actors /female

actors /female
   British cinema enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s, not only at home but abroad. For a film industry which was formed very much in the shadow of Hollywood, British actors provide a fascinating insight into the industry’s self-perception in particular periods, and reflect cultural assumptions about Britishness. Thus, British actors were often invested with a patriotic imperative as bearers of British national culture. Filmgoing had a particular role in the social lives of young people, and the films of the 1960s shared and indeed helped to shape the concepts of youth which were characteristic of the social and political discourses of the time. The 1960s saw the emergence of new and challenging roles for female actors, reflecting the social and moral issues which impacted on young contemporary women. Films like A Taste of Honey (dir. Tony Richardson, 1961), and Darling (dir. John Schlesinger, 1965) introduced Rita Tushingham (b. 1940), and Julie Christie (b. 1940) in roles which contrasted sharply with the mature woman roles of 1950s films, played by actresses such as Diana Dors and Virginia McKenna. In the former film, the portrayal of Jo, a pregnant schoolgirl refusing to compromise, was consonant with the image of Rita Tushingham as a modern female star. A Taste of Honey portrays the emergence of specific discourses related to young women in 1960s society, suggesting that young women might be more powerful and more confident than before.
   The 1960s girl was placed firmly within the context of consumption and with the sex scandal of the Profumo Affair (see sex scandals), which had at its heart a promiscuous young woman who had the power adversely to affect the Macmillan government, young women were very much seen in a new light. Similarly, in Darling, Diana, played by Christie, pushes yet further the representation and organization of female sexuality. Christie thus added sexual power and confidence to the honesty and unpredictability of Tushingham and created a figure which was to be carried through the British cinema into the late 1960s and beyond. Female actors like Christie and Tushingham, representing spontaneous and emotionally honest young women, showed cinema of the time to be working within a broader social context by reflecting contemporary attitudes to what was seen as a 1960s phenomenon. Such films also cultivated a new key audience, the youth market. In contrast to the candid depictions of the modern young woman, portrayed so convincingly by Tushingham and Christie, there was also the phenomenal success of Julie Andrews (b. 1935) in The Sound of Music (1965), a film which broke previous box office records. Although the film was American, Andrews’s Britishness continued the tradition of upper middle-class respectability which stars like Anna Neagle had represented in previous decades. After the period of stagnation in British cinema in the 1970s, predominantly caused by the withdrawal of American funding, there was a revival in the following decade and the heritage genre became extremely popular. One of the common stylistic and thematic features of the genre was the consistent use of specific actors, including Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Emma Thompson (b. 1959) and Helena Bonham-Carter (b. 1966). The superb Maggie Smith made her debut with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in a production of Twelfth Night in 1952, but is best remembered for her remarkable performance in The Prime of Jean Brodie (dir. Ronald Neame, 1969), for which she won an Academy Award. Since the 1960s she has appeared in films, plays and television. Emma Thompson began performing as a member of the Cambridge Footlights and worked extensively in comedy before establishing her dramatic talents with diverse award winning roles. Specifically, in 1996 Thompson won two prestigious Golden Globe awards for screen writing and best dramatic film for her screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But perhaps it is Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1907–91), with her impressive work across theatre, film and television both in Britain and America, who best represents the outstanding quality and calibre of British female actors.
   One of the many notable facets of British female actors is their refusal to constrain themselves to one sole medium and so have excelled in roles across theatre, television and cinema. The list of eclectic and multi-talented women who refuse to limit their performing arenas is too enormous to detail here, but joining the women already mentioned, the following are worthy of note: Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), Glenda Jackson (b. 1936), Vanessa Redgrave (b. 1937), Jane Lapotaire (b. 1944) and Helen Mirren (b. 1946), who all began acting in the 1960s. Although some have argued that the notion of stardom has been seen as un- British and as a consequence has profoundly influenced the way British female actors have been marketed, this is merely conceding to a Hollywood mentality. Overall, and to their credit, British female actors have consistently valued their work above the trappings of stardom.
   Further reading
    Geraghty, C. (1997) ‘Women and Sixties British Cinema—The Development of the “Darling” Girl’, in R.Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema, London: BFI.
    Street, S. (1997) British National Cinema, London: Routledge.
    Thumin, J. (1992) Celluloid Sisters: Women and Popular Cinema, London: Macmillan.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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