Of all the Rank Organisation's starlets, Belinda Lee stands out as the most notorious, yet paradoxically anonymous, British actress of the 1950s. At the 1955 Cannes film festival she led Rank's glitterati during the studio's uncharacteristic attempt to generate British Cinema glitz. This may well have prompted Diana Dors' outrageous mink bikini at the same event - a barely concealed method of stealing back the limelight. But while Dors remained in the public eye well beyond her cinematic heyday, Lee's fame died with the car crash that killed her at the age of 25.
Spotted by Val Guest at RADA, her career began in comedy with a cameo in his Frankie Howerd vehicle The Runaway Bus (1953) and as one of The Belles of St. Trinian's (d. Frank Launder, 1954). Her 1954 marriage to Rank photographer Cornel Lucas pushed her into greater prominence and she landed bigger comedy roles opposite stars like Benny Hill and Norman Wisdom.
The studio was keen to raise her profile but struggled with its direction. Despite glamour-girl publicity shots highlighting her undoubted beauty, her first dramatic roles were of wholesome but naïve young women, creating a star profile that was at once compassionate and understanding, yet containing a frank sexuality. Miscasting often blighted the promise of this persona, her performances never really breaking from her privileged Budleigh Salterton upbringing. It was only when on loan to Italy for La Venere di Cheronea (1957) that her talent for more sensual roles emerged.
During her time in Italy she started an adulterous affair with aristocrat Prince Filippo Orsini, which resulted in international scandal when the two of them made a suicide pact. Allegedly, Lee took this more seriously than the Prince, but both were physically unscathed. However, the events significantly damaged the image that Rank had built for Lee and, by the end of 1958, her contract was terminated, with Lucas filing for divorce.
Remarkably, this personal drama worked to Lee's advantage. Avoiding the complete obscurity suffered by many Rank starlets, the European film industry offered her a range of riskier roles that played on her previously contained sexuality. From the murderous vamp of Le notti di Lucrezia Borgia (Italy/France, 1959) to the wayward prostitutes of Ce corps tant désiré (France, 1959) and Die Wahrheit über Rosemarie (West Germany, 1959), more challenging dramatic roles began to come her way and for two years European audiences embraced her.
But at the time of her death in 1961, she was already a fading memory in her native country, with many of her late films failing to get British distribution. It is difficult to say whether this cut short a promising career, since she was reportedly losing interest in acting at the time of her death. Nevertheless, the films that constitute her legacy are an intriguing mix of prestige and tat, ambition and failure - revealing the grittier side of the glamour of studio filmmaking as it began its long decline.