An unlikely movie star and an unconventional actress, Rita Tushingham broke all the stereotypes for a female movie star – not tall, not buxom, not classically pretty.
Unkindly labeled an "ugly duckling" at the start of her career – comments worthy of a lawsuit today – she could be strikingly beautiful one moment, and then plain-looking the next. Her soulful eyes and extraordinarily expressive face helped to give her an on-screen vulnerability and emotional transparency like no other contemporary actress.
Rita was discovered at the age of eighteen when she auditioned for the role of a working-class teenager for Tony Richardson's screen adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's
A Taste Of Honey(1961). In her film test, Rita's large "all-speaking" eyes impressed director Tony Richardson and clinched the role for her. Her brilliant performance in the film gained her international acclaim.
Her film career could well be regarded as a fluke, since her career would not have been possible had it not been for the fact that some British filmmakers were abandoning the upper-class drawing-room comedies of the 1950s in favor of gritty, working-class dramas. These films demanded actors and actresses who looked like real people, not like beautiful fashion models. Rita had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, with a working-class face that was a perfect fit for these realistic "New Wave" films.
Following her successful debut in
A Taste Of Honey,Rita made several notable films during the 1960s. These include Desmond Davis' Girl With Green Eyes(1963), for which Rita won critical acclaim for her emotionally vulnerable performance; Richard Lester's The Knack(1965), wherein she demonstrated deft comic delivery and impeccable comic timing; David Lean's Doctor Zhivago(1965), and Sidney Hayers' The Trap(1966). Her performance in The Trapwas especially impressive, making full use of her expressive face, since the role she played was that of a woman who could not speak, and thus communicated solely with her eyes.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, her career suffered the same downturn as many other British artists, due to the downsizing of the British film industry when American film financiers ceased funding British-made films after concluding that the 'Swinging Britain' films of the 1960s had run their course. Rita kept working by performing in films made in other countries, most notably Italy and (West) Germany.
For about ten years she lived in Toronto, Canada, with her second husband and her two daughters from her first marriage. She returned to England in 1988 and appeared in a number of TV and film productions, such as Carla Lane's Bread and Mike Newell's
An Awfully Big Adventure(1995).
Rita generously supports the efforts of fledgling filmmakers by performing in films by new directors, such as Martin Duffy's
The Boy From Mercury(1996), Carine Adler's Under The Skin(1997), and Simon Marshall's Out Of Depth(2000).
This gracious and unpretentious actress continues to appear in several film and television projects each year. Since 2005, Rita has become a strong supporter of breast-cancer awareness, due to her younger daughter Aisha's bout with breast cancer (Aisha is now in good health).