By Melanie Williams | May 2015
At the moment, the 68th Cannes International Film Festival is abuzz with a supposed selfie ban, the feminist activism of Women in Motion and #seehernow, outrage at heelgate, boos for Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, plaudits for Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, and general indifference towards Woody Allen’s latest, Irrational Man. Meanwhile Cate, Aishwarya, Sienna, Lupita, Salma and a host of other female stars have all been mooted as 2015’s queens of the Croisette. But back in 1965, the undisputed woman of the moment was a quirky-looking young Liverpudlian, star of the Cannes grand prix winning film, The Knack…and how to get it: Rita Tushingham.
Despite her long and distinguished subsequent acting career, Tushingham’s star image remains inextricably linked to its decade of origin, the 1960s. In that respect she has a lot in common with Julie Christie, another female star who triumphed in 1965 (in her Oscar-winning role in Darling) and whose persona resonates with all that the era is seen to represent. But if Christie was the ‘honey glow girl’ of the sixties, then
‘our Tush’ as she became nicknamed represented a slightly different model of femininity, that of the ‘jolie laide‘; variously described in the press as gawky waif, little female elf, and even, latterly, as the ‘product of an unlikely coupling between Audrey Hepburn and Pinocchio’ (Guardian, 22nd March 1997).
This puzzled and often somewhat derogatory response to Tushingham’s looks began when she made her film debut in A Taste of Honey (1961) and from the moment of her discovery was proclaimed ‘the ugly girl’ across the British press (there’s an example from the Daily Express of the 27th April 1960 below) – of course, one might observe in passing that the male actors from the provinces making their debuts in British new wave films never received such levels of opprobrium for their looks even when, as with an actor like Tom Courteney, they departed from a physical norm of stardom just as much as Tushingham did.
It seems that the only possible source of redemption for Tush was her supposed resemblance to Princess Margaret, which also featured across the press around her debut (see the Daily Express again, this time from the 7th September 1961 – the Tony referred to is Princess Margaret’s husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones) and continued up to the mid-1960s. Was this a way of ‘dignifying’ Tush’s more demotic looks by regal comparison? Or merely a way of gesturing towards the (allegedly) classless society of the sixties, in which the looks of a lower-middle class grocer’s daughter are inseparable from those of a princess?
Despite receiving numerous award nominations for A Taste of Honey and winning a Variety Club award in 1961 – alongside fellow young pop culture personalities Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro – there was a definite risk of her not being able to build on that initial success, acknowledged by one writer who commented In 1962 when Rita was cast in The Leather Boys, that ‘many were doubtful if Wardour Street would continue to employ a girl who so shatters the picture of the conventional leading lady.’ (Evening Standard, 13th July 1962).
Rita Tushingham’s career underwent several interesting transitions during that key decade, from her career-making British New Wave debut via the transitional working-class realist films A Place to Go (1963) and The Leather Boys (finally released in 1964) towards the slightly different thematic territory of the mid-1960s. The Woodfall productions Girl with Green Eyes (1964) and The Knack both present variations on the key sixties trope of the ingénue moving to the city, finding love, and finding herself. Tush’s later films Smashing Time (1967) and Straight on till Morning (1972) would offer, in turn, parodic and horrific treatments of the ‘single girl hits swinging London’ motif.
By the mid-1960s, media coverage of Rita Tushingham’s looks no longer adopted a tone of bemused surprise at her success and instead Tush became ‘the girl with the knack’ (see the Observer magazine coverline below) in a perfect conflation of the actress and her career-(re)defining ingénue role.
The very physiognomy that had proved so shocking to those espousing the received wisdom on what a (female) film star should look like were now a site for celebration instead. As Peter Lewis commented, her ‘severe fringe and the big startled eyes swiveling underneath’ (Daily Mail, 7th April 1969) became the hallmarks of Tushingham’s striking star image and the source of her allure, foregrounded in countless mid-sixties publicity shots, including the many taken to publicise The Knack. As one writer reflected a few years later, ‘Was Rita Tushingham ever all that ugly? […] They called her the plain Jane of British films. Then you look at her again. Could she really have been ugly? Or is it just that our ideas of ugliness have changed?’ (Evening Standard, 18th March 1970).
The sixties is so often spoken of as marking a revolution in outlook and taste and it seems that the turnaround in the way a young female star like Rita Tushingham was discussed, moving in the space of just a few years from ‘the ugly girl’ to ‘the girl with the knack’, might be able to tell us something about that shift in sensibilities.