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.