To say that Susan George is one of Britain’s brightest young stars might seem to be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but what else can one say about an actress with such a string of successes to her name at the age of 24, and who is equally in demand on both sides of the Atlantic? Chauvinistic Hollywood columnists don’t as a rule care for English actresses playing American girl roles, but they gave unstinted praise for Susan’s performance in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Terrific’ was how one Hollywood writer described her portrayal, adding his praise for her handling of the American accent, which is always a touchy point with our American friends.
The key to her success lies, of course, in her ingrained, double-dyed professionalism. Susan was born in 1950 and made her film debut at the age of 10 with a brief appearance in a children’s film called Cup Fever. But it was when she reached the age of eleven-and-three-quarters that she was taught a lesson she has never forgotten. She was sent to audition to understudy one of the children in the stage version of The Sound Of Music, her agent drumming it into her that on no account was she to reveal her true age.
I went on the huge stage,’ she says, ‘and a voice boomed out from the back of the blackened stalls: “What is your name?” “Susan George, sir,” I replied. “How old are you, Susan George?” “Twelve, sir,” I fibbed, remembering what I’d been told. I sang my piece, waited around, and finally they told me the part was mine. I was more than thrilled and delighted, I was ecstatic – until the crunch came the following day when they discovered my real age.
The management was furious, of course, when they realised they had to start auditioning all over again, and when they got around to it I was really twelve so, quaking visibly, I tried again. “How old are you this time, Susan George?” boomed the now-familiar voice. “Twelve, sir,” I replied meekly. “Areyouquitesure, Susan George ?” I got the job, this time for keeps, but I realised that I might have lost it through a piece of silly dishonesty. I made a vow to myself then never to lie again.
The next eighteen months were valuable to her as they taught her the hard graft of stage work. She was understudying Brigitta, one of the youngsters in the play; she also dressed her, cared for her wardrobe, made tea for the company, and along with the other understudies, acted as general dogsbody.
‘I must now confess that I was wicked enough to hope – even alas! to pray – that she would go down sick and allow me to go on for her, but my chance came another way. It was one of the other children who was taken ill during a performance and I had to go on in the second half as Louisa. The clothes were miles too big for me and while they hurriedly plaited my hair I tried desperately to learn my lines. I heard my cue and danced on, only to trip over my long dress and fall headlong into the orchestra pit. The audience roared with laughter as I was grabbed by the seat of my bloomers by one of the nuns and hauled back on stage!’
Susan worked hard and experienced all the agonies and frustrations of show business without seeming to come anywhere near getting some reward for all her efforts. Then she managed a tiny part in Billion Dollar Brain and a somewhat bigger role as a pregnant teenager in Up The Junction. This led to several co-starring roles, the most important being as Michael York’s hippy and sexy girl friend in the much under-rated The Strange Affair (she still looks back on Michael as perhaps the best – certainly the most considerate – of all her screen lovers). This was followed by All Neat In Black Stockings.
About this time a film critic, obviously lacking in perspicacity, dubbed her ‘a starlet but never a star’. This seems to have acted as a spur to Susan who has since gone from one success to another. In 1970 she starred in Twinky and then in the widely acclaimed Spring And Port Wine. She followed this with a smashing performance in Straw Dogs which definitely put her in the international star bracket.
Television and film work followed, and then they put together an exciting little number on a not-very-ambitious budget in which Susan starred with Peter Fonda. It was Dirty Mary Crazy Larry which set the screen alight in America (grossing 14 million dollars) and is expected to be equally successful in this country. ‘I became almost a folk heroine in the States,’ says Susan with a smile. The kids would call out to me in the street “Hi there, Dirty Mary, where’s Larry?” ‘
Susan cannot understand people thinking it strange that she should have been chosen to play an American girl when so many young American actresses were available.
‘A competent actress should be able to bring believability to any role however foreign (and I mean that literally) the character might be to herself,’ she declares firmly. ‘People who think it odd that I should play an all-American youngster should remember that I have been acting for 18 of my 24 years and have made 14 motion pictures to say nothing of dozens of TV shows. If I haven’t learned how to interpret an American girl of 20 by this time, then it’s time I packed in acting altogether. Besides, there have been many English actresses who have made it in American films, often playing American female roles. Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr had English backgrounds and became superstars in the truly glamour days of Hollywood.’
It is her utter professionalism that makes Susan so greatly in demand. All her directors agree that first and foremost she really knows her job, she’s the absolute personification of the cliche ‘she’s more than just a pretty face’. Secondly, she’s easy to work with on the set, ready to take direction, no tantrums, punctual on call – in short, film-makers know exactly where they stand with Miss George. This is not to say that she is completely docile and willing to do everything she’s told without demur, far from it. For example, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs she put her foot firmly down on the question of the celebrated rape scene.
‘Sam wanted it even more explicit than it was,’ she says. ‘He said it was to be the sexiest rape scene ever, but when I realised what was expected of me I dug my heels in firmly. I refused to be filmed below the waist, insisting to Sam that I could make it far more sexy simply by relying on facial expressions rather than having to show too much. I believe that even sexy films can be played clean.’
We shall shortly be seeing Susan in another provocative movie, Mandingo, from one of the novels in the Falconhurst saga. The scene is set in the American Deep South in the days of slavery and concerns a slave-breeding farm where the unfortunate creatures were bred just like cattle. The ‘Mandingo strain’ stems from a magnificent negro slave of that name who sires strong and healthy progeny who are better able to cope with the hard work on the plantation. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer.
Susan has also recently completed Winter Rates at Elstree, which typifies her eagerness for work and, more importantly, the opportunities for frequent changes of pace and style. ‘I don’t particularly like anything that is repetitive,’ she says. ‘I like to work in something and then move on. Doing something over and over again, like a successful play for example, wouldn’t suit me at all.’