No doubt thanks in part to her voluptuous figure, actress Yvonne Furneaux tended to be cast as “the other woman” – the femme fatale, the glamorous temptress, the woman of easy virtue…
Most men must have found her irresistible. Even legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan who didn’t, couldn’t resist fixating on Yvonne’s physique. Reviewing her performance in the Bristol Old Vic’s 1955–56 production of Ondine, he witheringly dismissed her as “A buxom temptress … more impressive in silhouette than in action.” But there was more to her than that. Others rated her as an actress:
Yvonne Furneaux has a striking presence which manages to transcend the meagre material on hand. The film’s best moment occurs when Furneaux as Helen reflects on the terrible consequences precipitated by her beauty.
Gary Allen Smith, Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary
What’s more, Yvonne had serious academic credentials. She worked with some of the great directors of her era. She starred in Italian, French, German and Spanish as well as English films across a bewildering array of genres. And, unlike many movie stars, she married just the once and remained married until her husband’s death.
From France to England
Despite her name and being born in Northern France, Yvonne Furneaux is an English actress. She’s born in 1926 and christened Yvonne Elisabeth Scatcherd. Her father, Joseph, is of Yorkshire stock and works as a director at Lloyds Bank, the only London bank based in Roubaix, a city close to the Belgian border. Her mother Amy’s family, the Furneaux, come from Devon. Yvonne has an older sister called Jeanne.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the family returns to England, where Yvonne completes her education. She must have brains as well as beauty because she wins a place at St Hilda’s College, Oxford to read modern languages. She self-deprecatingly refers to her results as “not very good.” But the key thing is she leaves university fluent in English, French and Italian. This will stand her in good stead as it will open up opportunities for her to become a star of European rather than just British cinema.
From stage to screen
Perhaps she gets hooked on the theatre at university, perhaps she walks the planks for the first time in Oxford… However it comes about, by the time she graduates, Yvonne has decided that she wants to be an actress, and she enrols at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where her contemporaries include Joan Collins and Diane Cilento.
She graduates in 1951 and makes her professional stage debut age 24. Hitherto, her family and friends have called her Beth or Tessa. Now she adopts her mother’s maiden name and becomes Yvonne Furneaux, emphasizing her glamour and allure. Her early roles include a part in Macbeth and the title role in The Taming of the Shrew. Within a year, she has made a name for herself to the point that she features as one of ten actresses in Norman Parkinson’s photo, The Young Look in the Theatre, in the January 1953 issue of Vogue magazine.
Meanwhile, she embarks on her cinema career with a small role in Affair in Monte Carlo, a 1952 British romantic drama film starring Merle Oberon. The following year, she’s cast as Jenny, a low-life girl of dubious virtue in The Beggar’s Opera, one of the most expensive British films of its period and a huge box-office flop. Still, she’s in the exalted company of celebrated English thespians Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Tutin and Stanley Holloway. The same year she appears as Errol Flynn’s slighted and vengeful mistress in The Master of Ballantrae, a romantic adventure based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
From the sublime to the ridiculous
Yvonne Furneaux’s feature-film career, interspersed with appearances on television, spans just over 20 years apart, from her last movie, Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie (1982). In the course of it, she turns her hand to almost every genre: adventure (her favourite), comedy, romance, crime, thriller, horror, sci-fi, musical and the sword-and-sandal dramas that Cinecittà is churning out in the late-1950s and early-1960s. She’s equally at home in films in English, French, Italian and, apparently, Spanish (Carta al Cielo) and German (Die Todesstrahlen des Dr Mabuse). Quite some linguist!
Many of her movies appear to be pretty trashy potboilers but her filmography does include at least three arthouse classics:
- Le Amiche (1955) – She owes her role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s breakthrough movie, adapted from a novel by Cesare Pavese, to a producer at ABC Films in London, who makes the introduction. She plays the part of spiteful socialite Momina, one of the girlfriends of the title.
- La Dolce Vita (1961) – Yvonne is Emma, Marcello’s fiancée, driven to despair and attempted suicide by his infidelity in Federico Fellini’s most celebrated masterpiece.
- Repulsion (1964) – in Roman Polanski’s psychological horror film, Catherine Deneuve has the lead role as deranged Carol Ledoux. Yvonne gets to be her sister, Helen, who doesn’t have Carol’s hang-ups about sex.
Interviewed about her career, Yvonne Furneaux says her most memorable encounter was with Federico Fellini. Any regrets? “Only that I didn’t continue with the stage. I really admired Vivien Leigh’s career, she was a superb actress.”
From Miss to Mrs
Yvonne Furneaux meets her husband-to-be while filming Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1961). Jacques Natteau served as an RAF fighter pilot during World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross as well as a Légion d’honneur for his bravery. Before the War, he had worked in the movie business as a camera operator and he subsequently returned to it. By the time he encounters Yvonne, he is a seasoned cinematographer.
In January 1962 the couple get hitched and buy a castle in Poggio Catino, about 45 kilometres northeast of Rome. They spend the next five years restoring it and living between London, Paris, and Rome as they continue to pursue their respective careers.
In 1969 their son, Nicholas, is born. Unlike many of the women she plays, Yvonne proves to be a faithful wife, remaining at her husband’s side until his death in 2007.
Want to know more about Yvonne Furneaux?
The primary source for this piece is by Yvan Foucart at Encinémathèque (apparently no longer available). Yvan appears to have interviewed both Yvonne and her son as well as having access to various personal documents. Yvonne Furneaux’s filmography is available at IMDb, and you can trace her family tree at Geni.