Bad Directors Made Small #1
Michael Winner. Astonishing how those simple words transform an innocent baby picture into a glimpse of another and more terrible world, as Bertie Wooster might put it. What we have is purely and simply Michael Winner’s head, exactly as it appears today, transplanted atop a baby’s torso. Jan Svankmajer would run screaming into the night.
And yet, above and beyond the image’s power to inspire revulsion and terror in all right-thinking people, there’s the dark suggestion that this might yet be a nightmare vision of the future: when Winner is even older and more withered than he is now, and his necrotizing fascitis, having used his leg as a mere appetizer, has whittled him down to just a head and spinal column, leaving him with the tragic proportions of a jester’s wand, can we doubt that he’ll have his head transplanted onto a baby and start life all over again? He’s rich enough. The only hope I can see that my scenario might lack credibility is the comforting thought that if Michael Winner had a baby’s torso in his freezer, he’d already have eaten it.
Enough cruelty. For now, anyway. The twins of evil depicted come from Winner’s autobiography, Winner Takes All, which is pretty entertaining. If the standard Winner comedy or thriller always descends into inexplicable unpleasantness (slashed throats in HANNIBAL BROOKS; a bleeding guardsman in THE JOKERS; most of DEATH WISH; all of BULLS-EYE!), infected from within by the man’s irrepressible “personality,” the autobio is actually mostly fun, since the persona is front and centre and never pretends to be anything it’s not. Or if it does pretend, the effort is so slight and the weight of textual evidence so vast, that the transparent tissue of benevolence is rent asunder and dissolved before our eyes.
A pretty remarkable TV discussion — everybody talks passionately and articulately, nobody makes any particularly good points, although of course the TV pundits are correct that DEATH WISH II is an appallingly bad film… One rather respects Winner’s sang-froid, especially when he unexpectedly shoots himself in the foot by asking Anna Raeburn if she has first-hand knowledge of rape, and doesn’t get the answer he was expecting. As any lawyer could tell you, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.
Some of the best stuff in the book involves making I’LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME with Orson Welles. A discussion about billing:
Orson said, ‘I want to tell you a story. There was a time when Ellen Terry was acting with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and she said to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, “You know, I think the billing should read Ellen Terry and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. My name should be first because I’m more popular than you are.” Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree said to Ellen Terry, “Miss Terry, unless you stop this nonsense the billing will read Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree but Ellen Terry.” ‘ Orson roared that deep throaty laugh. I said, ‘Orson, that’s brilliant. That’s how we’ll do your billing. It’ll be the first film ever to get good reviews for the billing. We’ll say Oliver Reed, Carol White, Harry Andrews but Orson Welles.’
Unfortunately Orson changed his mind, demanded top billing, and got it. Winner, always respectful of his stars (if no one else), didn’t mind.