Thursday, November 18, 2010

I no longer dig the sixties, but I still love Rita Tushingham

As a teenager I was fully into the whole swinging sixties thing; these days it bores me to tears.
The spectacle of Britain trying to be the pop-cultural touchstone of the world is always pretty laughable, and if the sixties version seems any less ludicrous than the shameless Blair-era remake that might simply be down to how much water has passed between it and us. The pretensions of sixties British culture may retain a certain naive charm, but it's a charm that's largely lost on me, now.
I appreciate this puts me in the minority in an age when kids learn about the Beatles in school, but there it is.
But one passion still burns fierce from my one-time love of all things sixties: Rita Tushingham.
Firstly, she's great-looking. Rita was one of the defining faces of 1960s Britain, as surely as Twiggy (thin model with cockney accent) or George Best (pissed footballer). In her relatively few years as a major movie star she became an icon both of the social-realist or ‘kitchen sink’ movies of the late fifties and early sixties, and then, quite separately, of the freewheeling, ‘Swinging London’ films that replaced them. .

Her unpretentious style, carefree attitude and striking looks – far from conventionally pretty but undeniably magnetic, with straight, dark hair and eyes huge and expressive enough to drown sailors in - seemed to chime exactly with the mood of the times. But when the international attention Britain had enjoyed in the sixties receded she faded from prominence too, though in truth she was far from unique in that.
It is an odd but possibly telling fact that virtually none of the most iconic stars of the sixties extended their careers successfully into the seventies (the one exception, perhaps, being Michael Caine, who deliberately subdued his more idiosyncratic characteristics in a string of international package-deal movies and had to wait forty years for roles as good as the ones he started out in). Others, like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Albert Finney seemed to graduate almost immediately to elder statesman status, working prominently but only occasionally, while the most celebrated faces, the ones that dominated the magazine covers and most overtly defined the look and attitude of their era – Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Alan Bates - seemed almost to disappear. Rita belongs in this latter category.
Perhaps they embodied their moment so perfectly that they had no real place in any other: certainly their images remain instantly recognisable visual indicators of their decade. Or perhaps the kind of photogeneity that defines zeitgeists was ultimately all that Stamp, say, had to offer in the first place. (Only a suggestion, you understand...) But Rita was different. As well as great looking, she was a compulsively watchable actress, as much cursed as blessed with fleeting Sunday supplement appeal.
. On the face of it, she may have seemed unlikely material for Cool Britannia status. Where most previous British star actresses had emerged from the Rank charm school, or somewhere with a very similar postcode, with unrelaxing beauty and speaking clock diction, Tushingham was exactly as she appeared: a slightly gangly Liverpudlian teenager, a stranger both to drama school and beauty school, trained neither in deportment nor elocution, who still spoke in the lilting accent of her home town.
She was a greengrocer’s daughter, who had more or less stumbled upon her aptitude for drama in convent school plays. On leaving school she took roles with the Liverpool Playhouse, and was just eighteen when she appeared as Jo, the troubled teenager and unmarried mother in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1960), a hauntingly beautiful performance in a comparable film, with Dora Bryan equally impressive as her feckless mother.
The film was ground-breaking in several ways, with its unflinching focus on such hitherto unmentioned issues as single motherhood, divorce, adultery and homosexuality, and it cemented a new attitude that had been bubbling for a year or two in British movies, helping to make room for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving. But while the majority of these films centred around alienated, frustrated - and basically annoying - male characters, A Taste of Honey was unusual in that its central character was a young girl, through whose eyes the audience experienced the unfolding drama. And there was a sincerity and worthiness to her story that Billy Liar, for all its wit and sharp observation, could never match. The film is not merely groundbreaking; it's genuinely moving, and chief among its attractions was and remains the astonishing freshness and authenticity of Tushingham’s performance, which deservedly earned her the BAFTA for best newcomer and propelled her to the front rank of British screen performers.
. The same talent she brought to Honey was just as strongly in evidence in her subsequent performances in The Leather Boys (1964), another unusually frank treatment of homosexuality, set among London’s motorcycle gangs, and the more lyrical Girl With Green Eyes (1964, above and below), which casts her as a naïve, rural girl who falls for an older man (Peter Finch). In both films, Tushingham’s performances are as assured as her debut - funny, touching, and always unerringly truthful.
.But by the time it was released the fashion in British movies was turning away from kitchen sink realism in favour of something rather more upbeat. Responsibility for that rests largely with the entirely unexpected international success of Tom Jones (1963) a film invariably described as a 'rollicking period romp', though if you don't find it remotely rollicking I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me. Albert Finney was now the face of a more carefree sixties-chic, as movies swapped social realism for a somewhat desperate exuberance. James Bond played his part too – the first of the series, Doctor No, came out in in 1962, with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger following in quick succession.
Suddenly to be English was to be cool (they said, so we believed), all eyes were on Carnaby Street and the King’s Road (they claimed, and thus it was so), and London was swinging (an elusive talent for any city, and a concept that slips through the fingers like water in the effort of definition, but one which was rarely interrogated, then or now). In consequence, virtually all the major American movie studios rushed to open London offices, and huge amounts of Hollywood money was injected into British film production, in the certainty that this was where the big hits were going to be coming from. .
Though there had always been an eminently exportable kind of English style, it had been dispensed in the sober tweeds and discreet hipflasks of Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, George Arliss. The thing that was new about the 1960s version was its focus on a romanticised version of working class modes and lifestyles, and the celebration (and exaggeration) of an unpolished national specificity that the studios had hitherto sought to iron out. Imperfect beauty, regional accents, gawkiness and eccentricity were all in. So Rita, who might easily have seemed hopelessly out of step in this new and glossier cinema, in so many ways antithetical to the one in which she had risen to prominence, found herself equally at a home as a quirky leading actress and alternative style icon.
And it was in this idiom that she gave her other most defining performance: as the gauche provincial girl arriving in London in Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack (1965, below), alongside Ray Brooks and Michael Crawford.

Her performance and image in this film – tweed-capped and dark-mascaraed, clutching a boutique carrier bag and a copy of Honey magazine, struggling with malevolent left luggage lockers and automatic passport photobooths, or travelling through the London streets in a double bed – is as indelible a milestone of British cinema as Jo's melancholy passage through sooty, rainy Salford. The relentlessly frenetic trendiness of the film itself has dated it more than the simple sincerity of Honey, but for those with a taste for these kinds of sixties trifles it is at least among the most energetic and ingratiating.
For Rita, it seemed like yer actual international stardom was beckoning, especially when she was immediately cast in a small but central role in David Lean’s epically epic epic Doctor Zhivago (1965). But those big British hits, so confidently predicted in the wake of Tom Jones, were proving stubbornly unwilling to materialise, while costly flops poured forth like they were going out fashion, which of course they were. Worldwide interest began to wane, the glitz tarnished, and one by one, the Hollywood studios pulled out of town.
And with them, sadly, went Rita Tushingham’s first flush of fame as a major British star. She continued to appear in low-key roles in low-key films, always giving excellent, meticulously convincing performances, and remains busily at work today, even though she never quite achieved the enduring star status deserving of her exceptional talent and undeniable screen presence.
. In retrospect, a clear sense of desperation hangs over Smashing Time (1967, above and below), a raucous swinging sixties comedy musical, scripted by George Melly, with Rita and her Girl With Green Eyes co-star Lynne Redgrave as two North Country girls touring Swinging London and marvelling at the wonderful sights they encounter, several of which inspire them to burst into brash, untrained song. (Including, of course, Carnaby Street: “The street that is part of the beat that is part of the scene!”) There's even a custard pie fight.
Though certainly eager to please, the film was not a hit, and its boisterousness did not disguise the clarity with which it called time on its era.
For some this came not a moment too soon, as Rita discovered when she and Redgrave accompanied the film to the 1966 Acapulco Film Festival (is there still an Acapulco film festival, by the way?):
"Joan Crawford hauled us over the coals for wearing our Carnaby Street mini-skirts. She took one look at us and said, 'You are a disgrace to the film industry.' We asked why. 'Because,' she said, 'you are not wearing long dresses.' We turned around and walked off, giggling."
Whether you love all this sixties stuff or hate it, Rita is well worth a second look. Unlike so much else that is typical of that unique moment in British cultural history, her performances, especially in A Taste of Honey, seem hardly to have dated at all.
(All the photos in this post, the anecdote about Joan Crawford, and a whole load of other great stuff on Rita, can be found here.)