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Betsy Blair, actress

b. 11/12/1923; d. 13/3/2009

”It certainly wasn’t much of a career. For all my ambitions, I think my life was more important to me.” The actress Betsy Blair’s self-deprecating verdict on her own achievements needs qualification. The life, it’s true, was vivid and colourful. Blair married Gene Kelly, then her choreographer in New York, at an early age. They moved to Hollywood, where Blair settled into theatre work, parts in modest films and motherhood. Both were committed socialists, but where Kelly’s eventual superstardom made him virtually untouchable during the McCarthy purge, Blair’s film career suffered. It was thanks to Clark Gable’s intervention that she finally won a lead role after four wilderness years: alongside an unknown Ernest Borgnine in the low-budget social-realist film Marty (1955), she gave a convincing and moving portrayal of a lonely spinster falling in love. The film caught a mood and became a hit (it also won the Palme d’Or), but has since lapsed into a (relative) obscurity that’s quite undeserved.

Blair left Kelly for a French lover and moved to Europe, living in Paris before eventually settling in London, where she married the film director Karel Reisz. Long before the likes of Brando, Nicholson and Lancaster crossed the Atlantic to consort with European film aristocracy, Blair had a substantial supporting role in Antonioni’s Il Grido (aka The Cry, 1957), worked with the likes of Tony Richardson and Claude Brasseur, but most memorably starred in Calle Mayor (1956), directed by the under-appreciated (in Britain at least) Juan Antonio Bardem, who was briefly imprisoned by Franco’s thugs during the shoot. Blair again played a lonely single woman, this time preyed upon by callous men who take bets that one of their number can dupe her into thinking she’s loved and will marry. Perfectly pitched and ultimately heartbreaking, Blair’s performance is sensitively attuned to the blight and misery faced by so many during those wretched Franco years.

Kieron Corless

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Last Updated: 22 Feb 2010