1921-2009                            Actress


Kathleen Byron

    b. London, UK, 1921
    d. Northwood, Middlesex, UK, 2009

      Representation of the erotic was never the strong point of British cinema, but there is a moment in Black Narcissus which, sixty years later, still seems remarkable in that respect. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, in a Himalayan convent, mad with lust for the District Commissioner, suddenly appears out of her nun's habit, in a low-cut dress, applying lipstick to her mysteriously beautiful face. It remains a brilliant study in suppressed sexuality suddenly asserting itself and it is to the undying discredit of British cinema that it never gave her another comparably exciting role. She might, with half a chance, have been a great melodramatic heroine: she had wit, intelligence, sensuality, and a flamboyant streak that she often used to salvage inferior roles. However, to be grateful for what she got, there is a clutch of films for Michael Powell which she rightly sees as the high point of her career; and Prelude to Fame gave her some scope as a selfish obsessive manipulating a small boy's life. Though wickedness or madness possibly brought out the best in her, she was also a more interesting than usual lead in The Small Back Room and Life in her Hands, both of which she imbues with individiality and appealing sympathy. The screen has wasted her talents appallingly in the last 40 years.

      She made her film debut in Carol Reed's The Young Mr Pitts (41). It was a small part with two lines opposite the brilliant Robert Donat. Because of the war, she did little after that until starring in The Silver Fleet (43), A Matter of Life and Death (46) , Black Narcissus (47), and Madness of the Heart (49). In the latter film the lead star was Britain's most famous actress of the 1940s, Margaret Lockwood. Because she could, Lockwood could dictate what shots could be taken of her co-stars and this was one of the reasons Byron didn't get on with her. But this was really an isolated incident of Lockwood behaving like the big star as there are countless stories of her charm and kindness to other actors.

      Byron went to Hollywood in 1953 to make Young Bess with Charles Laughton, but because of family commitments and lack of guiding support from a manager or agent, her Hollywood career never took off.

      From the mid-50s onwards her roles became smaller and she appeared less and less on the big screen. David Lynch's The Elephant Man (80), Emma (95) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (98) are the best known films she has appeared in during the later period of her career.

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