Remembering Mary Ure

We pay tribute to Mary Ure, the star of stage and big-screen classics including Look Back In Anger and Where Eagles Dare...

There was something remote about Mary Ure that came across on screen so clearly. She looked untouchable, distant; she had great poise and enormous eyes that always contained a hint of wariness. A theatre actress in the main, she made very few films, but she always brought deeper meaning to the movies she was in, from action thrillers to science fiction, social drama or literary adaptations.

Always the supporting actress, her quiet ability to wring emotion from few words added a huge amount to these films. It’s so sad that she left behind only a few cinematic performances when she died at a young age, but here are five of her very best roles, and a reminder of how talented she was.

A brief biography

Born in Scotland in 1933, Eileen Mary Ure trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and then began to appear in the London theatre from age 21 onwards, proving to be immediately successful. In 1956 she was cast in Look Back In Anger, a pivotal play of the 1950s, and transferred with the play to Broadway, where she received a Tony award nomination. In 1959 she appeared in the film version, opposite Richard Burton.

She married the writer of Look Back In Anger, the acerbic John Osborne, after having begun an affair with him during rehearsals for the play. In 1959 she began an affair with the actor Robert Shaw, and married him in 1963. In between some great theatrical performances she appeared in three films with Shaw. It wasn’t until 1968 that she landed a role in a film that was a huge hit, appearing once more with Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare.

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Her last film role was in 1973. By that time she was struggling with alcoholism and marital problems. In 1975, after the opening night of a new London play, she overdosed on alcohol and sleeping pills (It’s not known whether this was deliberate). She died at the age of 42.

Five of her best roles

The Mind Benders (1963)

This science fiction film and love story has a wonderful score by Georges Auric. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Then the great dialogue kicks in, and there’s a really interesting, intelligent plot. Throw in Dirk Bogarde and Mary Ure as the main actors, and you’ve got a brilliant slice of very British sci-fi.

Doctor Longman (Bogarde) is conducting experiments into sensory deprivation by submerging himself in a large tank of water for hours at a time. When a colleague commits suicide, the suggestion of treason forces Longman into undergoing a much longer session, and when he emerges – is he the same man? The military become involved, and brainwashing, susceptibility, and personality changes put a strain on his long-standing marriage to Oonagh (Ure).

The scene where Longman comes up from the tank to find himself the focus of an interrogation, and afterwards when Oonagh drives him home and sees instantly that something has fundamentally changed in their relationship, is screen acting at its best. This is not a slick, speedy film, but it goes deep.

Look Back In Anger (1959)

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The play that coined the expression “angry young man” was a kitchen sink drama that showed us the life of Jimmy Porter and his wife Alison. He rages against the class system and the unfairness of life, and then turns viciously on her, using her as a verbal punching bag.  But it barely dents her calm façade, and that makes Jimmy even more dangerous.

Richard Burton could be venomous like no other actor, with that wonderful voice inflicting such damage. But it wouldn’t work here without Ure. Her hopelessness and her inner strength are all on show. She can withstand his attempts to destroy her, but she can’t live without him. It’s the delicate balance that makes them the most intriguing of unhappy couples.

The Luck Of Ginger Coffey (1964)

Out of the films Ure made with her second husband, Robert Shaw, I think this is the one in which she shone. The other two films, Custer Of The West (1967) and A Reflection Of Fear (1973), are really interesting, but don’t give Ure a lot to do. Shaw was an overpowering, mesmeric actor, as shown in his most famous roles in Jaws and The Sting. He could be guaranteed to steal a scene, and Ure played the background characters so very well. But here she’s the quiet wife who gets to rebel for once.

Ginger Coffey (Shaw) is an Irish immigrant to Montreal, getting jobs, leaving jobs, always looking for something better. When he spends the money his wife Vera (Ure) has saved for their return to Ireland she kicks him out, and a battle begins, with their teenager daughter as the prize. Meanwhile, Coffey squanders his chances to make good. This makes him sound like a terrible character, but Shaw makes him charming and understandable. Still, it’s Ure’s tears and anger that stay with you. She yearns for him to do the right thing. It’s a powerful and painful film that makes great use of Montreal’s snowy streets to suggest the harshness of their lives.

This is one of those films where the people working on it became much better known later on in their careers. The script was by Brian Moore, adapted from his own novel (he also wrote the underrated Hitchcock film Torn Curtain) and the director was none other than Irvin Kershner, who went on to direct Never Say Never Again, Eyes Of Laura Mars, and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

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Sons And Lovers (1960)

DH Lawrence’s novels are an acquired taste, but if you like them then you’ll love Sons And Lovers. I think it’s the best adaptation of a Lawrence novel. It captures the passionate, seething nature of the characters and their relationship with the landscape through Jack Cardiff’s amazing direction.

Dean Stockwell makes a mesmerising Paul Morel, the artistic son of a miner and his driven wife. Morel feels everything so intensely. He demands so much of himself and others, and is devoted to his mother (a terrific performance by Wendy Hillier) and hates his coarse father (Trevor Howard). He struggles to find freedom from love, hate, desire, expectations. It’s an impossible battle against himself.

Mary Ure is Clara Dawes, the unhappily married Suffragette who is also trying to escape the bonds of her daily life. She is driven and icy, scornful of men, but passionate in her nature. It’s a perfect performance of a deeply contradictory character, and it gained her a Golden Globe nomination and an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Shirley Jones won the Oscar instead for her turn in Elmer Gantry.)

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

It’s difficult to think clearly about the films that you grow up with. Is Where Eagles Dare a bit long in the middle section? Too anachronistic? Are the characters one-dimensional? No, I can’t answer these questions objectively when this film reminds me so much of being allowed to stay up late on Saturday night, and the thrill of the opening music.

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Ure was a big influence on me back then. Next to Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, she looks as cool and deadly as the mountainous drops around Schloss Adler. None of them are big on dialogue as they undertake a rescue mission with a secret agenda. Ure’s performance is so driven, so serious, that it’s no surprise when she picks up a gun and fires back. She’s a machine.

The title of the film comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III – “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” The little birds fly in and make a fool of the eagles, and then they’re gone again. Well, after a cable car, bus ride and plane flight. And apparently that particular plane, the Luftwaffe Ju-52, couldn’t have made the journey back to the UK anyway due to its operational range. I’ll stop nit-picking there. It’s a brilliant film.

* * *

Mary Ure played many of the key female Shakespearean roles on stage, including Desdemona and Ophelia, and it’s a great shame that there’s no cinematic record of these performances. But we do have a handful of great films to remember her by. She gave her abilities generously to projects that gained a new depth because of her.  She also proved that she could fit into a blockbuster or carry a small film, and her emotional intelligence was always visible, no matter what role she played. Here’s hoping her very best screen work, such as The Mind Benders and Sons And Lovers continues to find a new audience, so that she never becomes known simply as the blonde in Where Eagles Dare. She was so much more than that.

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