Rear Projection

As actor-writer Mark Gatiss points out in the recently-aired BBC documentary on the British B-movie, Truly Madly Cheaply (written by Matthew Sweet), Jimmy Hanley (screen right) has a rather unusual physique:

What is going on with his arse? And is that acceptable for a leading man?

British cinema seems to always have had a strange tendency to cast physically strange or ill-suited people. Sometimes that’s commendable. I don’t know if a scar-faced man like Basil Radford would have been a comedy star in America, but he was very popular in the U.K., especially paired with Naunton Wayne (see THE LADY VANISHES, DEAD OF NIGHT). And he still got to do dramatic roles as well. His performance in WHISKEY GALORE! is perfectly balanced between the two.

At other times, one simply wonders what anybody was thinking. In what crazy world could John Gielgud be an action hero, as Hitchcock requires him to be in THE SECRET AGENT? Is Hugh McDermott really the kind of man we want to gaze upon in enlarged form, under any circumstances? Has Hugh Williams, capable actor though he is, got what it takes (Hollywood thought enough of him to try him out, so it wasn’t just us)? Character stars like Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim are quite understandable, and have their equivalents everywhere (not exact equivalents, of course — they are UNIQUE) but how to explain Roger Livesey as a leading man? I love him dearly, and I thank the Lord he played the lead in COLONEL BLIMP in place of Olivier, but still, he’s not classically handsome, you’ll admit.

Even in more recent years, British films have provoked shudders by parading the scandalous kissers of Om Puri (a sort of cauliflower carved into humanoid form), Brendan Gleason (an exploding cloud of meat) and Kathy Burke (sodden troll). They’re all brilliant actors and I rejoice in our apparent acceptance of their physiognomic truancy, but what does this say about us as a nation?

I guess we prefer our actors a little unconventional. I’d rather see Samantha Morton (a china plate that looks at you) than some kind of Kate Bosworth hologram anyday. Character is good. Michael Caine is just as welcome looking kind of like a turkey, as he does today, as he was when he looked like an earthbound angel. My plan to have Keira Knightley hollowed out and operated from within by a miniaturized Bronagh Gallagher with a joystick may not be scientifically feasible — yet — but at least we can still enjoy the bloated, mangled or misshapen countenances of some of the best actors in the world.

11 Responses to “Rear Projection”

  1. Maybe this is why Kevin Spacey crossed the pond. Though his welcome wasn’t all that considerable, was it?

  2. dcairns Says:

    I think the attitude may have been, “We already have plenty of funny-looking actors.”
    I have a good scurrilous story from the set of Ordinary Decent Criminal but I probably should keep it to myself.

  3. Oh please DON’T!

  4. OK, I’ll post later.

  5. Ah yes, but what about Clive Owen, Jenny Agutter and Helen Mirren? Phwoooar!

    Perhaps your thesis fits in with that other idea from the (very good) documentary when it talks of the film it considered “the British Postman Always Rings Twice”, Marilyn – that the B-films reflected the reality of the people and places almost in spite of themselves because they didn’t have the money to stage manage everything. Marilyn, in trying to suggest the title characters dreams of turning her newly inherited petrol station into an ‘American style’ coffee bar was completely exposed by its shabby, desperate looking execution. In Postman the new life is almost worth killing for to achieve – in Marilyn the dream is just as crappy as the old life was!

  6. dcairns Says:

    Errol Morris had a nice line about Poverty Row noir — “despair enacted on cheap sets”.

    There are undoubtedly attractive Brit stars — and the women were always more attractive than the men. And America had its share of strange uglies. But British films, even some of the big ones, had a reckless attitude to physical appearance… Trevor Howard? Michael Redgrave? Curiously, when kitchen sink realism came in, the men got PRETTIER!

  7. Yes, isn’t that odd? When it was supposed to mean they got butcher.

  8. Well, I guess you can’t GET any more butch than Alec Guinness and John Mills in Great Expectations. What manliness!

  9. Well there’s Peter O’Toole, right?

    Meanwhile — where’s my Kevin Spacey story?

  10. Yes, O’Toole of course is the gold standard of heterosexuality, as EVERYONE KNOWS.

    The Spacey story comes, indirectly, from a well-known actor on the set of Ordinary Decent Criminal. So it may not be true, and I’m not saying it is. Really it’s more of a Fiorentino story. Supposedly, Linda Fiorentino and Spacey were competing to seduce the young male crew members. One young chap had just split up with his girlfriend, and was questioning his sexuality. The actor-informant told him “By all means, question your sexuality, but not around these people.”
    One day the guy tells our informant, allegedly, that L.F. has invited him round that weekend. Our man, a seasoned pro, says “You can go, but I bet you a tenner that as soon as you’re in the door she will shove you down on your knees.”
    The following Monday the kid appears on the set and silently hands our man a tenner.
    EXCEPT — he says that since he was pre-warned, when L.F. tried to shove him to his knees, he did the same to her, and a weird informal wrestling match ensued.

    Of course everybody knows that Kevin Spacey was innocent of any part in this, as he was doubtless walking his dog at the time.

  11. HAH! Love this story. Especially as it’s Fiorentino doing the knee-forcing, rather than Spacey as usual.

    I trust you know what happened durign the shooting of The Usual Suspects. It won “Hollywood Scandal Legend” status in mere nanoseconds.

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