lark's Castle (1975). She retained into her final years the youthful, nervy, restless quality that she had brought to the screen in the 1960s.
In 1991 she was appointed an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an award of which she was always proud.
Susannah York, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, died on Saturday. Her son and daughter survive her.