Shirley Anne Field

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Shirley Anne Field Pencil Portrait
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Shirley Anne Field’s big break came when director Tony Richardson chose her from a hundred girls, to play beauty queen, Tina Lapford, opposite Sir Laurence Oliver in ‘The Entertainer’ (1960).

It was the culmination of steep learning curve that had taken her from a brief spell in modelling, and some small parts in films and game shows alongside such well-loved performers as Tommy Cooper, Hughie Green and Bob Monkhouse, to a significant role in Michael Powell’s classic ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960), in which the auburn haired actress would appear as a temperamental film star.

Still working in her mid 70’s, fewer parts are inevitably coming her way. This is partly due to the aging process and the dearth of suitable roles, but also competition from four of her rival grand dame actresses.

Of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Eileen Atkins, she has said:

“They have sewn up the market, those women. They are the four bankable names and they are used over and over again. It’s all down to luck. ‘The Queen’ changed Helen’s life – and people’s whole perception of her changed”.

Nevertheless, her acting ability is not in doubt, and when she burst onto the scene, she was undoubtedly a vision that captured the imagination of millions of men, including President Kennedy and Frank Sinatra.

Christened Shirley Broomfield, she would enjoy an early career as a pin-up girl for magazines like Reveille and Blighty. She was of medium height – 5ft 4½in – and amassed a pile of glossies that would inevitably lead to an offer of work in movies.

The film director Val Guest asked that deathless phrase “Do you want to be an actress?” and young Shirley Anne was signed to an agency run by Bill Watts whose premier client was 22-year-old Joan Collins.

“I was the youngest and Joan Collins was possibly the oldest. But we all wanted to be like her because she had a pink sports car, lived in Hollywood and earned £120 a week! It’s a horrible experience being a teenager in the film industry: you’re exposed to all the wrong influences. It was a very predatory world, you were always at risk.”

In a succession of films she was “the special girl” – the pretty, shapely one who stood out in a scene and maybe had a line or two to speak on screen. But by 1959 Field had had enough of movies. Naive, lacking confidence and unaware of her sexual allure, she decided to quit.

“I felt like a piece of meat just being picked for the way you looked and the shape you were,” she says. “I felt exploited but I don’t know what else I could do. I didn’t know that I [was attractive]. I’d been invisible all my childhood until I was 15. When people used to shout out I couldn’t believe it. Then I had the best good fortune in the world [in landing the role of] the beauty queen in The Entertainer.” This lack of narcissism, and sense of misgivings about her chosen profession, would assist her in spurning the advances of one Warren Beatty.

In 1958, long before her eventual move to Hollywood, theatre director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne had collaborated to turn Osborne’s theatre smash ‘Look Back in Anger’ into a film. They followed up with ‘The Entertainer,’ Osborne’s tale of down-at-heel seaside comedian Archie Rice that had given Laurence Olivier a new lease of life with the Royal Court.

Like any young starlet, she was eager to please yet distinctly underwhelmed by her leading man. “I wasn’t impressed with Olivier when I met him. I’m in bed with him, filming in a caravan. And he starts talking. ‘Now who’s your favourite actor or actress, dear? I said ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and he went off into a fit. ‘Dreadful girl! Never shows up on time!’ So we get over that. Two days later he again tries, very patronising. ‘Who else do you admire?’ So I said ‘I love Vivien Leigh’ and he went into a fury. He was horrible.”

“I got out of his bed and said ‘I’m not staying here with you. Every time you ask me something and I answer, you’re always rude’ and I went and sulked. Tony came mincing over and said ‘What’s the matter, darling?’ and I went ‘I’m not staying in bed with him, he gets on my nerves’.”

She succeeded in worming an apology from Olivier who, when he saw the daily rushes of the scene they’d shot, danced through the streets with her and invited her to join his Old Vic company.

Subsequently, the auburn haired beauty would enjoy a spectacular early career; an initial trickle of film roles in the late 50’s turning into a positive flood throughout the first half of the 60’s.‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ with Albert Finney was followed by ‘The War Lover,’ with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner, ‘Alfie,’ with Michael Caine, and ‘Kings of the Sun’ with Yul Brynner. She became known as “the British Marilyn Monroe.” Her success did little to improve an already strained relationship with a father who didn’t want ‘any bleedin’ film stars’ in his family, or ‘any bleedin’ film stars’ names.’

The early 60’s also saw her taking to the stage with the Royal Court, turning down Laurence Olivier’s offer to join his Old Vic company and marrying racing driver Charles Crichton-Stuart, who was also part of the English aristocracy.

She worked for Hammer Films, missed out on being a Bond girl – “Cubby Broccoli said he couldn’t hire me because ‘you’re above the title now’” – and saw her big Hollywood opportunity evaporate when the spectacular Mayan drama ‘Kings of the Sun,’ starring Yul Brynner, flopped.

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Recommended viewing

The Damned (1963)

Field shines as Joannie in this Hammer horror, that echoes the apocalyptic world so prevalent in the minds of millions throughout the Cold War. A twenty year old controlled by her domineering older brother, she resents his one dimensional view of her, eventually breaking free of the “gang mentality” to explore her emotional feelings for an older, more mature man.

Simon, an American drifter (Macdonald Carey), a scientist (alexander Knox) with a mistress who is an artist, a motor cycle gang led by a rebel without a cause (Oliver Reed), a pretty young woman ready for sex (Field), a secret laboratory, sports cars, motor launches, gray rubber radiation suits and unmarked helicopters, “The Damned” – based on the utopian novel ‘Children of Light’ (1960) by H.L. Lawrence – was shot in the spring of 1961, but held back from theatrical release for two years due to censorship problems.

Director Joseph Losey and writer Evan Jones would fashion an intellectually chilling story of a group of children reared in an artificial, radioactive world by a scientist singularly focused on post atomic war survival. The children are discovered in a cave under a nearby military base by Simon and Joan, both are on the run from Joan’s brother King, the leader of a violent motorcycle gang. The cold-blooded children have all become radioactive during a blundered experiment and unwittingly kill anyone who comes into unguarded contact with them. Simon and Joan free the youngsters, necessitating military intervention.

For the couple, alone on their boat, monitored from above by a helicopter, the portents are chillingly ominous.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)