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Susannah York Dies: Oscar-Nominated Actress & Political Activist

Beryl Reid, Susannah York, The Killing of Sister George
Beryl Reid, Susannah York in Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George

Susannah York, one of the best (and best-looking) performers of the 1960s and 1970s, died today of bone marrow cancer. York's son, Orlando Wells (the Duke of Kent in The King's Speech and Lord Montagu in A Very British Sex Scandal), announced her death earlier today. The London-born York had turned 72 on Jan. 9.

Though hardly a household name today, Susannah York was featured in several top releases of the '60s and '70s, among them Ronald Neame's military drama Tunes of Glory (1960), Tony Richardson's Oscar winner Tom Jones (1963), Fred Zinnemann's Oscar winner A Man for All Seasons (1966), and Sydney Pollack's Great Depression classic They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), for which York deservedly received an Oscar nomination and a British Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.

Also, Robert Altman's psychological drama Images (1972), which earned York the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance as a schizophrenic housewife, and Richard Donner's Superman (1978), as Lara, the Man of Steel's mother.

York, much like Sarah Miles and more recently Emily Watson, was an actress who could easily convey a mixture of “purity” – or what passes for purity in our culture – and unbridled, no-holds-barred sensuality. As far as I'm concerned, that was her chief appeal. Add to that a rare capacity to convey emotional truth, depth, and complexity, and what you get while watching Susanna York in her best roles is something quite extraordinary indeed.

York's mix of (apparent) sexual naiveté and sexual eagerness can be attested in Tom Jones, in which she incarnates the idealized blonde, blue-eyed English Rose – one who looks as seductive as she's lovely, and who quite likely could have taught a lesson or two in sexual “depravity” to the more experienced Joyce Redman. York, in fact, is excellent in the over-the-top period comedy. Curiously, she failed to receive an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress, perhaps because the field was already crowded with Tom Jones nominees Redman, Edith Evans, and Diane Cilento.

Susannah YorkIn Lewis Gilbert's underrated adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel The Greengage Summer / Loss of Innocence (1961), York plays another sweet and innocent English lass who discovers that life also offers passion (in the form of crook Kenneth More), carnal lust, and, less obviously, even lesbianism/bisexuality in the form of middle-aged hotel managers Danielle Darrieux and Claude Nollier. (Referring to York in his autobiography More or Less, More remarked that “she was just twenty-one and an adorable creature … It was one of the happiest films on which I have ever worked.”)

In John Huston's Freud (1962), one of the director's most curious and perhaps his most underrated effort, York plays one of Dr. Freud's patients, a deceptively demure but actually sexually repressed young woman with a father fixation.

Now, Huston probably didn't find York an “adorable creature,” as the short-tempered actress punched the director after he ridiculed Montgomery Clift's failing eyesight. (In 1999, York would tell the Sunday Mirror: “I have a very quick, strong temper. I don't smash up things, I just go for people. And I never know when it's going to happen to me. I can turn in a moment. The thing about my temper is that it takes me totally by surprise so, of course, it takes everyone else by surprise too.”)

In 1966, the same year York played Thomas More's devoted daughter in A Man for All Seasons, she was brazenly sexy in Jack Smight's Kaleidoscope, opposite Warren Beatty. Two years later, she took part in a controversial lesbian triangle in Robert Aldrich's then abhorred (now admired by some) The Killing of Sister George, with Coral Browne and Beryl Reid as the other two participants. The lesbian sex scene between Browne's and York's characters was deemed so explicit that The Killing of Sister George was slapped with an X rating (today's NC-17) in the United States and was either banned or cut in a number of countries.

Susannah York, Images, Robert Altman
Susannah York in Robert Altman's Images

Susannah York, Marlon Brando, SupermanSusannah York faced complex family situations in Mark Robson's cult classic Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), co-starring Don Murray and Rod Steiger, and played opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine in Brian G. Hutton's messy – but fascinating — Zee and Co. / X, Y and Zee, in which jilted wife Taylor does whatever she can to destroy the love affair between husband Caine and York, even if that means seducing hubby's new girl. [Right: Susannah York and Marlon Brando in Richard Donner's Superman.]

Also in the '70s, York could be seen in Christopher Miles' filmed play of Jean Genet's anti-bourgeois The Maids (1974), in which housemaids York and Glenda Jackson vent their anger against their employers; Michael Anderson's Conduct Unbecoming (1975), a court-martial drama-thriller set in colonial India; Jerzy Skolimowski's horror-drama The Shout (1978), whose tagline read “A film of intense perversity – the madness of the mind”; and in a minor role in Daryl Duke's classy Hitchcockian thriller The Silent Partner (1978), written by L.A. Confidential's Curtis Hanson.

York made fewer films in the 1980s, and almost invariably in minor supporting roles. Of the ones I've seen, the one that showcased her to best advantage was Piers Haggard's romantic drama A Summer Story (1989), written by journalist and novelist Penelope Mortimer from a story by John Galsworthy. At that time, according to York's Daily Telegraph obit she fell into hard times, having to sell her jewelry and paintings “to pay the mortgage.”

In the last two decades, York's film appearances became less frequent though she resurrected her stage career (including the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1997 Hamlet, as Gertrude). I'm unfamiliar with most of her film work during that period, which included playing Sweden's Queen Christina in Carlo Vanzina's Piccolo grande amore / Little Great Love (1993); the title role in Anthony Fabian's short Jean (2000), involving hallucinations, murder, and castration; and one of London's society women frolicking with young escorts in Richard Bracewell's The Gigolos (2006).

York's last film appearance was as an emotionally unbalanced prioress in Jan Dunn's 2009 release The Calling, featuring Brenda Blethyn, Emily Beecham, and one of York's fellow 1960s performers, Rita Tushingham.

York married fellow Royal Academy of Dramatic Art student Michael Wells in 1960. As her acting career far surpassed his, the marriage ended in what the Daily Telegraph describes as a “painful divorce” in 1976.

Politically, York was a supporter of liberal causes such as nuclear disarmament and the preservation of the planet's environment. While in Tel Aviv presenting her one-woman show The Loves of Shakespeare's Women, which she herself wrote, without naming any names she dedicated the sold-out performance to Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, a pacifist jailed for 18 years – 11 of each in solitary confinement – for revealing in the mid-'80s that Israel possessed a nuclear weapons program.

As reported in the Jerusalem Post, York's declaration – quoting The Merchant of Venice's Portia – was greeted by loud boos and jeers, and “scattered applause.” (Much like Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning in the United States, Vanunu was seen by many around the world as a hero whistleblower; by their government and some of his countrypeople, as a traitor.) During the performance, York also prefaced Constance's soliloquy from King John with the following: “Mothers all over the world are still mourning their children who are the victims of war. In Iraq, in Israel, in Palestine and in Darfur.”

York later told the Post that she felt she had not “hijacked” the performance to vent her political views, adding, “A person has to do what they have to do, and I had to do this.”

Susannah YorkIn her 1999 interview with the Sunday Mirror, York had explained her life philosophy on a personal level:

“Now I recognize how lucky I've been in my life. I've had two or three long periods when I've been very unhappy, followed by the grief and emptiness of failed relationships. But more strongly than that I recognize past and present joys, and realize how fortunate I've been. And I've got a strong sense of hope in the future.”


         
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2 Comments to Susannah York Dies: Oscar-Nominated Actress & Political Activist

  1. Joseph Kearny

    Remarkable and varied career. They Short Horses, Don't They? a remarkable film and The Killing of Sister George on of Robert Aldrich's best. Loos of Innocence a good film as well.

  2. Sandy

    God Bless Susannah York.. I fell in love with her when I was only 18 and had flown to London to see my brother.. This movie was playing and I had just come out.. so blessed be Susannah.. I was off to the Nottingham Gate Bar after or was it the Nottingham Hill Gate.. so sorry.. but I do send you the angels Susannah.. and love to you always xxx
    Sandy in Toronto