English screen actress Susannah York died last week at age 72. She is best remembered as a star of the 1960s, playing the female lead in two Oscar-winning Best Picture period pieces: Tony Richardson’s zesty comedy Tom Jones (1963), in which she’s delightful as the spirited ingenue; and Fred Zinnemann’s high-minded prestige picture A Man for All Seasons (1966), in which she’s honest and impassioned (though the film was insanely overrated). York capped the decade with her only Oscar nomination (in the supporting category) in Sydney Pollack’s grimly absorbing marathon-dance drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), playing the fragile Jean Harlow wannabe who is systematically losing her mind; it’s a striking performance (she lost the Oscar to Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower). Good roles were few for English-speaking screen actresses in the early 1970s, and York wasn’t able to sustain her stardom the way Julie Christie did (thank you, Warren Beatty). However, whenever York worked (as in her brief appearance as Superman’s mother in 1978) she was always a welcome sight, always lovely and fresh and intelligent.
One of her earliest films was Lewis Gilbert’s offbeat and intriguing Loss of Innocence (1961), in which York, past twenty, plays sixteen. The film has a strange set-up: four young British siblings, on holiday in France to see famed battlefields, are staying at a chateau hotel while their mother, suddenly taken ill, has been hospitalized. Kenneth More, as a mysterious Englishman, takes a shine to the foursome. He is sleeping with Danielle Darrieux, the hotel owner, who has dumped her lesbian lover for him. Turns out that More is an international jewel thief.
The plot hinges on York’s coming of age, realizing the sexual power she can wield with her beautiful face and body, soon posing a threat to Darrieux. The More-York union goes only as far as two kisses, but York turns vindictive once she feels that More prefers Darrieux. She contacts the police. Loss of Innocence is one of those movies, like The Fallen Idol (1948), in which young people tamper with things they don’t fully understand, therefore causing great damage.
In an interesting grace note, York’s brother (about ten or eleven) is first seen drawing female fashions, and then is later making doll-sized dresses. Nothing much is made of this, and it’s rather fascinating and forward-looking to see a presumably gay child treated so matter-of-factly. The film itself has elegant clothes, as well as great color, scenery, and that chateau!
York is luminous as the child-woman at the center, innocent and naive yet brazen and spiteful. The film may be uneven and perhaps too oddball at times, but it’s admirable and unusual, never more so than when young York holds the screen, declaring herself ready for the larger roles to come, those that will keep her in the memories of all serious moviegoers.