An essay in an occasional series on eminent Scots long forgotten.
I remember my disappointment turning to anger some years back when I read a published list of Scottish-born actors working in Hollywood compiled by the Scottish Film Fund, now part of the Profit-Creative Scotland. It was such a poorly researched piece it deserved to be binned. Any number of silent screen actors were missing, and a good few who made their name in the ‘glorious Technicolor’ days of studio pictures, the Fifties and Sixties. I felt like complaining, but the Fund was run on a shoestring, housed in a ramshackle little office in Glasgow, peeling name tag lost in a pimple of pushbuttons at the main door. Why give them more grief?
One of the star names they omitted was Adrienne Corri.
She died this week aged 85.
She was born Adrienne Riccoboni, with an Italian father, and educated in Edinburgh in the 1930s. It was a reeky place back then, with horse-drawn trams still in existence. You’d hardly know of her birthplace even if you had noticed her brilliance, or followed her television and film appearances. Only men, such as Connery, get given the pride of their home city and welcomed back to be given the Freedom of the City.
Corri was an actor of considerable range and versatility, as well as a quite beautiful woman. She had cheekbones you could perch a chocolate on- okay, she was an Italian Scot, it goes with the genes. As a theatre director, later film, I was keen to meet her but never had the part that would have been the perfect excuse to meet her. (I got as far as a lengthy phone conversation.) To be frank, older than me, she’d have eaten me unsalted if she had detected the merest squelch of bullshit.
Corri was a feminist before feminism was a career choice. She hated patronising directors, fees half that of her male co-stars, and agents clever at writing small print and then taking months to pay her. If stereotypes have any truth to them, Corri’s magnificent red hair was a warning to the unwary. She was tempestuous.
It was plain as the fire in her eyes she was wholly incompatible as a partner, and so it transpired for her two husbands, the last, actor Daniel Massey, whom she outlived. He probably handled her as the male Black Widow spider handles its far bigger mate, with a gift, a grab, and a dash for safety. She didn’t hate men. In her early career she responded to men a lot but rarely was the better for it. Were she still with us, her contemporary, the multi-talented Eartha Kit, would commiserate on the subject of the unreliability of the male species. Make swift use of them, and then flick ’em away.
For Corri it was less her love life that caused her anger, far more how she was used in his profession that so got under her skin. In one infamous television debate about women’s rights in the media, Corri got thoroughly scunnered with the banal view of her female panellists that she tore off her neck microphone and stomped out the studio in the full view of the cameras. She would have given Question Time one heck of a run for its money.
Her obvious talent, the passion she could bring to a role, a hot-blooded Mediterranean in a Scottish accent able to out-talk any man, was rarely handled well or with care. A disappointing professional life dominated by men, success infrequent, more lows than highs, hardens a woman’s capacity to accept the best in men at face value.
Her memorable best role, as with so many young actors, came early in her career. After a walk-on role in Quo Vadis (1951), shot in Rome, she was off to India to appear in her very best film, in my opinion, the one with the finest director, son of Renoir the painter, Jean Renoir. Like all good actors she responded to sensitive direction, but above all, to an excellent script. Actors need to believe in the script as much as we do.
The River (1951) is a poetic evocation of life among British colonials in post-second world war Bengal, a visual tour de force. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, the film eloquently contrasts the growing pains of three young women with the immutability of the Bengal river around which their daily lives unfold. There are no fast cars, no explosions, no speeded-up fights.
Corri, her red hair standing out in splendid Technicolor, is the most mature, voluptuous and spoiled of three teenage girls, all suffering adolescent pangs for a young war hero. Corri gives a stand-out interpretation of a young woman on the cusp of womanhood, the subtlety and nuance she manages in one so new to acting is captivating. She is never cloying, or sentimental. There’s a lovely no-nonsense about her character. The River isn’t often on television, but I urge lovers of cinema to watch it if it does appear.
Sadly for such a bright talent, but par for the course in respect of Hollywood’s attitude to women roles are confined to ingénue, hooker, cookie airhead, or bored housewife – Corri is mainly remembered for her participation in the short but notorious gang rape scene from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange (1971). In it she is ritualistically raped by a giant plastic penis shaped as a stool seat held aloft by Malcolm McDowall her attacker, while he dances to Singing In the Rain.
Despite complaining to Kubrick about the multitude of takes, Kubrick asked for more. He was notorious for manipulating his actors until they broke. (A few walked of set never to return.) He argued it caused them to shed any easy techniques, or quirks, or shallowness. By the end of the forty-eighth take on day five they must have been so knackered all Kubrick got was a sleep walking interpretation.
Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t acceptable. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?”
Her answer was one word and to the point: “Tough.”
Despite Kubrick’s sleazy prurience Corri retained a friendship with the director for a while but it was wasted loyalty. He never offered her another role. Just the same, the scene is the one that stays in the imagination for its ferocity and graphic expression. One Christmas later she gave him a pair of bright red socks, a reference to the scene, in which she is left naked but for such garments.
As a single parent in the Sixties she succumbed to the need to support two children, a son and a daughter, by working for Hammer Horror movies in a succession of stupid, make ’em quick, pile ’em high films.
Her tenure began with Journey Into Darkness, 1968), and then as was The Viking Queen (1967), a silly sword-and-sandal half-baked epic, in which Corri was an anti-Roman pro-druid princess who snaps and snarls. In The Tell-Tale Heart (1960), adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, a timid librarian is obsessed by Corri, the flower seller who lives across the street and who, like many horror-movie heroines, has a tendency to undress by a window without closing the curtains. There were two films in which Corri bravely disguised her beauty: she played a disfigured prostitute in A Study in Terror (1965), which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and in Madhouse (1974), she was bald and wore a mask to hide her face, mutilated in a car accident. There was other low budget pulp, and while one can claim she made a living, you can’t claim she made a reputation.
Later she took minor roles in bigger films, three in her friend Otto Preminger’s movies, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Rosebud (1975) and The Human Factor (1979), and as the mother of Lara (Julie Christie) in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965). Among her dozens of television parts were Milady de Winter in the BBC series of The Three Musketeers (1954) and various appearances in episodes of ABC’s Armchair Theatre (1956-60).
Corri didn’t waste her student days at RADA studying classic and Shakespearian roles. She also gained acclaim on stage – she was part of the Old Vic company (1962-63), and appeared on Broadway in Jean Anouih’s The Rehearsal (1963).
In 1959, rebellious to the end, she had a leading role in John Osborne’s The World of Paul Slickey, a bitter musical satire on the tabloid press, which received the ire of critics and public alike. On the first night, Corri gave the booing audience a two-fingered salute.
I’ll stop here. Lists of stuff are boring.
By the time Corri – the temptation here is to call her Adrienne – was at RADA her parents ran the Crown Hotel in Callandar, Perthshire. She recounts her days there and in Edinburgh as happy ones. She maintained a remarkably scandal free private life, but that incisive temper together with forever cast as seductive women, had to have lost her a few good roles in good films.
In 1984 she published a unique semi-autobiographical account of serendipity in her long career. The Search for Gainsborough begins with her spotting an early portrait of the actor-playwright David Garrick hanging in a dilapidated Birmingham theatre and, convinced it isn’t by any amateur, she proceeds to prove it the work of the young Thomas Gainsborough. Most of the leading art experts sneered at her attribution, but she persisted. Who was she to tell art experts their job, and a woman too?!
She followed the trail with forensic skill, got access to Bank of England ledgers, and ultimately discovered the payment made to Gainsborough for the Garrick portrait. This find leads to a second portrait. In time the experts confirmed her intuition and research, two Gainsborough’s now reclaimed for posterity.
What makes the book such an absorbing read is it’s written in diary format. We move from Corri’s humdrum theatre commitments to bad hotels, to encounters with pompous experts of the art world, in between she trying to keep her domestic life intact, and endless efforts to unravel the documentation.
Perhaps she realised after forty a women’s acting career is artificially limited for after that book her appearances grew fewer and fewer. Only a few actresses stay at the top into their sixties and seventies – Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep still command lead roles.
I can’t think of another Scottish actress around at the moment with anything like Corri’s beauty or searing ardour. If there are, history repeats itself – the good roles are still few and far between, and an exciting woman’s best talent is sure to be left ignored.
And believe me, the worst you can do to any woman is ignore her!