Kathleen Byron, the intense, flame-haired star of Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, died yesterday at the age of 88. She is believed to have been in poor health for a number of years.
Born in London in January 1921 (some sources say 1923), Byron made her film debut playing a maid in Carol Reed’s 1942 drama The Young Mr Pitt. But it was with the film-making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that she was to make a lasting impression. Byron played an angel in 1946′s A Matter of Life and Death, and starred opposite David Farrar in 1949′s The Small Back Room.
She is best remembered for her performance as the unstable Sister Ruth in 1947′s Black Narcissus. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, the film spotlighted simmering sexual tensions within a mountain convent. Looking back on the experience decades later, Byron remembered Michael Powell sending her a telegram informing her that she had secured the part of Sister Ruth. “The trouble is,” he added, “you’ll never have such a good one again.”
Subsequent history appeared to support his claim. Following the success of Black Narcissus, Byron often found herself typecast in neurotic, borderline demented roles. She acted in a rash of B-movies, flirted briefly with Hollywood and made frequent appearances on British TV.
In middle-age she was rediscovered by a new generation of film-makers who had grown on with the Powell-Pressburger classics. David Lynch handed her a supporting role in The Elephant Man, while Steven Spielberg picked her for his Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan.
In 2001, the Danish director Lars Von Trier cast her as Lauren Bacall’s sister in Dogville, although poor health prevented her from taking the role. She made her last screen appearance that same year in Stephen Poliakoff’s TV series, Perfect Strangers.
Source: The Guardian.