Kathleen Byron, best-remembered as the sex-obsessed nun in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, died on Jan. 18. She was 88 (or 86, depending on the source) and is supposed to have been in poor health for several years.
Born in London (either on Jan. 11 1921 or 1923), Byron made her film debut playing a maid in Carol Reed’s 1942 drama The Young Mr Pitt. She had better luck four years later, playing an angel in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, a role that led to her being cast in Black Narcissus (1947).
Black Narcissus, I should note, is my favorite of the Powell-Pressburger films: partly because of its Himalayan atmosphere (though filmed within the confines of a British studio); partly because of the implosive sexual tension between a couple of missionary nuns (Byron and Deborah Kerr) and a hunky doctor played by David Farrar.
Before the final fadeout, Byron’s abstinence vows – mixed with the rarefied mountain air – makes the poor nun go totally nuts. Needless to say, she is punished for wanting to get laid so desperately. Though Byron’s performance is hardly what I’d call subtle, it is remarkable all the same. Let me put it this way: Even Bette Davis couldn’t have chewed on the fake snow with more histrionic verve.
Following Black Narcissus, Byron was often cast as assorted unstable characters. Among her later films were the (way overlong) psychological melodrama The Small Back Room (1949), also for Powell and Pressburger, and once again with David Farrar; Madness of the Heart (1949), starring Margaret Lockwood; The Reluctant Widow (1950), supporting Jean Kent; the generally well-liked Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1953); and, in Hollywood, Young Bess (1953).
Among Byron’s more recent film appearances were supporting roles in The Elephant Man (1980), Emma (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Les Miserables (1998). Lars von Trier wanted her to play Lauren Bacall’s sister in Dogville (2003), but poor health prevented Byron from taking the role. As a result, her last acting job in front of the cameras was in Stephen Poliakoff’s 2001 TV series, Perfect Strangers.