How can an actress progress through the natural stages of life, youth, middle age, old age, with her dignity, creativity and self-respect intact? The film industry, and the culture in which it’s embedded, have yet to crack that particular code. Challenging, complex roles for older actresses are hard to come by. Grow older without getting “work”—the oddly misleading term for plastic surgery—and you might stop getting actual work, the acting work that is your living and your art. Get the wrong or too obvious kind, and you’re a punchline. “Character actor” generally sounds like a compliment; “character actress” less so.
Still, if the system remains recalcitrant, there are individuals who have managed to carve a graceful path through it, reinventing themselves with aplomb while continuing to project some ineffable sense of self. Susannah York, the wildly gifted British actress who died in 2011, age 72, was a path-maker like that. For York, the challenge meant both working with and transcending her own beauty, which was straightforward, legible immediately and from all angles—not, in other words, of the unconventional variety. York felt like a rebel, and wanted to be seen as one, but her blonde, blue-eyed beauty got in the way. The sobriquet “English rose” attached itself to her early on, like a thorn, and she grew weary of it. It sparked in her a terror of being seen as dull, and eventually a series of career choices that were anything but.
York made her screen debut in 1960, at age 21, in Tunes of Glory, playing Morag, the daughter of a Highland battalion colonel (Alec Guinness) who is settling bumptiously into peacetime life just after World War II. The movie was acclaimed at the time of its release but faded quickly into relative obscurity. Tunes of Glory is an outlier amid the British New Wave films of its era—concerned with Angry Old Men, rather than young ones, with the psychological scars of war in an era before post-traumatic stress was a household term, and with the fault lines of male camaraderie at a time when the first stirrings of the sexual revolution, and a new sort of wrangling between men and women, seemed more urgent to British filmmakers. The surfeit of tartan and bagpipes onscreen, and a certain lingering staginess in the production, might make some viewers mistake it for something quainter or mustier than the prickly psychological portrait it is.
Tom Jones (1963)
York’s was not a large role, but Technicolor (Tunes of Glory, unusually for that era of British film, was shot in color) renders her big, blue eyes indelible. And as the runaway daughter in love with a young man in her father’s regiment, she gave audiences a glimpse of what she could later do so well: combine a certain fragility and delicacy in her characterizations with a robust sensuality, a warm vitality, and a strong suggestion of inner substance. Those qualities are on ample display in Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones, in which York plays Sophie Western, the high-spirited, well-born country girl who is the primary love interest of sweet, roguish Tom (Albert Finney). Tom Jones was an enormous critical and box office success (nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won four, including Best Picture) and a movie that marked Richardson’s and the British New Wave’s turn away from the drip-drip of somber kitchen sink dramas. Joyfully replete with cinematic tricks and experiments (fourth-wall breaking gazes, a silent movie interlude, a sped-up farcical chase) it captured the ribaldry and metafictional playfulness of the 18th century while presaging the carnivalesque freedoms of the 1960s counterculture. (Not coincidentally, it came out the same year the year the poet Philip Larkin declared an “annus mirabilis”—when “sexual intercourse began… Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”) One of York’s gifts to the film is her ability to convey delight with utter conviction—a surprisingly hard emotion to perform without seeming ridiculous. In a scene without dialogue in which Finney is wading into a marsh to pick flowers for her, she leans over from the waist, her hands clasped, grinning widely. (The tiny commas that curlicue York’s mouth were among her lasting expressive assets.) She jumps lightly up and down, scrunches her face, protesting at first that he shouldn’t risk it, get himself all wet and muddy—a pantomime of exuberant anticipation that stands out even in a movie brimming with happy physicality.
York was born Susannah Yolande Fletcher (York was a stage name) in 1939, in London but spent most of her childhood in the rural west of Scotland, until she was expelled, age 13, and sent to England, after taking a nude midnight swim. She discovered the power of acting at a young age, thrilled when she got a laugh from a line she delivered in a grade school production of Cinderella, playing one of the stepsisters. She went on to study in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), then got her professional start in provincial theater. From early on, the English rose showed herself to be gutsy. By her own admission, she had a temper that could overcome her all of a sudden, but when she wasn’t channeling it into furious, electric performances, she seems to have deployed it in defense of others more vulnerable than herself. Cast as one of Freud’s sexually troubled patients in John Huston’s 1962 biopic Freud: The Secret Passion, she acted opposite Montgomery Clift in the title role. It was a volatile set. Clift, who died four years later, at age 45, of a heart attack, was in poor health, struggling with addictions to pills and alcohol, and with eye problems that affected his vision. Huston was frustrated with Clift’s performance and “felt uneasy” with his homosexuality, according to Huston’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers. York was young, new to the film business, and grateful to Huston for casting her—but she also thought he was cruelly bullying Clift, whom she empathized with. One day when Huston made fun of Clift’s damaged vision, York “threw herself at Huston, and taking both of them by surprise, hit him with her fists.” (Huston apologized to her and kept her on, which perhaps says something redemptive about him in this otherwise upsetting episode.)
For a couple of years starting in the mid-’60s, York found herself cast in a lighter mold, as the groovy, madcap girl about town in British or British American films that tried, not terribly successfully, to cash in on the cachet of Swinging London. An interviewer referred to them as “jolly blonde” roles; York herself dismissed them as “sweet young things.” In Kaleidoscope (1966), a labored caper picture with Warren Beatty as an international playboy gambler, she was a sexy, insouciant young designer. In Sebastian, (1968) a Cold War comedy with Dirk Bogarde as an international playboy spymaster, she was a sexy, insouciant young code breaker. She looked great in her Carnaby Street miniskirts and fitted trench coats, but sexy insouciance was just one of her many registers. The quiet, intelligent devotion and pale, fresh-scrubbed face she brought to her role as Thomas More’s daughter in A Man for all Seasons (1966) was another. But York clearly wanted more than either of those personae offered—parts that were weirder, darker, more unhinged. As she once told an interviewer for The Toronto Star, her ideal résumé would begin: “Hard-working character actress who longs to play drunks and nasties.”
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
From the late ’60s to the late ’70s, she took a series of difficult roles in difficult movies. Though she is often thought of as an actress whose golden period was the 1960s, it was late in that decade and even more so in the ’70s that York got her glorious freak on. She made what was then a brave and potentially career-killing decision to play Childie, the young apex of a lesbian triangle in Robert Aldrich’s 1968 film The Killing of Sister George. (The two actresses she starred with, Beryl Reid and Coral Browne, did not get along, and York, who was friendly with both, described herself, memorably, as “the jam in the sandwich” on set.) The movie traffics in pulpy lesbian stereotypes—the predatory older butch, the weak-minded, seducible femme—that turned off many viewers, gay and straight, then and since. But York, Reid, and Browne play their parts with verve and headlong commitment. And like the lurid, mail-order novels the film resembles, Aldrich’s film at least acknowledges and centers the existence of lesbians. A sexually explicit scene between York and Browne resulted in a X rating for the film under the then brand-new MPAA ratings system. The lesbian literary critic Terry Castle remembered it as “incredibly hot film in a way that wasn’t duplicated for a long time.” A scene shot in a London lesbian bar, the Gateway, lends the film a certain documentary significance. York, who was straight, said in a 1980 interview, “I think the film really is pretty crude and rough and very vulgar in lots of ways. But it had tremendous vitality. And it was brave in the sense that it was [one of] the first films… on a lesbian theme.”
Her plaintive performance in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. One of the grimmest explorations of capitalist greed and human degradation ever made in Hollywood, the film is at once an existential nightmare and a fairly authentic depiction of the grueling dance marathon craze in Depression-era LA. York plays a wispy, platinum blond aspiring ingénue who breaks down completely when one of her fellow dancers dies in front of her. And in 1975, she took on a deeply discomfiting role as one of the two murderous servants (Glenda Jackson was the other) in an adaption of the excoriating Jean Genet play The Maids.
In the ’70s, York also made a pair of folk horror–inflected films set in the Irish and English countryside, respectively: Images directed by Robert Altman in 1972, and The Shout, made by Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski in 1978. Images, like Altman’s later (and better) Three Women (1977), deals with themes of fractured identity and doppelgängers, in a trippy, vaguely feminist key. York plays a children’s book author coming undone, summoning apparitions of a dead lover and an alternate self—in between, she cooks meals for and placates her goofy, oblivious, possibly philandering husband, nicely played by René Auberjonois. It’s a chilly movie, gorgeously shot (by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) in a wintry Irish landscape, and York, who reads, in a voiceover, from a fantasy story she later published, is excellent in it. She won Best Actress at Cannes for the role. In The Shout she plays a loving wife (to John Hurt) cast under a sinister sexual spell by Alan Bates’s intrusive stranger. It was an era in which filmmakers were particularly preoccupied with the porous lines between sanity and insanity, madness and civilization, and York took full advantage of the wild parts for women that preoccupation yielded.
The film industry was less cooperative in the ’80s and beyond. She played Christopher Reeve’s mother in the 1978 Superman and in two sequels, the second only as a voice. She appeared, at a low point, in several episodes of The Love Boat. York had married fellow RADA student Michael Wells in 1960, and the couple had two children, Sasha and Orlando, before divorcing in 1976. She devoted herself to raising them, while sustaining a friendly relationship with her ex-husband. Like her fellow British actresses Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie, York was drawn to left-wing politics and causes, and became an activist, especially for nuclear disarmament.
In the last decades of her life, York turned back to the theater, where she found meatier roles. The drama critic for The Guardian, Michael Billington, who got to know her in her later years, remembered her in an obituary as an astonishing stage presence, unbothered “by fame and celebrity,” and willing to “go anywhere and do anything if she felt the project was right”—directing Pushkin and Cocteau plays in regional theater, touring with a demanding, one-woman show about Shakespeare’s heroines, playing “a semi-naked Amazonian warrior,” and a 19th-century woman who lived her life as a male hotel waiter in connubial bliss with a chambermaid. She got to play her drunks and nasties and so much more, and all with what her son once called “a fire within her, a huge warmth… like she’s lit from within.” The light never burned out.
Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century.
Susannah York in 2005. Image courtesy of Carolyn Cole and The Los Angeles Times.