Acting Shakespeare is like nothing else an actor is called upon to do. If you're playing Magneto you've got something like a clear run at the part. No-one has done it before you. But if you're playing the Thane, you're speaking words that every theatrical hero for the past four hundred years has rolled round his mouth.
So how on earth do you make it fresh? Watching the McKellen/Dench Macbeth yesterday (it was a stage production for the RSC which Thames TV- bless them-undertook to film ) it took me an act or two to get over the familiarity of a text in which almost every phrase has become a proverb or a cliche, and experience it as drama rather than recitation.
That I got there eventually is thanks largely to director Trevor Nunn's insistence that every single word should make human sense. I've noticed this before with his work. He has a passion for the meaning of Shakespeare's text. Everything that is said is made to serve character and relationship. This is true even of the sing-song of the witches. Instead of hurrying through the gobbledy-gook, Nunn has taken it apart, polished and cleaned every cog and spring and then reassembled it so that instead of a halloween farago we now have three sharply distinguished characters- two older women and a young one who serves them as a trance medium- in what looks like a real and well-practised working relationship.
In a production like this there can be no spear-carriers. Attendant Lords have attitude and the stars emerge as first among equals. The role of Macbeth is an alp that has defeated a lot of high climbers. Compared to Hamlet or Lear it's an underwritten role. The character falls from grace and into disaster in very few lines. If Mckellen succeeds it's because of Nunn's policy of making every word count. His Macbeth is a lumpy faced boy with sleeked-back hair, very ready with the false smiles. The banquet scene, played without a visible ghost, is the production's climax. McKellen shambles and roars and drools.
Where McKellen is fitful, Dench is steady. She can take more pressure than he can, but when she breaks she breaks suddenly. She shatters. He is the storm and she is the moonlight. Her face- that strange square face- is like a skull.
The play is done with few props on a bare stage, and in close-up against darkness. This, I swear, is the only way to perform Shakespeare on TV. The one thing that distracts is the curious mix of medieval and Victorian costume- of frock-coats and armour. If the men have watch-chains, why don't they also have guns?
Shakespeare is political. He writes about power. About how human nature copes with its allure and weight. Macbeth is his most extreme exploration of the theme. There are saints (the off-stage Edward the Confessor) and there are monsters. But what is so terrifying about it is not the apparatus of ghosts and witches but the revelation of how little it takes to send a brave and decent man down the fun-house shute into a delirium of violence and paranoia. It is easy to turn it into a gothic romp, but this production, with its refusal to waste a line, never lets us forget that these are people- real people- going to the bad. And as McKellen and Dench, faces close to ours, speak their characters' hopes and doubts and madness, we are compelled to identify with them. There, but for the grace of God, go I- if only (of course)I were big enough.
No production of any Shakespearean play is ever definitive. But this comes close. It's certainly the best Macbeth available on tape or DVD.
10. Vanessa Redgrave
9. Deborah Kerr
8. Peggy Ashcroft
7. Elizabeth Taylor
6. Vivien Leigh
5. Maggie Smith
4. Helen Mirren
3. Audrey Hepburn
2. Julie Walters
1. Judy Dench.
Well, we all knew it was going to be Judy Dench at #1. Otherwise the list feels a bit scrappy. Is Julie Walters- a fine character actress- really that good? Isn't Liz Taylor a film star rather than an actor? And Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike and Wendy Hiller and all the other theatrical grande dames of my youth seem to have been forgotten- largely, I suppose, because they did very little on film.
It is harder for a woman to achieve acting greatness. The big roles are few and far between. Where Anthony Hopkins (Channel 5's greatest British actor) has gone from one lead to the next, most of these women have had bitty careers. Hepburn all but retired in her 30s, Vanessa Redgrave has been ostracised for her politics (something which never happened to John Wayne) and even Dame Judy- who is never out of work- is mainly celebrated for her cameo performances- and got her Oscar for a role that amounted to 8 minutes of screen-time. Acting is a boy's game. The only area in which male dominance has been slightly eroded is TV- which explains the appearance of Helen Mirren- Prime Suspect's DCI Jane Tennison- at #3.
This was a fun exercise, but its implications have left me feeling angry, frustrated and ashamed.
So who's the greatest British actor of all time? Channel 5 gave its viewers a list compiled by "experts" and asked them to put the names in their preferred order. And, no- Burbage, Garrick, Keane and Irving weren't on it. I hate that phrase "all time" because it never means what it says.
Anyway, the greatest British actor of all time turns out to be Anthony Hopkins. I guess it was the fava beans that did it. I saw Hopkins on stage once (in Lear) and thought he was ordinary.
But Cary Grant and Peter Sellers were on the list- they came in at 4 and 7 respectively- and this makes me happy.
Yes, Cary Grant was a Brit. Born in Bristol. Real name Archie Leach. Is this common knowledge? It should be. Surely it's time we put his head on a stamp or a bank note or something!
I like it that Ewan can go from being Obi-Wan to appearing in a stage musical. People say he's without ego. Well, I can't wholly believe that- you don't get to be a film star by practising self-abegnation- but I know what they mean. He's a nice bloke.
But what I don't quite understand is why he's so goddam huge in the first place. I find him bland and forgettable. In Moulin Rouge the wallpaper had more charisma. He made his film debut in Shallow Grave alongside Christopher Eccleston and it was Eccleston I was watching. Apparently Eccleston thought he'd got the lead in Trainspotting sewn up and was devastated when egoless Ewan pipped him to it. I guess it all comes down to Ewan being prettier.
Eccleston's career since then has been largely in British television, culminating in Dr Who. He's wonderful in everything he attempts. Maybe now he'll get the big film roles that have eluded him.
And Ewan? Well, I'm happy for him. I'm happy to applaud his career. I just don't particularly want to watch him.
Sir John Mills died at the weekend. He was 97 and he made over 100 films- the first in 1932 and the last in 2003. He wasn't a showy actor but he was a damn good one. I think my favourite is Ice Cold in Alex- where he has his hair dyed white-blond and where at the climax he gets to sink a frosty pint of lager in a single draught. They needed six or seven takes on that one- and afterwards he had to go and lie down in a darkened room for the rest of the afternoon.
He made an awful lot of war movies. And- more perhaps than any other actor- came to personify the national myth of stiff-jawed resistance to nazi aggression. We had Churchill, We had the Queen Mum and we had little Johnny Mills. Actually his range was a lot broader than that. He was Pip in Great Expectations, the village idiot in Ryan's Daughter (for which he got an Oscar) and (his personal favourite) mouse-like Willie Mossop in Hobson's Choice (all for the same diector- David Lean.) He was the last survivor of that great generation of British actors that was headed by Olivier and Gielgud. Now that he's gone, I can believe that the 20th century really has come to an end.
Peter Sellers was horrid to people for no better reason than he could get away with it. Roger Lewis concludes that he was "evil".
My, but that's a good book. The Life And Death of Peter Sellers. Not just a great biography but a great book- period. A masterpiece.
That word "evil" gives me problems. I don't know what it means.
But I guess it's a word we fall back on when we can't explain what's going on.
Sellers can be explained up to a point. He was spoiled as a child. His mother was a monster of possessiveness who let him get away with pushing people into fire-places, things like that. But after a while the excuses run out. He was violent, revengeful, destructive, treacherous, greedy, wilful, cruel. Entirely self-centred.
He cut his children out of his will.
And though he didn't actually kill anyone, he came close a few times.
One way of explaining him is to call him mad.
But he wasn't so mad he couldn't turn in great performances.
No, the thing remains a mystery. Being kind isn't that difficult, but some people (lots of people) choose different.
Is it more fun to be horrid? Not really. Sellers made himself very lonely and very ill. Instant Karma got him back good style.
In the end you can only shrug- like the spree killer in Springsteen's "Nebraska"-
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world .
A little money, a little power- and Sellers turned into the Emperor Nero. As I've been reading this 20th century morality tale I've been thinking about the Pope. John Paul II was an immeasurably stronger character than poor Peter, but what did it do to him to be elevated to a position where he had no equals, where there was God, then himself as the unique mouthpiece of God and then, very far below him, everybody else?
Did he have doubts? Did he ever wonder whether he might be wrong in the opinions he laid down as law? And did he have any friends? Peter didn't; it's very hard for the powerful to have friends; people are afraid of them. So was there a secret room in the Vatican where John Paul could slob around in a tee-shirt with his shoes kicked off, drinking beer with his cronies, watching TV? Were there people around him who called him Karol? People who were allowed to tease and twit and criticise?
Seems unlikely, doesn't it?
And if he never came off duty, never allowed himself to be vulnerable, how inhuman he must have become!
1. Peter Cook
2. John Cleese
3. Woody Allen
4. Eric Morecambe
5. Groucho Marx
6. Tommy Cooper
7. Laurel and Hardy
8. Billy Connolly
9. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer
10. Richard Pryor
11. Chris Morris
12. Tony Hancock
13. Bill Hicks
14. Peter Sellers
15. Steve Martin
16. Ronnie Barker
17. Steve Coogan
18. Charlie Chaplin
19. Eddie Izzard
20. Paul Merton
I imagine a lot of these names are going to mean nothing on the far side of the Atlantic.
I've already written a couple of posts about Peter Cook; he seems to be dead fashionable right now. I don't get it, I really don't.
In the tall, manic Englishman stakes I prefer Cleese. Python and Fawlty Towers were much more fully achieved than any of the rather scrappy things Cook did for TV.
Woody Allen. OK, that's probably about right.
Eric Morecambe. A parochial choice.
Groucho. Yes, yes, yes. But where are Harpo and Chico? Those guys were a team.
Tommy Cooper... but I'm getting bored with this exercise already.
But how can Charlie Chaplin score less than middle-of-the road TV comic Ronnie Barker? And where are Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd?
It's a generational thing. The voters are largely middle-aged and so we have a list weighted to comics who were at their prime in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Older names are downgraded and today's comedy gods (guys with shows currently in the schedules)- Ricky Gervais, Walliams and Lucas, Larry David- don't feature at all.
Oh- and what a surprise- no women!
Back in the 1960s he was the brilliant young star of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw his moody, studenty Hamlet- one of the defining performances of the era- and fully expected him to turn into my generation's Gielgud. Then he went to Hollywood and- well- embarked on a career playing doctors and clergymen and Klingon elder statesmen. Oh, yes, and he was the homicidal gentleman's gentleman in Titanic.
Last night he turned up on TV- as he does every once in a while- as the patriarch of a disfunctional Agatha Christie family. He's a damn fine actor, but where are the clouds of glory he should be trailing by now?
His profession had something to do with it. He was continually creating and discarding shells. That was his work. Lots of actors have a problem with knowing who they are between jobs. Sellers had it to the max.
We mistake the shell for the self. Sellers exposes that mistake. This is why his life is so interesting- and troubling. What is a man without a shell? Nothing but a chaotic tumble of infantile emotions.
Sellers was a naked, squalling infant- but also a genius. He was nothing. Out of nothing he created a multiplicity of extraordinary people.
He was no-one and he was any-one and everyone.
P.S. Geoffrey Rush doesn't look in the least bit like Sellers- Sellers had a smooth baby-face, Rush is haggard and acne-scarred- but he has the body language so right that it's spooky.
But isn't that always the way? It's very hard to see contemporaries as giants. It's even harder if they're younger than you are. The guys I think of as giants are all older than me and mostly dead. This is true, not only of comedians, but of actors, writers, musicians, artists, you name it.
For someone to seem like a giant you need to have had your first look at them when you were a kid- before your critical faculties kicked in.
The only exceptions to the rule are sports stars. The results, the scores, the victories provide an objective measure of greatness. Tiger Woods may be nobbut a lad but there's no arguing against his record.
Jaime Fox is sweet. I'm all for an action hero who doesn't know how to use a gun and who steps carefully through a broken window. Yeah, I'm sick- so sick- of men of steel. Lets have heroes who look like us.
I like it how night-time Los Angeles- with its myriad coloured lights- serves as a metaphor for an unfeeling universe. This is the L.A. of Blade Runner- only it's now. We have caught up with the sci-fi visionaries and are living in their cities of the future.
Peter Cook could have people rolling on the floor at cocktail parties, but he didn't make stuff to last.
He was a japester, not an artist.
The sketch show with Dudley Moore (Not Only, But Also) was his best shot, but it's only a sketch show- a slightly riskier Morecambe and Wise. It doesn't break new ground like The Goon Show or Monty Python.
Putting on a cap and muffler and a proletarian accent- it's not that clever. It's Oxbridge humour. Oh my dear, aren't working-class people a scream!
Cook did funny voices. Peter Sellers did them better. Cook doing funny voices is just Cook doing funny voices- Sellers as Strangelove or Quilty is a window onto the apocalypse.
Lots of comedians drink. Keaton drank, Fields drank, Hancock drank. They all managed to reel off some deathless stuff before the drink got to them. Cook didn't.
Cook didn't progress beyond his beginnings. In the last set of interviews with Clive Anderson he's still the clever undergraduate cheeking his elders and betters. You laugh out of respect. It's like a Paul McCartney gig. Paul has been crap for thirty years, but you sit up and pay attention because he used to be a Beatle.
Cook was a brilliant young man. After which he noodled and frittered and guested.
For an actor to be a great leading man there has to be someone at home. What we want of a leading man is presence without quirkiness. They are there for us to identify with and project ourselves into. They are our ideal selves (or love objects) and too much eccentricity would repel us and destroy the chemistry. They have to be everyman, but they also have to be someone. Mitchum, Wayne, Eastwood, these are not great actors- they play the same persons in role after role- but these persons they always play are interesting. They have integrity, substance; there is something going on behind the eyes. They get away with doing very little because just by being themselves they light up (or darken) their corner of the screen. But when Cruise does very little you sense that there's only the thinnest of shells separating you from an inner void- and I don't mean void as in sexy and dark but as in null, empty, eternally boring.
Cruise as Cruise- doing interviews, working the crowds at a premiere- is all big teeth and boyish hair. He does a good job, but you learn nothing, probably because there's nothing to learn. There's a projected wholesomeness, a boy scoutishness, that you know is fake because of the way he treated Nicole. And then, of course, he's a Scientologist. No-one who had anything about them could possibly be a Scientologist.
The best Cruise performances are busy, busy, busy. Think Interview With The Vampire. The business disguises the void. The performer he reminds me of most is Peter Sellers. Sellers too was a nowhere man, only truly there when he'd built himself a persona with false hair and a funny voice.
But Cruise is pretty, and this seduces film-makers (including himself) into casting him as the man who saves the world. I don't want to see him in those roles. I don't want to admire his abs and his pecs. And most of all I don't want him to be himself.
The main programme- a live broadcast- was running late, so they gave us clips of Gielgud at the BBC- and what a rich archive it is; everything from wartime radio skits with Edith Evans to a 1980's Prospero.
Sweetest of all is his Mock Turtle in Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland. Why hasn't Miller made more films? I reckon he could have been one of the greats.
Gielgud is my favourite actor. Sometimes I deplore the floweriness, the fruitiness- the fact that he always acts a man who's acting, but in spite of this (we all hate the thing we love) he's the only actor I'd go out of my way to watch- regardless of the quality of the play/film.
Dear Sir John.
The thing that made me really sit up was a snatch from a TV film I remember from my teens- The Mayfly and the Frog- with himself as a randy tycoon opposite a very young Felicity Kendall. I reckoned the Beeb would have wiped the tape (they wiped so much in the early years) but apparently not. I want to see it again. I want to see it all the way through. The BBC has a duty to issue it as a DVD.
Whether he was a great actor or not is almost beside the point. People think he was great and that's what turns him into the cultural colossus he is. He looms above the movie business, stinking of tom cat.
Machismo: that's what he was all about as both man and actor. He was the biggest dick. And he fathered a tribe of big-dick sons. Hoffman, Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino. Too many. American cinema has been overwhelmed by them- all those sneery, sweaty boy children, crowding the girls off screen.
I hate machismo. I look at Brando and I see the enemy. I'm not critiquing the work so much as I'm critiquing a whole world view, a whole way of being, a whole culture. This goes deep.
I have complicated feelings about Brando.
Method acting is just another way of being mannered. It's certainly not naturalistic. Brando is one of those actors who never allows you to forget that they're acting. In his own style he's as hammy as Olivier. O for God's sake stop mumbling and get on with it.
It's also a form of willy-waving. Look at me, I'm suffering for my art. This thing I'm doing is really important.
Yes, acting is important- but not like that. Brando gave highly paid actors a license to be dicks. When Dustin Hoffman throws a hissy fit, it's basically Brando's fault.
Yet he despised acting. I think he despised himself as well- or, if not himself exactly, then the legend he'd become. He enacted this self hatred on screen. In later years you hired him at your peril, never knowing if he was going to play pretty or crap all over your project from a great height.
For those who call him the greatest actor in the history of the movies I have two words: James Stewart.
I have two more words: Toshiro Mifune.
And how about Marcello Mastroianni, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy? I could sit here all evening and name actors I prefer to Brando.
"Say Johnny; what are you rebelling against?"
But he's a nice bloke. When I was a kiddie theatrical knights like Gielgud and Olivier were fearfully grand. They behaved in public like they were archbishops or prime ministers. Why? Perhaps because the profession they represented was still fighting for respectability. But that battle's been won- or abandoned- (who want's to be respectable nowadays?) and McKellen is free to behave like a real toff- and be frivolous and larky.