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RIP Susannah York (1939-2011)


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By Olga Craig, Ben Leach and Roya Nikkhah 9:05PM GMT 15 Jan 2011

 

She was the blue-eyed English rose with the china-white skin and cupid lips who epitomised the sensuality of the swinging Sixties. Sexy and demure by turn, Susannah York, who died yesterday from cancer at 72, held a generation of male admirers in her thrall.

 

Her wide-ranging career, which won her both a Bafta and an Oscar nomination, oscillated between powerful portrayals of either the dutiful woman or the wanton wife. The zenith of her career was surely her roles as Thomas More's daughter in A Man For All Seasons, in 1966, and her passionate performance as the feisty section officer who took on Kenneth More in the acclaimed film Battle of Britain in 1966.

 

But York was not an actress whose career was shaped by her artistic ambition. Instead, as a single mother with two children, she chose roles (at times unwisely) which provided income. But for all that, she was acclaimed as one of our best character actors whose professionalism was legendary.

 

Last night Ms York's son, the actor Orlando Wells, spoke movingly of his pride in and love for his mother. "She was an absolutely fantastic mother, who was very down to earth," he said. "She loved nothing more than cooking a good Sunday roast and sitting around a fire of a winter's evening. In some sense, she was quite a home girl. Both Sasha [Orlando's sister] and I feel incredibly lucky to have her as a mother.''

 

Sir Tom Stoppard, the playwright and screenwriter, last night paid tribute to York. "I remember back in 1961 when I was a young journalist, I interviewed her for a magazine for her film Greengage Summer, and I still remember how completely charmed I was.

 

"She was so pleasant to me ? she even let me interview her at home as long as I promised not to write that because journalists weren't normally allowed to go to her home. I still think of her with great affection."

 

Anthony Rudolf, a close friend and writer, said: "Everyone knows she was a great star, but it should not be forgotten that she made a great contribution to fringe drama."

 

York was born Susannah Yolande Fletcher in London in January 1939 ? although according to York, who was rightly vain about her looks, she always claimed she was born in 1942. Her father was a merchant banker, her mother the daughter of a diplomat. Her parents divorced when she was five and she saw her father only a handful of times during her childhood. Later, when her mother remarried to a Scottish businessman and moved the family to Scotland, her contact with her father ceased.

 

It was during her school years that Ms York's rebellious streak, which was to manifest itself many times throughout her lifetime, was born. In what was considered a risqu? incident when just 13, she was expelled for swimming naked at midnight in the school pool. In later life she laughingly remarked: "My biggest mistake was my sense of fair play. I wasn't even caught in the pool, but owned up anyway."

 

The young York was smitten by the stage from her school days. She won a small part as an Ugly Sister, and such was her delight at the plaudits that she determined to apply to RADA. When she was accepted, she wept with joy.

 

For the next few years, Ms York suffered rejections and applause in turn. But when she appeared in a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, a Hollywood agent approached her and told her he would make her a star. When she won the role of Alec Guinness's daughter in Tunes of Glory (1960), she received rapturous reviews. She went on to appear with Glenda Jackson in The Maids (1974), and with Elizabeth Taylor (whom she called the world's most beautiful woman) in Zee and Co (1972).

 

At 18, in 1960, she had fallen in love with Michael Wells. He was a Rada contemporary and a married man. In an era when such indelicate behaviour was frowned upon, Ms York, with her winsome ways, soon turned the tide of public outrage. But the union hit the buffers when her career quickly overshadowed that of her husband. After the birth of a son and a daughter, the marriage ended bitterly in 1976.

 

From then on, Ms York, while still committed to her career, devoted her life to her children. She played Superman's mother in Superman (1978) and starred in two sequels.

 

On the small screen, too, her star shone bright. She appeared in Prince Regent (1979), as Mrs Fitzherbert, and in We'll Meet Again in 1982. But as she aged, her career waned. In the late 1980s, in deep humiliation, she was forced to sell deeply cherished paintings and jewellery to pay her mortgage. But for all that, Susannah York never lost the deep convictions and commitments that set her apart as a redoubtable actor. She had a keenly developed sense of justice, coupled with a volatile and prickly temper. When she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, she famously snubbed the Academy by declaring that it offended her to be nominated without being asked.

 

Ms York espoused many causes such as CND and the rainforests. But first and foremost, she was a devoted mother.

 

Orlando Wells and his sister were with her when she died. He said: ''She was a fantastic mother and the most extraordinary actress. She was a woman with grace and stature. She had advanced bone marrow cancer which she had an operation for. But, last Thursday, she had a scan and then the descent was fast. In the end, her death was painless and quick.''

 

Describing his mother as down to earth, Mr Wells said: "She was as happy in a pub theatre in Islington as she was in Hollywood."

 

From The Telegraph (London)

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As the 1960s commenced, York would become one of the most noted British actresses of the decade. Her greatest rival was Julie Christie. But, unlike Christie, York?s career wouldn?t be as celebrated. Certainly, York deserved the ?Oscar? nod for her work in the now 1969 classic, ?They Shoot Horses Don?t They?? And, she will be probably mostly remembered (dramatically) for her role as the lesbian lover in ?The Killing of Sister George.?

 

Beautiful and intelligent, she could have had a big career in the U.S., but chose to stay on her side of the Atlantic, most of the time remaining in Europe or outside of the Hollywood framework. Performance wise, she expressed a form of frail sensitivity that in a few films had an airy sense of frenetic appeal. Her stylized, active refinement on screen gave her the type of imagery that dispersed with interesting, unpredictable shades of emotionality. Her lovely, delicate, high pitch voice was something of a trademark that could easily identify her or part of that shivery style to her screen image.

 

Towards the end, York?s work in television was at least keeping her career going. Despite her illness, she worked diligently and always displayed a great professionalism to her craft. There was to some high regard a steadiness to her life in the performing arts and this was in all fields.

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Ms. York certainly deserved her Oscar nomination for *They Shoot Horses...* She also deserved one for *Tom Jones*. Three actresses from that film were nominated that year -- Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, and Joyce Redman. York was as good as any of those great ladies, but I guess it would have been too much to nominate FOUR actresses from one film in the same category. Possibly, as the romantic lead, York could have been nominated in the best actress category. Interestingly, although *Tom Jones* got many acting nominations that year -- Albert Finney should have won, as should have Hugh Griffith for supporting -- and probably Edith Evans from the three supporting ladies -- the film won no acting awards. It did win best film, score, director, and adapted screenplay.

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OMG! I hadnt heard this. She should have won the Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Dont They? Instead they gave it to Goldie Hawn (GAG ME). A damn shame........Goldie went on to have a long film career. York did not. (Hollywood at least). Too bad.

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