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September 6, 2008

A Byronic Ode

Some may consider it unseemly that I am writing what amounts to a mash note to an eighty-five-year-old woman, but when people realize that the woman in question is Kathleen Byron, I might be forgiven. Opportunities to see Byron in her glory days in films of the 1940s and 1950s are rare in the United States, so the new Criterion Collection DVD of "The Small Back Room," a 1949 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film that gave Byron a rare over-the-title starring role, is cause for celebration.

A favorite actress (and sometime love interest) of Powell, Byron should have become a star on the level of her contemporaries (and "Black Narcissus" co-stars) Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, but somehow never did. To be sure, she was very different from Kerr and Simmons: where their beauty was delicate, hers was bold. With her heart-shaped face, almond eyes, high cheekbones and aquiline nose, Byron could look either regally magnificent or utterly terrifying, as the role demanded, but she never failed to turn heads. ScreenOnline, a Web site devoted to British film and TV, hit the nail on the head: "Described by Michael Powell as looking `secret' and `witty,' Kathleen Byron brought a mysterious sensuality to British films as rare as it was underused."

To see "Black Narcissus," for my money the most beautiful, sensual color film ever made, is to become hooked on Byron forever. As Sister Ruth, a brittle Anglican nun driven mad by her unrequited love for the dashing Mr. Dean (David Farrar), Byron gives one of the all-time great screen portrayals of malevolent insanity. (Think Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" crossed with Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," and you're close; but that still does not give you the overwhelming power of Byron's performance, or the unique fascination she brought to the screen.) In one scene, having just broken her vows, Byron's Sister Ruth mockingly applies jungle-red lipstick in front of her superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, also wonderful). Byron makes that simple act seem like the most obscene, diabolical sacrilege imaginable.

After that great performance, alas, Byron found herself more and more typecast. Her one attempt at a Hollywood career--in the film "Young Bess," which reunited her with Kerr and Simmons--proved abortive; online sources cite family obligations in England and her inability to find a good Hollywood agent. In any case, Byron returned to England, married the journalist and author Alaric Jacob, and combined marriage and motherhood with a still-busy career, mostly on British TV. Occasionally she would get a small part in a big-budget production; in "Saving Private Ryan," she played the elderly Ryan's wife in the film's framing sequences. Her son, Jasper Jacob, followed his mother into show business as an actor and musician. Meanwhile, Byron remained sufficiently popular in Britain that the BBC broadcast "Remembering Sister Ruth," a documentary on her life and career, in 1997.

"The Small Back Room" is particularly gratifying in that it shows Byron's gifts as a straightforward romantic lead. In a way, the film could be said to complete the story of Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean, for her leading man is David Farrar. Farrar's Sammy Rice--a World War II bomb defusion expert sinkling into drink and despair after being maimed by a German UXB--is not all that different from Mr. Dean, but Byron's sane, kind-hearted Susan is a 180-degree turn from Sister Ruth, and proves she could have had the same sort of career that Kerr or Simmons did. There are moments in the film where Byron takes your breath away with her radiant beauty, and her devotion to Farrar is both touching and completely believable.

In any case, Kathleen Byron--at least in the U.S.--is a woefully unsung actress. Rent "Black Narcissus" (also available from the Criterion Collection) and "The Small Back Room," and you'll see exactly what I mean.

About September 2008

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