Starlets, Superman & Sister George – Remembering Susannah York (1939 – 2011)

Posted in Remember by - March 17, 2014
Starlets, Superman & Sister George – Remembering Susannah York (1939 – 2011)

One of my favourite actresses, and one never to be typecast, Susannah York explored many avenues, and often gave her best performances outside the Hollywood system. Frequently appearing in smaller, offbeat and sometimes controversial movies, the uninhibited York left a lasting impression, and successfully juggled family life with a distinguished career both home and abroad. Along the way she worked with such major talents as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Scofield and John Hurt, as well as noted directors; John Huston, Fred Zinneman, Sydney Pollack and Robert Altman.

Born Susannah Yolande Fletcher, in London on January 9th, 1939, York’s illustrious career began in 1960 playing Alec Guinness’s daughter in the brilliant war drama‘Tunes of Glory’. The following year she gave an emotional turn in ‘The Greengage Summer’ (’61), as a teenager abroad falling for Kenneth More’s older, mysterious gentleman. A terrific performance (but a bad experience) as a disturbed patient in John Huston’s ‘Freud’ (’62), was followed by a more cheery turn as the seductive Sophie Western in the Oscar-winning ‘Tom Jones’ (’63). Susannah then supported William Holden in the mediocre drama ‘7th Dawn’, before being stranded in the desert with Stanley Baker and Stuart Whitman, in the excellent survival adventure ‘Sands of the Kalahari’ (’65).

1966 saw Susannah in the enjoyable caper movie ‘Kaleidoscope’, with Warren Beatty, then playing the daughter of Paul Scofield’s Thomas More, in another multi Oscar-winner ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Not afraid of challenging roles, in 1968 Susannah starred in Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Killing of Sister George’, and gave an excellent performance as the child-like lover of Beryl Reid’s older, bitter actress. A fairly graphic sex scene between York’s character and Coral Browne’s BBC executive, earned the movie the dreaded ‘X’ rating, and in the UK, this controversial scene was cut considerably. 1969 was a big year for Susannah. After co-starring in two big budget war movies, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, and ‘Battle of Britain’, York had her best role yet, as the desperate Jean Harlow wannabe; Alice LeBlanc, in Sydney Pollack’s superb drama ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t they?’ Susannah was marvellous in an emotionally charged role, and it’s surprising that she did not have fond memories of this wonderfully gruelling film. York’s terrific turn earned her an Oscar nomination and Bafta award, and it remains my favourite of her many great performances.

Happier back in the UK, Susannah began the Seventies playing Jane Eyre to George C. Scott’s Edward Rochester, in Delbert Mann’s acclaimed TV film ‘Jane Eyre’(’70). Her beautiful interpretation of the oft-filmed classic earned her an Emmy nomination. Next up was the little-seen drama ‘Country Dance’, in which she has an incestuous relationship with her brother, played by Peter O’Toole. In 1972 Susannah had one of her best roles, in Robert Altman’s excellent psychological drama; ‘Images’. York won a well deserved Best Actress Award at Cannes for her exceptional performance as the disturbed Cathryn, a children’s author who may or may not have killed her husband. A more lighter film followed in 1974 with ‘Gold’, an ok adventure with Roger Moore, then the slightly better, though barely noticed; ‘Maids’ (’75) with Glenda Jackson. After playing a wanton army widow in ‘Conduct Unbecoming’ (’75), York re-teamed with Roger Moore for the comedy ‘That Lucky Touch’ (’75). Susannah then travelled to Australia for Tim Burstall’s bawdy adventure ‘Eliza Fraser’, then bared all in the minor British horror ‘The Shout’ (’78), alongside Alan Bates and John Hurt. After supporting Elliot Gould’s crafty bank teller in the superb Canadian thriller ‘Silent Partner’, she was Superman’s mother Lara, in the global hit ‘Superman’ (’78). York then co-starred with Charlton Heston in the Egyptian set horror ‘The Awakening’ (’80), before re-teaming with Elliot Gould for the pleasant romantic comedy ‘Falling in Love Again’ (’80).

1981 saw Susannah play Martin Sheen’s wife in the entertaining caper ‘Loophole’, along with Albert Finney. York then had a hit playing a doctor in the popular Second World War television series ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (’82). After playing Mrs Cratchit in the excellent TV movie version of ‘The Christmas Carol’ (’84), York’s career slowed down, and apart from a couple of television movies and a voice-only appearance in Superman IV (’87), Susannah would not have another decent role until Pier’s Haggard’s excellent romantic drama ‘A Summer Story’ (’88). Another brief television series followed in 1991 when she played a widow in the horse racing drama ‘Trainer’. A quiet period followed with only the 1997 romantic comedy ‘Loop’ standing out.

In 2003 York played Radha Mitchell’s mother in the mediocre Australian thriller ‘Visitors’, and then had a brief run in two popular UK hospital dramas; ‘Holby City’ and ‘Casualty’ (2003-04). A good little movie came York’s way in 2005, with a cameo appearance in the London set comedy ‘The Gigolos’, before making one of her final movie appearances in the 2008 fantasy drama ‘Franklyn’, which starred Ryan Philippe and Eva Green.

Susannah York had married at the start of her career in 1960, and had a son (born in ‘73) and a daughter (born in ’72) before divorcing husband Michael Wells in 1980. After a distinguished career spanning fifty years, including some noted theatre productions, Susannah died of bone marrow cancer on January 15th 2011, aged 72. One of the finest English actresses of her era, Susannah always did things on her own terms, and in continually challenging herself, she left us with some fantastic performances. A lovely lady and one tough cookie, how many other young actresses have punched John Huston?

Favourite Movie: The Silent Partner
Favourite Performance: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

This post was written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *