Susannah York, the London-born actress best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, has died of cancer. She was 72.
York became famous in the ’60s as a blonde, blue-eyed “English rose” whose first roles played off of her fresh-faced image, such as Alec Guinness’ daughter in 1960’s Tunes Of Glory or a naïve teen thrust suddenly into womanhood in The Greengage Summer. In 1963, she starred opposite Albert Finney in the Oscar-winning best picture Tom Jones, playing the upper-class object of Finney’s affections.
After 1966’s A Man For All Seasons, in which she played the daughter to Paul Scofield’s devoutly Roman Catholic Lord, York began to chafe against her typecasting as the proper, demure hothouse flower. In 1968 she finally began to break away from those sorts of roles with The Killing Of Sister George, an adaptation of the Frank Marcus play in which York once again played a somewhat naïve girl, but one who happened to be a lesbian rooming with her lover, a gruff, aging soap opera actress played by Beryl Reid. The film was slapped with a recently established X rating by the MPAA, primarily for a graphic sex scene between York and Reid, and disappeared quickly, though it proved a turning point for York’s career and opened her up to more challenging fare.
In 1969 York had her first real breakthrough role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s bleak Depression-era story of a group of contestants desperate to win a dance contest for disparate reasons. York played a wannabe Jean Harlow, whose self-delusions eventually unravel into a nervous breakdown. She received a BAFTA for her performance, and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar—though York was angered by the latter, famously saying that she was offended to be nominated without being asked. (She eventually attended anyway, losing to Goldie Hawn.)
York starred in Robert Altman’s Images in 1972, playing a wealthy housewife and children’s author who falls apart after she begins to suspect that her husband is cheating on her. (Interestingly, the children’s book that York reads from throughout the film was her own published work, the fantasy In Search Of Unicorns; York would write another, Lark’s Castle, in 1976.) York often credited as Images as her favorite role, and she was awarded Best Actress at that year’s Cannes Festival.
York’s other career-defining role came in 1978, playing Superman’s mother Lara (wife to Marlon Brando’s Jor-El) on the doomed planet Krypton. Like Brando, York would appear via the recorded messages accessed in the Fortress of Solitude in the sequels Superman II and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, providing some of York’s widest exposure and defining her for a whole new generation.
The ’70s and ’80s saw York return in earnest to the stage, starring in an internationally acclaimed one-woman show, The Loves Of Shakespeare’s Women, directing the play and writing the script for the film adaptation for 1980’s Falling Love Again, and appearing on the BBC drama Holby City. Her last film role was in the British film The Calling, released in 2010.