10 years on - Limerick's forgotten Hollywood star Constance Smith

10 years on - Limerick's forgotten Hollywood star Constance Smith

DUBBED the ‘new Grace Kelly’, Irish actress Constance Smith was a big-screen starlet before drink and drug addiction led her to an impoverished death 10 years ago. 

As a fusion of dark beauty queen, femme fatale and flawed heroine, Smith was a film performer whose own life might have served the plot of a lush fifties melodrama, say one directed by Douglas Sirk.

Constance who?

People might wonder if they’ve either forgotten her name or never even heard of her, but in the 1950s she was a promising Hollywood newcomer to the Fox studio and presented an award at the 1952 Oscars, a responsibility that carries the peer respect of the film industry.

She was born impoverished in Limerick city, in 1928 and last month marked 10 years since her death, in London, almost penniless and almost completely forgotten.

Despite this, Smith’s lifetime experiences almost reflected the arc traced by any memorable movie character or story protagonist.

Talk about ups and downs. Smith followed a path from poverty to celebrity to notoriety to obscurity. As a young actress she was, for a short period, the special muse of Darryl F. Zanuck, invited and initially welcomed into the rarefied air of Hollywood.

As an older woman she was, for a short period, the special guest of Her Majesty, imprisoned for knifing her husband in a drunken domestic dispute.

The husband, maverick documentary maker Paul Rotha, escorted her to the prison gates and met her there on her release. Smith and Rotha then remained a couple, on and off, for decades until his death.

But Smith’s dusky sexual allure always had a bewitching effect on her men.

She had three husbands, including one who was the son to an Italian Fascist senator, who regarded his daughter-in-law as a shoeless Irish peasant.

More significantly, she married Bryan Forbes, the challenging British film-maker who made Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and The L-Shaped Room (1962).

Forbes witnessed first-hand how the studio system first supported then crushed Smith in her Hollywood career, and it’s tempting to imagine that some of what he saw influenced his dystopian sci-fi drama The Stepford Wives (1975).

Having been first cosseted by Zanuck and the Fox studio, Smith was summarily dumped. Fox had forced her into an abortion and tried, unsuccessfully, to make her change her name.

Forbes later wrote: “When the blow fell… the Hollywood system allowed of no mercy. She was reduced to the status of a Hindu road sweeper.”

The difficulty for Smith was making her mark in American cinema when Irish performers were thought suited to mildly-exotic, fiery or fantastical roles, rather than the darker, sultry ones that fitted her looks. Yet with Jack Palance in Man in the Attic (1951) and in Impulse (1957), she showed signature noir-like qualities.

Palance once called her the “Dublin Dietrich”. Elsewhere she was dubbed “an intelligent man’s Elizabeth Taylor” and she was frequently termed the new Maureen O’Hara or Grace Kelly.

Smith originally earned her chance in movies by winning a Hedy Lamarr look-a-like competition and perhaps her acting development was hindered by constant comparisons to established figures.

Later, when she fell out of the limelight and into drink and drugs addiction, she worked as a cleaner and workmates remarked that she looked familiar but they couldn’t place her.

“It seems regrettable that Constance Smith should have been so completely forgotten given that she was once, if briefly, a Hollywood star,” observes Ruth Barton, film scholar and author of Acting Irish in Hollywood.

It’s to Barton’s credit that she does the proper work of an historian, which is to retrieve from the past those details that make us rethink what we believe we know.

How few of us knew there was an Irish film figure of such intrigue? We might nowadays recall Smith’s name with the likes of O’Sullivan, O’Hara and Kelly, had her fortunes not turned so sour.

In Emeralds in Tinseltown, Steve Brennan and Bernadette O’Neil’s glossy span of the Irish influence upon Hollywood, the authors relegate Smith to the also-rans section. Barton, meanwhile, rescues her from the dustbin of history.

But while we should remember Constance Smith, we should not pity her. While perhaps we should mourn her as a faded talent, we should not patronise her as a tragic victim.

Instead, she was a survivor, even an inspiring one, who found some success in a most demanding field, absorbing the blows as best she could when the sinister side of that success turned upon her.

Perhaps Hollywood was over-subscribed with dark-haired beauties in the forties and fifties, when Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell, Gene Tierney and Ava Gardner literally dominated the scene.

Certainly we should not see Constance Smith as tragic merely because she lost her fame, a phenomenon that’s often a hollow reed. What’s sad is that she never fully realised her potential as a drama performer, even while her own life was so dramatic.

She was not quite right for those flamboyant, flame-haired roles played by Maureen O’Hara or the pristine, ice-queen personas of Grace Kelly. She was more a Scarlett O’Hara type, who rolled with the punches as her world crumbled around her, and lived by the mantra that “tomorrow is another day.”