Adrienne Corri, the Scottish-born actress, who has died aged 85, had a long and impressive film and stage career, although she is probably best remembered as Mrs Alexander, the writer’s wife who is raped by Malcolm McDowell in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian A Clockwork Orange (1971).
The sequence included little serious graphic content – it is through the eyes of Mr Alexander (Patrick Magee), beaten almost senseless by the film’s antihero Alex (McDowell) and his gang of “Droogs”, that the audience feels the violence. Yet Kubrick’s jaunty, jokey, balletic cinematography, during which McDowell lovingly cuts holes in Adrienne Corri’s red jumpsuit with a pair of scissors before snipping it off completely, made it, in the eyes of many, one of the most disturbing rape scenes in cinematic history.
It took Kubrick a long time to finish the scene to his satisfaction. As a result Adrienne Corri, who took the role after several other actresses turned it down, endured the filming of the rape sequence almost continuously over four days. In a later interview McDowell recalled her as having been “ a real sport” about the whole thing: “She was a real spitfire. She came up to me and said, 'Malcolm, you’re going to find out soon I’m a real redhead.’”
Indeed Adrienne Corri was one redhead for whom the epithet “fiery” was entirely appropriate. She was more than a match for a director with a reputation for exhausting his actors almost to the point of insanity. “I got a few remarks like 'Suppose we don’t like her tits?’. So I said 'Then you pay me and you send me back, Stanley, but you pay me…’ One has to be very tough with Stanley. I also used to get his name wrong – I called him Sidney. That used to drive him mad.”
She was born Adrienne Riccoboni in Glasgow on November 13 1931, to an Italian father and a mostly Scottish mother. Brought up in Edinburgh, she left home as a teenager and performed with travelling theatre groups before attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She took the name Corri after an Italian ancestor.
After making her film debut in a small role in The Romantic Age (1949), followed by a walk-on part as a young Christian girl in Quo Vadis (1951), she established her reputation in Jean Renoir’s lyrical The River (1951), based on Rumer Godden’s novel, in which she played one of three teenage girls who fall in love with a young war hero.
Adrienne Corri’s voluptuous figure and flaming red hair made her a favourite with horror film directors, though her appearances in such films as Vampire Circus (1972), suggested that her talents were being underused. One critic described her performance as the gypsy proprietor of a supernatural circus as “exceptional”, helping to craft “a fairy-tale world like something out of Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves”.
More substantial fare came along in the form of Doctor Zhivago (1965) in which she played the mother of Lara (Julie Christie), and minor roles in Otto Preminger’s movies, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Rosebud (1975) and The Human Factor (1979). On stage she was part of the Old Vic company in the early 1960s and appeared on Broadway in Anouilh’s The Rehearsal (1963).
Her television credits include Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers (BBC, 1954). In 1969 she was Olivia to Ralph Richardson’s Toby Belch and Alec Guinness’s Malvolio in an ITV production of Twelfth Night. Ten years later she was Mistress Overdone in Measure For Measure.
During her early career, Picturegoer magazine described Adrienne Corri as having “no nice little-girl-next-door nonsense about her”. Tales abounded of tantrums during rehearsals, and audiences, too, sometimes got the rough edge of her tongue. As she took her place for the curtain call among the cast of a critically-panned West End production of John Osborne’s The World of Paul Slickey, in 1959, she responded to audience booing by raising two fingers and shouting: “Go f--- yourselves.”
Her private life was tempestuous and unconventional. In the 1950s, when illegitimacy was still frowned upon, she had a son and a daughter out of wedlock with the producer Patrick Filmer Sankey. In 1961 she married the actor Daniel Massey, who said of their relationship: “We were agonisingly incompatible, but we had an extraordinary physical attraction.” The marriage ended in 1968.
Adrienne Corri also earned a reputation as an art historian when, in 1983, she discovered Thomas Gainsborough’s earliest known self-portrait, painted as a young boy in c1739. Though she published an account of her research in the Burlington Magazine, the attribution to Gainsborough was not generally accepted until 2002 when the portrait was included in a major Gainsborough retrospective at the Tate.
She was also the author of The Search for Gainsborough (1984), which chronicled her efforts to establish the provenance of a painting of David Garrick that she had found in a Birmingham theatre, and which she also believed to be by a young Gainsborough.
She is survived by her son and daughter.
Adrienne Corri, born November 13 1930, died March 13 2016