03 December 2017

Susannah York

Lovely and free-spirited English film, stage and television actress Susannah York (1939-2011) epitomised the sensuality of the swinging Sixties. Her appearances in various hit films of the 1960s formed the basis of her international reputation. She was awarded a BAFTA as Best Supporting Actress for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for the same film. For Images, she won the Best Actress award at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.

Susannah York
Spanish postcard by Postal Oscarcolor. Photo: publicity still for Freud: The Secret Passion (John Huston, 1962).

Free-spirited and unreserved

Susannah York was born Susannah Yolande Fletcher in Chelsea, London, in 1939. She was the younger daughter of Simon William Peel Vickers Fletcher, a merchant banker and steel magnate, and his first wife, the former Joan Nita Mary Bowring. They married in 1935 and divorced prior to 1943. York had an elder sister, as well as a half-brother, Eugene.

In early 1943, her mother married a Scottish businessman, Adam M. Hamilton, and moved, with her daughter, to a remote village in Scotland. At the age of 11, York entered Marr College in Troon, Ayrshire. Later she became a boarder at Wispers School in the Sussex village of Stedham. At 13 she was expelled from Wispers after admitting to a nude midnight swim in the school pool, and she transferred to East Haddon Hall in Northamptonshire.

Enthusiastic about her experiences of acting at school (she had played an Ugly Sister in Cinderella at the age of nine), York first decided to apply to the Glasgow College of Dramatic Art; but after her mother had separated from her stepfather and moved to London, she instead auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). There she won the Ronson award for most promising student before graduating in 1958.

The fair-haired York with her dreamy blue eyes performed classical repertory and pantomime in her early professional career. In 1959, she married Michael Wells, with whom she had two children, daughter Sasha (born May 1972) and son Orlando (born June 1973). They divorced in 1976.

She made an impression on television in a production of The Crucible (Henry Kaplan, 1959) as Abigail Williams opposite Sean Connery as John Proctor. Her film career began with the drama Tunes of Glory (Ronald Neame, 1960), co-starring with Alec Guinness and John Mills. She also appeared in the Norman Wisdom comedy There Was a Crooked Man (Stuart Burge, 1960).

The following year, she played the leading role in the coming-of age drama The Greengage Summer (Lewis Gilbert, 1961), which co-starred Kenneth More and Danielle Darrieux. Next, she performed in the American film Freud: The Secret Passion (John Huston, 1962) with Montgomery Clift as Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The pseudobiographical drama compresses the years it took Freud to develop his psychoanalytic theories into what seems like a few months. Nearly every neurotic symptom imaginable manifests itself in one patient, Cecily Koertner (York), who is sexually repressed, hysterical, and fixated on her father.

Then, York played brazenly seductive Sophie Western in the bawdy and robust 18th century tale Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963) opposite Albert Finney as the bed-hopping title rogue. Henry Fielding's classic novel was adapted for the screen by playwright John Osborne. It became one of the most critically acclaimed and popular comedies of its time, winning the Oscar for Best Film and three other Oscars and three BAFTA awards. Tom Jones was the third most popular at the British box office in 1963, and the 4th most popular in the United States. The film made York an international star. Roger Philip Mellor in the Encyclopedia of British Film: "With peaches-and-cream complexion, she was a cameraman's dream."

Opposite Warren Beatty, York played a a trendy Hampstead boutique owner in the crime film Kaleidoscope (Jack Smight, 1966). She also appeared in the biographical drama and Academy Award winner A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966) with Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, and in the groundbreaking lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968). Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: “Free-spirited and unreserved, she had no trouble at all courting controversy in some of the film roles she went on to play.”

Susannah York
British postcard by the Philip Townsend Archive, no PT111. Photo: Philip Townsend, 1966.

A schizophrenic housewife, engulfed by terrorising apparitions

Susannah York was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969). The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. It focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic emcee (Gig Young) who urges them on to victory. The film also stars Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Bruce Dern. Young won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while Fonda and York were nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. York lost to Goldie Hawn for her role in Cactus Flower (Gene Saks, 1969).

The Second World War film Battle of Britain (Guy Hamilton, 1969)endeavoured to be an accurate account of the Battle of Britain, when in the summer and autumn of 1940 the British RAF inflicted a strategic defeat on the Luftwaffe and so ensured the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion – Adolf Hitler's plan to invade Britain. The film drew many respected British actors to accept roles as key figures of the battle, including Sir Laurence Olivier as Hugh Dowding and Trevor Howard as Keith Park.

The next year, she co-starred with George C. Scott as Edward Rochester in the TV-adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Delbert Mann, 1970), and was Emmy-nominated for her beautifully nuanced role. She then played in Country Dance (J. Lee Thompson, 1970), one of her favourite films. It is a tragicomedy set in a fading Scottish aristocratic family, in which the drunken Sir Charles Henry Arbuthnot Pinkerton Ferguson (Peter O'Toole) has an incestuous relationship with his equally eccentric sister Hilary Dow (York).

In 1972, she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in the British-American psychological horror film Images (Robert Altman, 1972). She played a schizophrenic housewife, engulfed by terrorising apparitions. She kills off each, unknowing if these demons are merely figments of her hallucinatory imagination or part of reality. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best English-Language Foreign Film, but was not a commercial success.

York focused on her personal life, raising her two children for a time. She wrote two children's fantasy novels, In Search of Unicorns (1973, revised 1984) which was excerpted in the film Images, and Lark's Castle (1976, revised 1986).

On screen, she played Lara, the mother of Superman (Christopher Reeve) in the blockbuster Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and its sequels, Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie, 1987). She divided her time between these commercial films and art-house films like The Maids (Christopher Miles, 1974), The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) and Melancholia (Andi Engel, 1989). However, York failed to recapture the glow of her earlier screen career.

The actress decided to move to the theatre and appeared in 1978 at the New End Theatre in London in The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs with Lucinda Childs, directed by French director Simone Benmussa. This was the first of 10 projects she completed with the producer Richard Jackson. The following year, she appeared in Paris, speaking French in a play by Henry James: Appearances, with Samy Frey. The play was again directed by Benmussa.

Susannah York made extensive appearances in British television series, including Prince Regent (Ian Curteis, 1979), as Maria Fitzherbert, the clandestine wife of the future George IV, and We'll Meet Again (Tony Wharmby a.o., 1982).

Susannah York in Battle of Britain (1969)
British postcard by Dixon-Lotus Production, no. L6/8705, 1969. Photo: Spitfire Productions Ltd. Publicity still for Battle of Britain (Guy Hamilton, 1969). Caption: Appearing in uniform for the first time in the film The Battle of Britain is lovely Susannah York. She portrays Section Officer Maggie Harvey, one of the W.A.A.F. heroines of the sixteen weeks summer battle of 1940.

Evoking both cheers and jeers

In the 1980s, Susannah York played on stage with Susan Hampshire in Simone Benmussa’s For No Good Reason, an adaptation of George Moore's short story. In 1984, York starred on-screen as Mrs. Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (Clive Donner, 1984), based on the novel by Charles Dickens. George C. Scott starred as Ebenezer Scrooge, and both of her children co-starred as Cratchit offspring. In 1985 she appeared on stage in Fatal Attraction by Bernard Slade at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

In 1991, she was appointed an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters) by French culture minister Jack Lang. In 1992, she was a member of the jury at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival.

On television, York had a recurring role as hospital manager Helen Grant in BBC’s medical drama series Holby City (2003). She reprised this role in two episodes of Holby City's sister series Casualty in 2004.

In 2007, she appeared in the UK tour of The Wings of the Dove, and continued performing her internationally well received solo show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women. Also in 2007, she guest starred in the Doctor Who audio play Valhalla. She was a patron of the Children's Film Unit and appeared in several of their films. P

Politically, she was left-wing and publicly supported Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli dissident who revealed Israel's nuclear weapons programme. While performing The Loves of Shakespeare's Women at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv in June 2007, York dedicated the performance to Vanunu, evoking both cheers and jeers from the audience.

In 2007, she also became the grandmother of Rafferty, child of her son Orlando. In 2008, she played the part of Nelly in a stage adaptation by April De Angelis of Wuthering Heights. In 2009, she starred alongside Jos Vantyler in the Tennessee Williams season at the New End Theatre, London for which she received critical acclaim.

Susannah York was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, but she refused chemotherapy in order to honour a contractual obligation to appear as Jean in Ronald Harwood's Quartet, at the Oxford Playhouse in August 2010. It was her last stage appearance. Her final film was The Calling (Jan Dunn, 2009) with Brenda Blethyn and Emily Beecham.

In 2011, Susannah York died at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London from multiple myeloma, six days after her 72nd birthday.

Trailer Tom Jones (1963). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).

Trailer Battle of Britain (1969). Source: 05HK09 (YouTube).

Spanish trailer Images (1972). Source: versatilhv (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Roger Philip Mellor (Encyclopedia of British Film), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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