An Irishman's Diary

 

The story of Constance Smith, an Irish actress who once sparked high hopes in Hollywood, is salutary, says Hugh Oram.She began in rags, briefly tasted riches, then returned to rags. She died in London a few years ago, by which time she was an alcoholic down-and-out.

She was born in Limerick, her mother's home town, in 1928, one of a large family. Her father, who had served in the British army during the first World War, was working at the time as a labourer on the building of the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric scheme on the River Shannon.

Within a year of her birth, the family moved to Mount Pleasant Buildings in Ranelagh, Dublin, a now demolished slum immortalised by Lee Dunne in his novel Goodbye to the Hill.

Constance began her working life young and modestly, including spells in chip shops, one of them in Charleston Road, Ranelagh. Then the family in Rathmines for whom she worked as a maid encouraged her to enter a look-alike competition being run in 1945 by a Dublin film magazine, The Screen. She won the section for women, dressed up as Hedy Lamarr.

As a result, Constance went to England, to be groomed in the Rank Organisation's charm school for budding starlets. She made few if any films for Rank, though she had a seven-year contract with the company, but she did show up in several films made by independent producers in the late 1940s. If you look closely at the 1947 film Brighton Rock, based on the Graham Greene novel, you'll see her as a singer on the pier. In 1950, she was fired by Ranks; she said it was because she was always objecting to their complaints about her Irish accent.

But she was soon talent-spotted by Darryl Zanuck, the Hollywood producer and director, a long-time power in Hollywood and a co-founder of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck whisked her off to Hollywood; he took a special interest in her, a euphemism for the infamous Hollywood casting-couch.

Constance signed a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. The following year, 1951, she married Bryan Forbes, a well-known figure in the English film business. At the end of that year, 20th Century Fox lent her $3,000 to pay for an abortion. The marriage to Forbes was brief, lasting just two years.

But once in Hollywood, with her talent largely undeveloped, and a temperamental and difficult actress to boot, she failed to make the progress predicted for her. At the time, many in the film business thought Constance would emulate Maureen O' Sullivan. She did make about six films in Hollywood, none of them memorable, but with such leading stars as Anne Bancroft, Charles Boyer and Jack Palance. In 1952, she had been sufficiently well-known to host the annual Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood. She also got married for a second time, in 1956, to an Italian photographer called Araldo di Crollolanza, whose father had been a Fascist senator in Mussolini's time.

While she was living in Italy, she made several more films, but her last major feature was released in 1958. Intriguingly, the Italian film publicity machine described Constance Smith as being descended from Irish aristocrats. As her career faltered in Italy, she took the first of several overdoses and her husband, unable to cope, left her.

Constance returned to England but was unable to revive her career. She met Paul Rotha, one of the most distinguished names in English documentary film-making; they were lovers for many years, an unlikely pair.

In 1961, she returned to Ireland with Rotha, who planned to write a book about her life and then film it, but it never happened. But Constance did pose for pictures outside the house in Wolfe Tone Street, Limerick, where she was said to have been born. On several occasions, she stabbed Rotha during the frequent and monumental rows they had; they were both heavy drinkers. Once, in 1975, she ended up in Pentonville Prison in London. Somehow, however, they managed to reunite; in the end, it was she who left a heartbroken Rotha.

At the end of her life, Constance Smith was cleaning hospital wards and doing childcare jobs. She was in and out of hospital and by the time she died at Islington in north London, in June 2003, she had been reduced to a homeless wreck, moving between hospitals and hostels.

Today, she is sometimes put forward as one of the great "might-have-beens" of the cinema industry. Perhaps, with proper training and a calmer temperament, she could have gone much further.

The academic Ruth Barton probably knows more than anyone else about Constance Smith. She has been connected with the film studies centre in UCD, has written much on Irish film history and will be lecturing in film studies at Trinity College, Dublin, from September. She wrote a book last year about the Irish who made it in Hollywood, from Barry FitzGerald to Colin Farrell. Constance Smith was included, as a near miss.