Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Paula Vitaris
Field of Dreams
Cinema Retro; September 2009
"Anyone in those days who had a boyfriend had to say he was their fiancé. That was the double standards of the Fifties for you."
Click on the image to see the full article
Mark Mawston meets the ever glamorous Shirley Anne Field the British actress who saw her career rapidly rise from sexy cover girl model to that of an international star...
MM: After what seems a difficult upbringing...
SAF: What do you mean?
MM: Well, I've read several times that you were brought up in a children's home with your brother.
MM: Then perhaps we can dispell the inaccuracies that appear on the web and in print for once and for all. Can you tell me the real story? SAF: It's true that my family lost four children and I was one of them! It's also true that the street on which we lived was bombed. However, we were too young to be evacuated so we were put into a home. My mother came and worked there, and then she was sacked for picking up her little baby boy whenever he cried! When I was 3 or 4 and getting a bit of a handful no doubt, I was sent from Sussex to the other side of the world, which was Lancashire! This is where I spent my childhood. I so wanted my brother to be there. I'd had two sisters and a younger brother and a mummy and a daddy who came home sometimes, and suddenly they weren't there any more. The Sisters helped to get my brother to join me and he was in one part with me in another of what was known as the National Children's Home, which has now changed to Action for Children, for whom I'm an ambassador and I'm hoping to do work for soon.
MM: How did you break into films?
SAF: I was living in Knighsbridge working with the Gas Board when a strange little director called Val Guest noticed me from some pictures I'd had taken. He rang up Bill Watts and told him to sign me up. He called and told me about his 'special young ladies'. When I asked further about the group, he confirmed that they were young actresses hoping to break into films,
Below: Shirley's image was used heavily during the promotion of The Entertainer (1960)
which was exactly what I wanted to do. I'd won all sorts of scholarships to go to acting school, but where I'd been brought up didn't think I was a stable enough character and wouldn't stick it! Of course, the others that did get in all left to have children and moved to far-off places but here I am, still acting, so what does that prove? Anyway, although Bill thought I was wonderful, he did exasperate me in that we had to do an awful lot of stuff for the Variety Club of Great Britain without getting a penny and we were struggling to make ends meet ourselves! He thought I should have a protector which I thought was slightly iffy, but so did we all. Anyone in those days who had a boyfriend had to say he was their fianacé. That was the double standards of the Fifties for you.
MM: The first significant movie was Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Now seen as a classic, it was derided and the film killed Powell's career, and Martin Scorsese is the film's most famous fan. Did the tone and content of the film surprise you?
SAF: I had no idea about that. I'd love to work with Scorsese, so I hope he reads this. If only Michael Powell had known that too. He was a wonderful character. He dressed in Jodhpurs and riding boots and carried a whip!
MM: Very Erich von Stroheim!
SAF: Yes. However, he was very kind to me. Regarding its content, I don't know if I read the script or just my part. I was still a teenager and would never have questioned Michael Powell on whether it was good, bad or indifferent. I was thrilled to be asked to appear in the film. I knew it was a spooky story, but a good spooky story. I saw it recently while touring and couldn't believe it. There I was on screen playing this daffy, silly girl. I was being told what to do by this man playing a director who kept saying "Oh, do it again, darling" and clichés like that. Michael Powell was nothing like that. He was very pleased with what I did, saying "That's good, Shirley Anne" and that brought out a side of my character which I've not used since which was to send up the 'movie star' persona. I was so young I didn't know about other movie stars, but I did it slightly over the top and it seemed to work. He never corrected me on anything and left me to be myself. Michael Powell was very much sort of a father figure on set. He was authoritarian but very nice.
MM: You were then chosen by Laurence Olivier to appear in The Entertainer. Again, now seen as a classic, what was this experience like?
SAF: It wasn't Olivier that chose me.
MM: OK, that's another myth we've dispelled.
British quad poster for Peeping Tom (1959).
Like The Entertainer, Shirley featured predominently in the advertising for Man in the Moon (1960), as shown here on the film's poster.
Above: This American half-sheet poster for The Entertainer featured Shirley (who played a beauty queen - see photo right) with Laurence Olivier from the sequence where she is seduced by an aging music hall entertainer whose career is in decline.
SAF: It was Tony Richardson I owe it all to. His assistant director who was in the room at the time was Peter Yates. It was a small room and there were about 500 girls who all looked the same - you know, the pony tails and eye make-up done up to here, very much in the style of the day. I'd been sent a few pages to read but as everyone looked the same I thought I'd try something different. So I went into the changing room and took out my pony tail and rubbed a great deal of my make-up off so that I looked a little different, then went out to Tony. I'd been told by every agency that you had to talk in the correct way, which is what I did. As I was leaving, Tony shouted over (in a perfect impression of Richardson's accent) "Can you do those lines in a Northern accent?" I turned around immediately and said (in a Northern accent), "Bloody hell, I've spent four years learning to talk properly and now you're asking me to do this". He looked up and said, "Come back here" and I said (again in a Northern accent), "Well, if you want me to, but I'm not keen on it, I'll have you know". It worked and he said, "Could you come back to the theatre on Saturday?" I asked why and he confirmed I was to try out for the part with a few others. I was very happy but up to that point I'd had a horrible time in movies, horrid. I hated being 'the special girl' picked out to look glamorous, going out and saying your lines then going home on the workman's bus. Oh! Anyway, I got to the theatre and there were three other girls there, all quite tall and glamorous, but when I read the lines I thought they could have been written for me. I'd been in beauty contests because they paid so well. £10 - £15 was a lot of money in the late 50s, and I always came second or third. A friend had persuaded me to enter the contests and it was great money, but on this day I wanted to go for realism. When I arrived, the assistant director came mincing out and said "Do this" and "Do that" and I said I didn't want to do it like that. Tony said, "What's the matter love?" as only he could, and I explained that I thought I could play it better in a more realistic way. Afterwards he said, "Come to dinner tonight love and we'll talk about the film". I asked if I could bring my boyfriend and he said, "Well alright, if you must". I must give Joley Richardson a still of me where Tony's holding my face saying, "You'll never be the same after this kid". It was Tony who picked me. [Note: Sadly, it was on the day this interview was recoded that Tony Richardson's daughter, actress Natasha Richardson, had her fatal skiing accident].
MM: What was Olivier like to work with?
SAF: At first he was stand-offish. He'd be sitting there doing a crossword. I was a bit nonplussed as I hadn't seen all his great roles because I'd lived in a place where I only got to go the the movies twice a year and I didn't
really know about Sir Laurence. I thought he was simply The Entertainer and he reminded me a little of my father. This changed when, after a horrible day's shooting in bed in a caravan in Morecambe, surrounded by cameramen, he said "Are you coming to the rushes tonight?". I said that I didn't like to go to the rushes and he barked back and said, "Don't be so silly. This is the only industry where we can correct ourselves as we go along" - this being a long time before DVDs. Anyway, the scene came on and there was me, 19, completely innocent. I just couldn't do it now. Afterwards everyone in that little screening room got up and clapped. I couldn't believe it! After that he put his arm through mine and we skipped off down the street and he said, "Well, we won't be needing to tell you anything now, will we?" He asked me to appear at the Old Vic but I was just too nervous. I know Sarah Miles took up the offer two weeks later and stayed only two weeks. It was very daunting. I wish I'd had more courage but I wasn't theatre-trained. We stayed friends and he invited me to see him as Othello. I went back stage and he said, "Do you want to see my white bits?" I said no, not really [laughs].
MM: Perhaps that was the part he was most proud of?
SAF: [laughing] Perhaps, but he was a theatre manager at heart. He loved the Old Vic. He didn't have a great deal of money and I think he took any parts he could. He should have been nurtured and looked after, but it didn't really happen like that. That's why he took parts like Marathon Man during that stage in his life, so he could leave funds behind.
MM: Can you shed any light on the Hollywood rumours that Olivier was gay, alluded to in Tony Curtis's recent memoir?
SAF: No, I never saw anything that pointed to that, but he did have a quality that could be seen as bi-sexual. All I remember is that his later years weren't as fulfilling as they could have been.
MM: We were all aware of the French New Wave but it was the British New Wave in which you were heavily involved, first with The Entertainer then again in a Tony Richardson production Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Were you aware of the changes these so-called kitchen sink dramas were bringing to the British film industry?[Image]
An example of Shirley's early modelling career during the '50s and '60s. Blighty magazine had this to say about her: We predict that lovely Shirley Ann Field, one of Britain's best-known cover girls, is going to take the film world by storm, for she combines great talent with beauty. How right they were!
SAF: Yes, straight away. I was so happy to be working with people I was comfortable with in The Royal Court crowd. It was such a relief after spending five years being hassled or groped by this star or that, to feel like I was appreciated. It was reassuring. As regards kitchen sink, I prefer to call them 'social realism' as I think it's a more accurate term. i could also have done A Kind of Loving but I turned it down. It took twenty years for John Schlesinger to forgive me. I simply couldn't do it as I'd been offered The War Lover instead. I finally had a chance to go to Hollywood and become a world-wide name. It was the stuff dreams are made of, but I didn't get to enjoy it like I should have. When I arrived I was so panicked and tired and the sun was just too yellow and the orange juice too orange. It was very stressful and I had a headache all the time. I just wasn't used to it. i didn't have anyone to look after me.
MM: Before we get into that film and your time in Hollywood, could we briefly talk about Beat Girl as it's hard to believe that in the same year as Peeping Tom and The Entertainer you also starred with Adam Faith in this cult favourite.
SAF: This was filmed earlier.
MM: Yes, but released at the same time. Were you a beatnik yourself and did you identify with this kind of youth or the ones with more true-to-life dramas at the time?
SAF: This was the definition of an exploitation film as the producer exploited me! I was paid less than some of the extras.
MM: At the time it was seen as pushing boundaries. Did that appeal to you?
Right: Film press block with laughable heading. Today it is their teenage daughters having all the sex!SAF: It was actually down to Bill again. He was just so keen to get us into anything, though I don't want to think that the actor should exploit the producer any more than the producer exploits the actor. There was just so much more we could have done. I remember struggling to get to Chingford every day in Adam Faith's clapped-out car.
Dodo (Shirley Ann Field) and Tony (Peter McEnry) watch Dave (Adam Faith) perform in a night club.
MM: Chingford! I thought it was shot on the streets of Soho? I was going to ask you if it was a perfect snapshot of the time!
SAF: No, we shot a lot of scenes in some caves in Chingford.
MM: This was a gritty little picture in itself, reflected in the character names such as Green Pants, Duffle Coat and Plaid Shirt (a young Oliver Reed). Again, a harder version with more explicit scenes was filmed for European cinemas. Were you aware of that?
SAF: Yes, I remember that, come to think about it. They had extras waiting when we finished. I wonder who did my body? [laughs]
MM: Beat Girl seemed to be a sort of anti-Elvis movie in that it was dark and unglamorous.
SAF: I was actually offered an Elvis movie a little later on.
MM: Really? Which one?
SAF: I can't remember the title but again I turned it down because at the time, Elvis
films had an undeserved bad rep. Of course it's different now.
MM: Do you wish you'd have taken it?
SAF: Yes, yes, yes! I'd been given the offer via the Colonel but although my agent turned it down everyone I spoke to said Elvis was a lovely man, very humble and gracious. It's easy to see things in hindsight but at the time it just didn't pan out.
MM: Talking of musical icons, Beat Girl is also the movie that gave John Barry his first shot at a soundtrack.
SAF: Yes, I know John well. He wrote a song for me in the film called "It's Legal". I sang it on a bus [Shirley Anne then tries to remember the song then hums and sings a few bars of the tune]. I recorded it at Abbey Rd Studios. I was working with Lyndsey Anderson at the time and I asked him if I could get out to record the song. He asked me what it was called and said, "Sing me the first line" which was [sings] "Sitting on a coffee bar stool and I'll never be bad no more" or something like that. It was very average and Lyndsey looked at me and said, in a sarcastic tone, "Off you go then, dear". That falls into line with the characters being called Duffel Coat and Plaid trousers"! [laughs].
MM: Let's return to The War Lover, in which you starred with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner. What was it like working with those guys and is it a film you enjoyed doing at the time?
SAF: As I said, I chose the option to go to Hollywood, who wouldn't? I was a young twenty-something and offered a film in England with Alan Bates, whom I loved and still love dearly, or a film with Steve McQueen and more importantly Robert Wagner, taken from a John Hershey novel. I mean, what are you going to do? Although I have to say I don't think director Philip Leacock was strong enough.
Top: The War Lover brought Shirley top-billing alongside Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner
MM: You mean in directing what was, in essence, a darker than normal Hollywood film?
SAF: I just think it could have been better. As regards what it was like working with Steve, that's another story. We were all sitting round having a conference one day and I was being charmed by Robert Wagner. Who wouldn't be? He was very handsome with perfect manners. Steve used to get in a fury if Robert and I were on a magazine cover, which there were many of. He was very aggressive, Steve. So this day director Philip Leacock said, "You're so alike" and I said, "Thank you" and took that as a compliment, thinking he was talking about RJ (Robert Wagner) and me. He then said, "Yeah, you're both so rough and tumble" and I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "You and Steve"! I was furious.
MM: Maybe it's because the movies you'd made could be seen as "method". McQueen was quite a 'method man'. He would famously steal a scene even if he had no dialogue.
SAF: Yes. An example of that was when I was doing a love scene with RJ and there was a commotion and I looked up to see Steve poring beer over an extra's head out of shot. I said, "Steve, what do you think you're doing?" That's why Mr Leacock liked me, because I wasn't afraid of Steve. I couldn't fight him but I could stand up to him. After 12 years in TV he wanted to be a big movie star. That trick of stealing a scene is called "pulling focus". Robert was very good with Steve McQueen, very calm and patient, whereas I was furious. After I shouted over to Steve following that love scene with RJ, Mr Leacock stopped and said, "What's the matter?" and I pointed at Steve who just looked sheepish and played innocent. Later in a love scene Steve and I were supposed to end up on the sofa. Well, Steve threw me so hard that I went over the sofa and ended up out of shot altogether. It took ten takes! I still have the scar on my lip. I was bleeding everywhere and I was being patched up by John, the lovely make-up man, who whispered (in a cockney accent), "Bite his bleedin' lip!" So the scene started and I did just that and it went along "bang" [claps her hands] and it was all over. You see, I'd had to fight for attention in my early days when I was surrounded by 400 others. He just looked at me, knowing what I'd done, and I said, "It takes one to know one". Philip Leacock, who couldn't handle Steve at all, came over and said, "Where were you brought up?" and I said, "Nowhere you need to know" and left it at that!
MM: Steve McQueen's part was originally written for Warren Beatty. Could you see Beatty in the role?
SAF: Yes. I know Warren and could see him in that part but obviously I don't think he'd have been too keen to act with Robert Wagner as he'd just pinched his wife Natalie Wood
© 2009 Mark Mawston
In issue #16, Shirley discusses Joseph Losey's These Are The Damned, turning down a role in a Bond film and working with Michael Caine.