Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscar Blogathon: Best Actress of 1963 - A Profile of Nominee Rachel Roberts

Welsh actress Rachel Roberts once said: "It is very difficult to be taken seriously when you're introduced at a party to somebody as the fourth Mrs. Rex Harrison." Despite winning the British equivalent of the Oscar three times, Roberts never achieved critical acclaim on the level of her contemporaries, such as Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie. Her nine-year marriage to Harrison ended in a 1971 divorce that took a toll on the actress, who battled alcoholism and depression even as her career flourished in the 1970s. In 1980, at the age of 53, she committed suicide. Roberts wrote a series of journals that documented the last three years of her life. It was published in 1985 as No Bells on Sunday: The Rachel Roberts Journals. In its review, The New York Times called it a "'sad book from which are missing her charm, effervescence and humor.''

Rachel Roberts was born in Llanelli, Wales, on 20 September 1927. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she won the Athene Seyler Award for Comedy. She made her professional stage debut as Ceres in The Tempest at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1951. Her fellow performers included Richard Burton, Alan Badel, Michael Redgrave, Hugh Griffith, Barbara Jefford, and Ian Bannen (how's that for cast?).

Roberts made her film debut in 1954's Young and Willing, a drama about female convicts starring Glynis Johns. Throughout the 1950s, she worked steadily on the stage, in film, and in a television adaptation of Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (which co-starred a young David McCallum). She also met and married actor Alan Dobie in 1955; the couple divorced six years later.

Rachel Roberts' big career break came in 1961 with Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. She played an unhappy middle-class wife who has an affair with a younger man (Albert Finney) and becomes pregnant. Her searing performance earned her the Best British Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first British New Wave films. This cinematic movement evolved from the convergence of late 1950s British "angry young man" stage dramas (e.g., John Osborne's Look Back in Anger) and documentary films focusing on the working classes. The British New Wave directors hailed from the theatre (Tony Richardson), the documentary field (Lindsay Anderson), and--like some of the French New Wave directors--film criticism (Reisz). The British New Wave films typically featured male working-class protoganists mired in grim surroundings with little chance of happiness. Portraying women with a cold exterior that masked a desperate need for passion, Rachel Roberts excelled as the nominal "heroine" in these films.

Lindsay Anderson cast Roberts as a widowed landlady who has an affair with a brutal rugby player in This Sporting Life (1963). Produced by Reisz, This Sporting Life made a star out of Richard Harris and earned Rachel Roberts her second BAFTA Best British Actress award. She was also nominated for her only Academy Award, but lost Best Actress to Patricia Neal for Hud.

Despite her critical acclaim, Roberts worked mostly in British television for the remainder of the 1960s. There were a few bright spots, such as co-starring with Dirk Bogarde in an adaptation of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. In 1968, she starred with husband Rex Harrison, whom she had married four years earlier, in the film A Flea in Her Ear.

Around that time, Roberts moved to the U.S., where she starred in made-for-TV movies and guest starred on TV series such as Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. After she and Harrison divorced in 1971, her film career took off again. Lindsay Anderson cast her in O Lucky Man! (1973), a modern-day Candide in which Roberts played three roles. Indeed, most of the cast--including Helen Mirren and Ralph Richardson--played several characters (though star Malcolm McDowell did not). This imaginative satire, punctuated by Alan Price's terrific songs, earned Roberts her best critical praise in years.

In Murder on the Orient Express.
Rachel Roberts followed it with a supporting role in the all-star Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a starring role in Peter Weir's haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and a featured role in Yanks (1979), a World War II romantic drama starring Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave. Roberts won her third BAFTA award, this time as Best Supporting Actress, for Yanks.

During this same period, she also appeared on the Broadway stage, in plays such as a revival of The Visit and the original farce Habeas Corpus. For the latter, she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play.

Despite her steady work on stage and in film and television, Rachel Roberts never recovered from her divorce from Harrison. In deep depression, she committed suicide in her home in Los Angeles in 1980. Twelve years later, Lindsay Anderson spread the ashes of Roberts and her friend, actress Jill Bennett, in the Thames while Alan Price sang Is That All There Is? The scene appeared as a surprisingly upbeat tribute to life in Anderson's otherwise satiric 1995 documentary about himself, also titled Is That All There Is?

During the ceremony, with the actresses' friends throwing flowers in the river, Anderson said: "(Roberts and Bennett) both had great humor and great zest. I know-- up there--they'll be having a good laugh."

All this week, you can enjoy the Oscar Blogathon: Best Actress of 1963, hosted by Classicfilmboy's Movie Paradise.

Tuesday, Feb. 22: Kevin's Movie Corner will present Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce.

Wednesday, Feb. 23: Classicfilmboy will cover Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room.

Thursday, Feb. 24: ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review will examine Patricia Neal in Hud.

Friday, Feb. 25: Noir and Chick Flicks will look at Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger.


Dawn said...

Rick, What a wonderful post about an actress and films I have not had the opportunity to see.. The film, This Sporting Life, sounds like a very emotional film. Thank you for introducing me to the actress, Rachel Roberts.

Kevin Deany said...

What a sad story. Such talent too. I didn't know she was married to Rex Harrison.

I haven't seen her in a lot of movies, but I enjoyed her in "Yanks." I need to seek out more of her work.

Classicfilmboy said...

Rick, Thank you for the post and a thorough job on her. Her marriage to Harrison was volatile, to say the least. And it's been years since I've seen "This Sporting Life," but I remember it as a strong, well-acted film. Roberts more than holds her own with Richard Harris.

R. D. Finch said...

Rick, a wonderful tribute to Ms. Roberts, full of facts about her I was unaware of. A nice overview of the British New Wave movement of the sixties too. I'll be looking for the other posts you listed too.

ClassicBecky said...

I've only seen two of her movies, This Sporting Life, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I must have seen her television performances too because Rachel Roberts made an impression on me. Wonderful actress. I'd love to see the version of Our Mutual Friend that you mentioned.

I find it ironic that the movie she made with Rex Harrison was called A Flea in the Ear. He certainly played that part in her private life. From what I understand, being Harrison's wife was a difficult thing. For a woman with tendencies to depression, the struggle and failure must have been too much. What a sad ending for her.

I never knew anything about Rachel Roberts, Rick, and your article is very enlightening. I wish I could have seen her on stage.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Rick, this is a really nice tribute to an extemely talented actress. She co-starred opposite some of the best British actors of her time and stood up to the challenge. I always felt she played very unhappy characters well...perhaps a reflection of her own unhappiness?

Rick29 said...

Great comments from everyone. She was such a versatile actress. As I was adding the photos, I was taken aback by how different she looked in each of those roles. Brian, thanks for hosting this blogathon; I look forward to reading about the other 1963 Best Actress nominees and their films. R.D., your fine review of ROOM AT THE TOP is what got me thinking about the British New Wave films again.

sarkoffagus said...

Superb focus on an award winning actress. I haven't seen many of her films, but I do remember her in Peter Weir's excellent PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Wonderful job, Rick!

toto2 said...

Rick, this is an excellent profile of an actress who was obviously well respected for her work. What an extremely sad ending to her life. I think she must have been mesmerizing on the stage. She had an intensity that commanded one's attention.

The Lady Eve said...

Rick, She was such a fine actress - I remember her vividly in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Murder on the Orient Express. You put together a thorough and thoughtful profile...and remind me that Rex Harrison wreaked havoc on more than one gifted actress. Great job. I've posted a link to your post on Twitter.

Page said...

I apologize for my lateness in getting to everyone's write ups. I think things are finally getting back to a bit of normalcy after my house flood.

This was such a nice write and it gave me so much information that I did not know about Ms Roberts. Such a sad ending for a very talented actress.