Acting Class – Remembering Susan Strasberg (1938–1999)

Posted in Remember by - December 27, 2014
Acting Class – Remembering Susan Strasberg (1938–1999)

A classic beauty, Susan Strasberg was more than just the daughter of famed acting coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg. Given the right material she was a very good actress, but was only really tested in a handful of dramatic features early on in her career, and like many of her generation would later succumb to the world of exploitation cinema.

Born in New York on May 22nd 1938, Susan made her movie debut in 1955 with small roles in ‘The Vincente Minnelli’s medical drama ‘The Cobweb’, and more prominently in Joshua Logan’s ‘Picnic’, as Kim Novak’s smart younger sister. On stage that year Susan originated the part of Anne Frank in a Broadway production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. A theatre drama followed when she played a Broadway ingénue provocatively named Eva Lovelace, in Sidney Lumet’s ‘Stage Struck’ (’58), with Henry Fonda and a young Christopher Plummer.

I loved Susan’s emotional performance in the excellent Italian Holocaust drama ‘Kapò’ (’60), playing a fourteen year old who, after enduring the harsh brutalities of life in a concentration camp, rises to the position of Kapo (prisoner in charge of inmates). Future Oscar-nominee Emmanuelle Riva co-stars as a French POW, and has a memorable scene when she is electrocuted after running into an electric fence. In England Strasberg made the excellent Hammer thriller ‘Taste of fear’ (’61) directed by Seth Holt and co-starring Ronald Lewis and Christopher Lee. In this wonderfully twisty suspenser, Susan played wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby, a young woman returning to her family home where her missing father’s corpse keeps re-appearing.

After playing a Red Cross nurse in ‘Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man’ (’62), Susan had a bigger role in Ralph Thomas’s international thriller ‘The High Bright Sun’ (’64), looking lovely as a witness to the shootings of two British soldiers by a guerrilla movement. Later, Susan got caught up in the hippie-drug movies of the late Sixties. She was Peter Fonda’s wife in Roger Corman’s psychedelic ‘The Trip’ (’67), and then a deaf runaway in Richard Rush’s much better ‘Psych-Out’ (’68), both co-starring Bruce Dern. Around this time Susan’s three year marriage to actor Christopher Jones ended, and she then played a Mafioso’s wife in Martin Ritt’s under-rated mob drama ‘The Brotherhood’ (’68), which had Kirk Douglas as a crime boss in present-day New York. Susan ended the decade with a good role in the Italian mood piece ‘My Sister, My Love’ (’69), playing Nathalie Delon’s sister, with whom she’d had an incestuous relationship years before. Strasberg and Delon were excellent and both looked stunning in this intriguing adult drama full of lingering close-ups.

The Seventies didn’t bring Susan anything challenging or that interesting. There was the 1973 TV-movie ‘…And Millions Die!’, about a Nazi war criminal trading a deadly nerve gas with terrorists, starring Richard Basehart and a villainous Leslie Nielson. Then there was the trashy ‘So Evil, My Sister’ (’74), a forgettable thriller with Faith Domergue playing widow Strasberg’s older and much stranger sibling. Around this time Susan appeared in an entertaining television series, the undercover cop drama ‘Toma’ with Tony Musante, which sadly only ran for one season before being resurrected as ‘Baretta’ with Robert Blake.

After some guest spots in a handful of popular television shows, Strasberg was back in trashy territory. Following the mediocre horror ‘The Manitou’ (’78), with Tony Curtis, there was the dreary Canadian drama ‘In Praise of Older Women’ (’78), playing one of Tom Berenger’s many conquests. A slightly better genre offering came in 1981 with the rather entertaining ‘Bloody Birthday’ (’81), where she played a schoolteacher murdered by one of a trio of killer kids! Another slasher followed with ‘Sweet 16’ (’83) a pretty good murder mystery with a cult cast including Bo Hopkins and Don Stroud.

After popping up in the big-name actioner ‘The Delta Force’ (’86) with Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris, Susan’s final role of note was playing the wife of Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Albert Schweitzer in the little-seen and very good biopic ‘Light in the Jungle’ (’90). In the mid-90’s Susan retired from the screen after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and on January 21st 1999 she sadly died at home in New York, aged 60.

An auburn-haired beauty who perhaps worked best on the stage, Susan may not have had the screen career worthy of her natural acting ability but, even in the most mediocre movies, she brought warmth and humanity to even the briefest of parts.

Favourite Movie: Kapò
Favourite Performance: Kapò

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