Friday September 3, 2004
The man who gave me a slap in the face
Ten years after Lindsay Anderson's death, Malcolm McDowell explains why he can't let go of the director who changed his life.
I was Lindsay Anderson's kind of actor. I don't know why, but I was. I know he thought that I was a Brechtian (whatever that means) but I don't think I am. I think what he meant was that I play in a style that is not realistic, but which is still real. I met him at the audition for If . . . in 1967. We got on very well, but it was the second audition that was magical because it involved me getting a slap from this girl I was playing opposite. She slapped me into getting the part - and subsequently into doing Clockwork Orange, because Kubrick saw If ... five times and cast me from that.
The slap was part of a scene we were doing that I had not really prepared, but which she knew rather better than I did. When I read the script, it said: "Mick grabs hold of girl and kisses her passionately." But I did not read the following line, which said: "The girl slaps Mick like a son of a bitch." Which was exactly what she did - although in reality it was more of a punch. And I wasn't expecting it. That hit changed the whole dynamic of the audition.
Afterwards, when I was working on the original script for what became O Lucky Man!, I didn't know how to end the film, and I was also still obsessed with this slap. Lindsay just said, "Good, well we'll use it. You became a film star, so that's how you end it, with that slap." So, at the end of O Lucky Man!, as my character does an audition, just like the one for If ... , the director, played by Lindsay, hits me with the script. Later, I found a whole bit in his diary about that slap scene, in which Lindsay says of his own performance: "Am I good? I think so. Malcolm wore too much makeup."
Lindsay was an incredible man. When Lindsay walked into a room, it sort of gravitated around him somehow, partly because of who he was, and partly because of his own presence. His voice was rather clipped. "Now, now, Malcolm," he would say. "Come on, stop messing around. Good." He was a brilliant intellect and very generous with his time, just a delightful person to be around. I was young and I didn't know much about anything, so he was very important to me and we had a great friendship. He was someone you really could call at four in the morning and say, 'I'm in trouble. I need help.' "
But Lindsay was also a curmudgeon, and he could be very difficult at times. He used to write to reviewers, complaining. He was wasting his time, of course, but he couldn't help himself. If someone said to him, "Could we have an interview with you, Mr Anderson?," he would say, "Well I suppose I can give your career a bit of a leg-up." He was prickly, but you had to see under that. It was always "us and them" with him. But that's how great things are done. There's always an edge.
I used to have thunderous rows with him. I'd piss him off all the time. Sometimes I used to do things just to get a reaction, knowing he'd be listening. I'd come into his flat and rummage around in his private mail. "Good God, you were offered this film," I'd say, holding up a letter. "There's a perfect part for me in that. You should do it." I was just teasing him. "For God's sake put that down, it's private," he'd roar back. He's still very present, in a weird way.
I remember once inviting my girlfriend of the time on location at Cheltenham College. "Who's that girl?" asked Lindsay. "That's my girlfriend," I said. "Get her off the set," he replied. He thought she would be a distraction to me, and that wouldn't serve him. But that's all directors.
Working with him was like doing a film with an Oxford don - indeed he was very much the same on set as he was everywhere else. He was a wonderful director because he led the actors beautifully without them really knowing that they were being directed. He'd let you rehearse it, of course, and make a few suggestions, but usually that was it. Directors need to be prize manipulators.
What Lindsay instilled in me was nothing more than the simple confidence to be able to do it. If he wanted to interrupt your rhythm - if you'd said something really stupid - he would repeat what you said, and then just let it hang there. But I honestly can't remember him ever saying, "That's not good." It was always, "OK. Let's see how this looks."
He always pretty much knew what he wanted, though. Sometimes he would find other stuff in the scenes, and he would be very excited, but in the main he had a pretty good idea. He was very careful with his casting, too. It was hard to say which kinds of actors he preferred, but he didn't like campness; he liked real people. He liked you to make him believe - that was paramount. I honestly don't know of one actor who worked with Lindsay who didn't adore him.
From the time we met, I spoke to Lindsay at least once a week. If I had a difficult part, he'd read it and give me notes. In fact, on Clockwork Orange he gave me the key to the role. In a very simple way he helped me enormously. He told me to play Alex like a close-up I did in If ... when I smiled defiantly at the head boy as he was about to cane me. He said, "There's a close-up of you just looking at me and smiling. That's the way you play Clockwork Orange." I never mentioned this to Kubrick.
Lindsay loved gossip; that's one thing he really enjoyed. His letters were always filled with gossip. He'd like to hear you say something detrimental about another director or a production - which, of course, would have been a hell of a lot better if he had directed it. But just in a fun, friendly, game kind of way. He wheedled a few things out of me - that was part of the fun. But he'd give me all his gossip straight away: "Did you see Glenda Jackson? Oh my God, they got terrible reviews!" He wasn't one for jokes, though. I'd say, "I've got this joke," and he'd say, "Don't bother. I don't want to hear it."
I think that my show about him would have pleased Lindsay greatly - especially if he realised how much bloody effort went into it.
One of the great surprises in preparing it, for me, was seeing everything he wrote and how beautifully he expressed himself. This is from a letter to me in 1981: "I had a late supper one evening with Frank and Treat Williams ... Treat took us for a trip in his plane around the Manhattan skyline, an incredible, somehow touching sight. I wonder why? ... We passed so close to the World Trade Center buildings that we could see the diners innocently enjoying themselves in the restaurant. In the late-20th century, it's impossible not to see the whole great heart of the city as vulnerable, exposed to attack."
Lindsay was honestly my best friend who wasn't a contemporary. I never looked at him as a mentor, and I don't really like the term, but I suppose he was. I knew that if there was ever any apologising to be done, it would probably have to be from me. That was the price of the relationship.
He was gay, but he was a celibate homosexual. All the people that he loved were unattainable because they were heterosexual. I didn't really know that he was gay, and I wasn't going to ask him because it wasn't my business. He never, in any way, made a pass at me, although he took an enormous interest in me as a person, which I suppose had homosexual overtones to it. But sex was never an issue.
When he died, well what can you say? It didn't sink in for a while. And then you realise there are no more phone calls. But I never crossed his number out of my phone book. It's still there now.
BY DANA OLAND - firstname.lastname@example.org
Malcolm McDowell on Lindsay Anderson
Malcolm McDowell met Lindsay Anderson at a nerve-wracking audition in 1967. At the time, McDowell had no idea that interaction would change his life.
Anderson cast McDowell as Mick Travis, the student revolutionary in "If" a film that propelled McDowell to stardom in England and led to McDowell's most famous role, as Alex de Large in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."
The two clicked on film and became lifelong friends. McDowell created a one-man show as an endearing tribute in 2004, on the 10th anniversary of Anderson's death. Now it's a film, directed and produced by Caldwell-based filmmaker Mike Kaplan, who, along with McDowell, will present the film, "Never Apologize," at a one-time showing Jan. 12 at the Egyptian Theatre. The showing is for an Idaho International Film Festival event.
The film is funny, poignant and fascinating as McDowell delves into Anderson's complex psyche and shares bits of theatrical and film lore and history. He recreates this evocative time in British film through his memories, Anderson's diaries, books and letters. He deftly recreates all the larger-than-life characters who intersected Anderson's story, including John Gielgud, Lillian Gish, John Ford, Bette Davis, Alan Bates and Rachel Roberts. Some may have fallen out of popular memory, but this film offers a chance to remember and explore some of the best films of that era.
As a filmmaker, Anderson helped shape our contemporary view of film as art.
Somewhat of a radical character, Anderson made movies that pushed at the social fabric of the 1960s. His films included the raw, gritty, Oscar-nominated "This Sporting Life" (1963), his groundbreaking trilogy "If," "O Lucky Man" and "Britannia Hospital" and the lyrical ode "The Whales of August."
The title for the piece comes from a mantra of Anderson: "I never apologize," even though he was easily one of the most difficult and demanding personalities around.
McDowell spoke about his friend from his California home last week.
Q: What was it that impelled you to create a piece of theater around Lindsay?
A: I was called up by the people who ran the Edinburgh Festival. They wanted me to be present at a retrospective they were going to have of Lindsay's films the next year. I rather glibly said, 'I'll do better than that. I'll do a show about him.' And I (cleared his throat) said that not really knowing what I was getting into, actually, but I did feel that a lot of people had forgotten who he was. And that I felt he was one of the greatest British directors ever. He's the nearest I've ever come to a genius. And I just wanted people to understand more about him and where he was coming from."
Q: What made him great?
A: "He could smell bullsh-- from a million miles away. Just having dinner with him was fabulous fun. He was an immense human being, a humanitarian if you like. Not in the sense of giving money out or something. His feeling for people was so immense. Lindsay and his world were very exciting during that period, which was the last really great period, I would hasten to say, in British film. Some people would argue with that. I think it was. Lindsay Anderson's work, along with Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, was really the golden era of British film, and I got to be on the end of it, thank God."
Q: Who is continuing the legacy?
A: "The truth is, there really is no one like him. He was a rarity, like John Ford - the genius, the man himself. There are other great directors. They're very different.
"The thing that made Lindsay so special was that he took the classics at Oxford. I think, honestly, studying Greek theater had a great impact on him. Of course, Greece is where drama started. His sort of ethos was simplicity. You get to the point, without cluttering it. Keep it simple and then move on. He was such an original in that way. He was a great man of the theater who was a brilliant film director. He had a brilliant eye for the camera. Some of his shots were so poetic. I bet he lifted most of them from John Ford, I hope he did, because he lifted them from the master. But he used them with his own ironic sense.
"He was a unique voice that is sorely missed."
'Never Apologize: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson,' 7 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., Boise. $50 for film and post-screening reception, at 387-1273. Film only: $15 general, $12 students. Reception only: $40.
SELECTED FILMS IN WHICH MALCOLM MCDOWELL APPEARED
"A Clockwork Orange" (1971)
"O Lucky Man!" (1973)
"Voyage of the Damned" (1976)
"Time After Time" (1979)
"Britannia Hospital" (1982)
"Cat People" (1982)
"Blue Thunder" (1983)
"Star Trek Generations" (1994)
"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (2003)
WHO'S WHO IN 'NEVER APOLOGIZE'
In "Never Apologize," actor Malcolm McDowell takes you on a journey through a pivotal time in filmmaking. Here are some names to know to help you along the way.
Richard Harris: Today's audiences know him for originating the role of Albus Dumbledore in the "Harry Potter" films. But in his early career, he was a visceral leading man of stage and screen. He worked with Lindsay Anderson in the Academy Award-nominated "This Sporting Life" (1963) and "The Field," (1990). He received Oscar nominations for both roles. He also starred in the film version of the musical "Camelot."
Mr. Fish: Fashion designer Michael Fish led the "Peacock Revolution" in men's fashion. His designs included floral shirts adorned with ruffles and embroidery, colorful, striped jackets and slim-cut slacks. In 1968, he opened his shop, called Mr. Fish, from which he sold his very wide ties shaped like kippers.
John Ford: Ford often is overlooked in the canon of great directors because he worked in a pulp genre of Westerns. But from there, he revolutionized filmmaking and inspired multiple generations with his innovative camera shots. He is probably one of the most referenced directors in cinema. Ford directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1976. Some of his best include "Stagecoach," (1939), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "The Searchers" (1956), and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962).
David Sherwin: Screenwriter who penned Lindsay Anderson's film trilogy "If," "O Lucky Man," and "Britannia Hospital." He also worked on John Schlesinger's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but did not receive credit.
John Schlesinger: British film director who created a string of influential films, including "Far From the Madding Crowd" (1967), "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971) and "Marathon Man" (1976).
Rachel Roberts: Talented and hugely successful British actress who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Lindsay Anderson's "This Sporting Life." She married Rex Harrison, best known as Professor Henry Higgins and the original Dr. Doolittle. She died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1980.
Alan Bates: British actor with more than 80 films to his credit, including "Georgy Girl," "Far From the Madding Crowd," Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" and was part of the award-winning ensemble of Robert Altman's "Gosford Park." He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for "The Fixer."
Catherine Deneuve: This French-born actress has long been considered one of the most luminous and talented actresses of all time. Some of her best known films include "Belle de Jour," (1967) "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort," (1967) "Mayerling" (1968) and "Indochine" (1992), for which she was nominated for an Oscar
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