Interestingly, three of the nominated actresses in 1963 had also taken home BAFTA awards for their performances. Leslie Caron won the prize for Best British Actress in 1963 and the next year, Rachel Roberts received the same award for her work in This Sporting Life while Patricia Neal took home the gold as Best Foreign Actress in Hud. For Rachel Roberts, it would be one of overall three BAFTAs she received during her career and her performance in This Sporting Life would also result in her first and final Oscar nomination. Her work as a young, repressed and bitter widow opposite Richard Harris was definitely a critically highlight in a career that would that would end tragically when Rachel Roberts killed herself in 1980, apparently out of misery and regret over her divorce from Rex Harrison. Harrison himself had also been nominated for an Oscar in 1964, making him and Rachel Roberts one of the few husband-and-wife-teams that scored nods in the same year. Rex Harrison would win an Oscar one year later for his signature role as Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady. And what about his wife? Does she have any signature part? The biggest problem with this question is certainly the fact that Rachel Roberts is not truly the kind of actress that is still largely remembered or praised. When it comes to high-profile British actresses from this time, there are many names that are mentioned much more easily and quickly and even among those actresses mostly referred to as ‘character actress’, others like Wendy Hiller enjoy a much higher reputation. Personally, I am also not too familiar with Rachel Roberts’s body of work – like most followers of the Academy Awards, I have seen her work in Murder on the Orient-Express even though I never watch it for this purpose. But even in the small part of Hildegard Schmidt, Rachel Roberts’s hard face, her cold and suspicious glances and her tight body movement left a lasting impression even if the role itself is a little bit of nothing. So, on paper, the combination of Rachel Robert’s cold screen presence and the part of Margaret Hammond, a cold, almost merciless, judgmental and depreciating young widow who still lives in the memories of the past while trying to handle her strange relationship to Frank Machin, an upcoming rugby player who rents one of her rooms, appears like a perfect match. But the right personality is certainly not the only important factor for a great performance. Nearly every character that Audrey Hepburn played was elevated by her radiant charm, poise and personality – but this does not mean that all of these performances were masterpieces. Margaret Hammond suits Rachel Roberts and vice versa – but what about the actual performance that results from this match?
In This Sporting Life, Rachel Robert faced some of the same obstacles Patricia Neal did in Hud – mostly the fact that her role often feels rather secondary compared to that of her male co-star. And if this wasn’t enough, both Paul Newman and Richard Harris dominated their movies with uncompromising, challenging, riveting and stark performances that haven’t lost a bit of their energetic and realistic appeal. Both actors crafted characters that defied conventions, that pushed the opinion of others aside and that spread an aura of pure sex, no matter how unappealing or off-putting they may appear. In This Sporting Life, Richard Harris may easily be confused with a young Marlon Brando, as not only his acting style but even his looks remind the viewer of Brando’s personality and electric screen presence. But Richard Harris never felt like a copy of Brando and instead found his own voice in his role and therefore gives a raw and powerful piece of work that matches the celebrated, brutal but also sensual and sensitive work of those new and realistic actors like Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift or James Dean at every step. Okay, but enough of Richard Harris for now. Because does this have any significance for Rachel Roberts’s work? Having a powerful co-star does not mean that the other actor cannot be equally impressive. Well, but a lot here simply depends on the writing – Patricia Neal faced a severely underwritten character in Alma Brown and even though she improved her material vastly by adding wisdom and experience to her role which made her performance a very satisfying experience, she was still constantly overshadowed by the work of those around her, mainly that of Paul Newman. Rachel Roberts also has the problem that This Sporting Life focuses most of its attention to the character of Frank but it also has to be said that her role is still significantly larger than that of Patricia Neal in Hud and that Mrs. Hammond also plays a much more central role in the structure of This Sporting Life than Alma Brown in Hud. Okay, but comparing Patricia Neal and Rachel Roberts here is basically rather pointless since this review is supposed to focus on Rachel Roberts – the ranking at the end of the year can do the comparison. But what’s still left to say is the fascination in comparing these two actresses attack these two similar and yet also different parts. Patricia Neal took a part that offered her pretty much nothing on paper and added various dimensions and inner brokenness to turn Alma into the complex and earthy creation she turned out to be. Rachel Roberts on the other hand was given much more by the script – Margaret Hammond suffers from the death of her husband, her inability to deal with a man like Frank and her unwillingness to change her life outside or inside. Because of this, Mrs. Hammond was rather already fully developed before Rachel Roberts became her and the actress therefore had to follow a stricter guideline in her characterization. But since the character of Margaret Hammond is certainly an extremely fascinating one and Rachel Roberts’s own screen presence already suited to the part so wonderfully and she not relied on this screen presence but crafted Margaret’s rejection, fear and hate with a strangely intriguing coldness, Rachel Roberts’s performance is much more memorable, spellbinding and exciting than it could have been by either an actress who didn’t suit the part so well or by Rachel Roberts herself if she had decided to simply rely on her personal effect in that role instead of creating Margaret beyond that.
Another highlight in Rachel Roberts’s work is her chemistry with Richard Harris. Both actors had a certainly very demanding task in crafting their own characters but also creating a believable relationship. Especially Rachel Roberts needed to work very carefully since her character basically loathes Frank and everything he stands for but also falls for him at some time – and she also had to make it believable that Frank would even want to get involved with her. Margaret tells Frank quite open that she does not care to see him play rugby, she does not want to go with him on a ride in his new car, she more than once tells him to go, that he makes her sick and what not – but for some strange reasons, the fact that Frank keeps trying to get involved with Margaret, that he wants her, does not seem unbelievable at all. Rachel Roberts is not a sex bomb and even downplays her looks in this role, so any kind of erotic attraction from his side is not the simple answer. Mrs. Hammond is also not the kind of woman who makes you want her by pushing you away. But there is a certain chemistry between these two actors and Rachel Roberts walked a very thin line between being completely unlikeable and unlikeable, but still appealing. Just like the character of Mrs. Hammond itself, the appeal of Rachel Roberts in this part is hard to explain but the relationship between Mrs. Hammond and Frank and the chemistry between Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris is strangely captivating and satisfying. When she finally decides to go to the country with Frank and her children, the viewer almost waits for her to destroy the happiness of the others but when she catches a ball and finally smiles, it’s almost a relieving moment. And Rachel Roberts again did not over-emphasize this smile as a fundamental change in Mrs. Hammond but instead showed that she can find a little happiness in her life without softening her character. When the relationship with Frank develops and Mrs. Hammond even puts her husband’s shoes away, Rachel Roberts lets her character even smile a bit more, talking about old times with her husband, making it again an enigma why she turned into such a stern and icy woman. But a relationship like the one between Mrs. Hammond and Frank is destined to be broken from the start and Rachel Roberts impressively displays how much Margaret hates herself for actually falling for him, how the embarrassment during a dinner in a fancy restaurant with Frank is hurting her inside and how she now hates herself even more for having given him a chance. And later, Rachel Roberts become immensely heartbreaking when she begs Frank to leave, packing his things while he hits her, trying to remove herself from him, fearful that he might again speak out about the rumor of the suicide, an accusation to which she replied with a shocked ‘You want to kill me?’ Rachel Roberts’s character and role may never be as prominent in This Sporting Life as that of Richard Harris but her powerful work certainly prevented her from being over-shadowed at any moment.
It’s a performance that mixes moments of pure intensity with shocking and heartbreaking images. Rachel Roberts can accuse Frank Harris of being a big ape and take a slap in the face outside of a church without any kind of emotional reaction. Very often, she moves her head away from Frank and the camera as if even the contact with the audience is too much for her but Rachel Roberts did not turn Mrs. Hammond into a lonely spinster nor a crazy woman who wallows in her own misery. It’s a very effective turn that leaves a lasting and hunting impression and for this she receives