By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 10:53 PM
Susannah York, a skilled and versatile actress of great beauty who emerged as one of the most promising stars of the 1960s in films including "Tom Jones," "Tunes of Glory" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" - the last of which brought her an Oscar nomination - died Jan. 15 of cancer at a hospital in London. She was 72.
Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the English-born actress became famous initially for playing dewy ingenues but went on to demonstrate an impressive range, playing everything from Shakespearean heroines to Superman's mother from Krypton.
She became an international star in 1963 as Albert Finney's true love in the lusty comedy "Tom Jones," based on the novel by Henry Fielding. Set in the 18th century, the popular film parodied the foibles of the English aristocracy and helped Ms. York, as the virginal, sharp-witted Sophie Western, establish herself as a sought-after actress.
Several years later, in 1969, she received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as a vulnerable Hollywood hopeful in Sydney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
Based on a Horace McCoy Depression-era novella about competitors in a dance marathon, the film was a bleak allegory about American life. It starred Jane Fonda and Gig Young - both of whom were also nominated for Oscars. (Young won best actor in a supporting role that year; the award for best actress in a supporting role, which Ms. York was up for, went to Goldie Hawn for her performance in "Cactus Flower.")
Ms. York "was excellent as the English girl defiantly trying to break into sordid movies," film historian David Thomson wrote. "There is a speculative flightiness about her in that film; especially in the breakdown scene in a shower cubicle, she seemed for the first time a human animal touched to the quick."
Her blond, blue-eyed allure first captured audiences' attention in 1960 when she was cast as the irresistible daughter of Alec Guinness, playing an officer in a Scottish regiment, in the drama "Tunes of Glory."
Guinness declared her "the best thing in films since Audrey Hepburn," and moviemakers began to seek Ms. York to play young beauties.
In 1961, she was "utterly lovely" as a teenager discovering her power over men in "Loss of Innocence," wrote Washington Post film critic Richard Coe.
Two years later, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Ms. York "a warm little package of passions" for her role in "Tom Jones."
She also appeared in "A Man for All Seasons" (1966) as the comely eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield. But she refused to be typecast.
"People do, willy-nilly, associate blue eyes and blond hair with angels," she told Nora Ephron in a 1968 interview for the New York Times. "They preconceive you. . . . Then, after they've got you, they begin to see that you're falling out of the box they've put you in, and they keep trying to pile you back in and get you in a nice tidy shape."
She memorably played a stubborn young wife who joins the military in "Battle of Britain" (1969), saying, "I'm just not the type to wave a wet hanky in sooty stations."
Another of the roles she took to redefine her range was as a young lesbian in the 1968 film "The Killing of Sister George." The movie made headlines for an explicit sex scene between Ms. York and actress Coral Browne.
Writing in the Times, reviewer Renata Adler called the encounter "the longest and most unerotic, cash-conscious scene between a person and a breast there has ever been on screen, and outside a surgeon's office."
She continued in the 1970s to work with some of the period's best-known actors and directors. She played the other woman who comes between Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine in "Zee and Co." and portrayed a woman come undone by schizophrenia in Robert Altman's "Images." She joined Christopher Reeve in the "Superman" movies, playing the superhero's birth mother in several installments of the series.
But her onscreen work never achieved the acclaim that some of her best performances suggested she was capable of, and Ms. York turned largely to the stage in the latter part of her career.
She also wrote children's books and was an activist on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation and other causes.
"You have to remake your life as you grow old and out of fashion," she said in a 2005 interview with the New Statesman.
Susannah Yolande Fletcher was born in London on Jan. 9, 1939.
She was raised, for the most part, in Scotland by her mother and stepfather after her parents divorced when she was young.
Ms. York had acted since she was a girl. She met her future husband, actor Michael Wells, while studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
They had two children, Orlando and Sasha, before divorcing in 1976. Survivors include her children and several grandchildren, the Associated Press reported.
After her film career began to subside in the 1970s, Ms. York occasionally struggled with bills, accepting some roles for the paychecks they brought rather than the esteem they promised.
She appeared occasionally on television, including with George C. Scott in a 1970 production of "Jane Eyre" and later on series such as "The Love Boat."
In New York, she made her American stage debut as Hedda Gabler during the early 1980s. In the 1990s, she played Gertrude in a production of "Hamlet" by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
She also toured with "The Loves of Shakespeare's Women," a one-woman show she wrote and starred in. Featuring glimpses of 15 of Shakespeare's female characters, the production drew praise for Ms. York and her range as an actress.
"She is astonishingly good at catching the erotic fever of Shakespeare's young heroines," wrote Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, who also praised her "ardently imperious Lady Macbeth."
Hollywood superstardom had never been her ambition, Ms. York said. Her rebellious streak surfaced in 1969 when she responded to her nomination for an Oscar with indignation.
Brushing off the invitation to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, she said it offended her to be nominated without being asked.