A long, wide-ranging and informative discussion with scholar Adrian Garvey on the career of James Mason , the subject of Garvey´s interest and research for over a decade now. We touch on various aspects of the particularities of Mason´s career and achievements but with a particular focus on his work in the UK in the forties, and then in the United States in the 50s. The conversation ranges from the differences in his level of stardom in the UK and the US, his choice of projects, the quality of the people he sought out to work with, how a star becomes a lasting star in spite of never quite becoming a box-office star in America, what his star persona was in the UK and how that was re-deployed but also re-inflected in America. We touch on the directors he worked with: Reed, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Minnelli, Nicholas Ray; we compare his career to that of other British stars of the period and after– Stewart Granger, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Richard Burton, Peter O´Toole, Richard Harris, Alec Guiness…. A must-listen for anyone interested in James Mason.
Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers
London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2015.
It’s always a mistake for any biography to announce itself as ‘definitive’ in the title: it invites contradiction; and on the evidence of reading Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, it will not be the last word on the great star: the interior life, what drove him at different stages in his life, even why so many of his film performances continue to thrill when the films themselves don’t, are questions the book does not answer satisfactorily.
But to say that it is not definitive is not to say that it is not good. In fact it’s the best one we’ve got so far and Robert Sellers has conducted dozens of new interviews, dug up and clarified essential facts that we did not know or which were not clear before – for example, he firmly establishes that whilst his father was Irish and his mother Scottish, O’Toole himself was born in Leeds – and we even get charming nuggets such as the following: ‘O’Toole left RADA, aged twenty-three, with a little blue book that every student was given upon graduation, The RADA Keepsake and Counsellor. It gave indispensable advice for the rocky road that lay ahead, gems like: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the job as long as the shoes you were wearing at the audition were clean.’
Sellers is very good at contextualising O’Toole’s first steps as an actor. We learn that O’Toole ended up in the same class at RADA as Albert Finney and Alan Bates; actors who would really come into their own and symbolise a new type of British cinema in the sixties. Interestingly, of these, and even if one were to include his great friend Richard Harris, O’Toole is the one who would remain least associated with the dominant currents of British Cinema in this period. He’s got no equivalent to Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Harris’ This Sporting Life and Bates is almost exclusively associated with British Cinema (Georgy Girl, Women in Love, The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, etc.). O’Toole was different. His first big splash was in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, where Noel Coward quipped he was so pretty he should have been called Florence of Arabia. It was a ‘runway production’; British story, director etc. but also international money and international stars (Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff); a typical Sam Spiegel production. And it’s interesting that many of O’Toole’s greatest success or most famous films of the 60s would have strong associations with Britain but all be in one way or another ‘international’: Becket, Lion in Winter, Lord Jim, Goodbye Mr. Chips, even, in different ways, What’s New Pussycat.
Sellers is marvellous at illuminating his work in theatre. He interviews lots of his contemporaries, co-stars, people who worked with him in various capacities and their accounts are vivid and illuminating. We do get real insight into his time at the Bristol Old Vic, his star-making turn at the Royal Court and the West End in The Long and the Short and the Tall in 59, his legendary performance as Shylock at Stratford for Peter Hall, the famously disastrous Macbeth in 1980 and of course late triumphs such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. These aspects of the book are excellent .
The personal life, his relationship with his father and with his son, with his two wives and two daughters, all of these are sketched out clearly if a bit unsatisfactorily, though the fault here might be more with this reader’s wanting to know more than with the way the book tells it. Certainly Sellers seems to have had unprecedented access to the family and to personal papers, all of which are put to good use in the book.
The picture is of a star who continues to dazzle, a man with somewhat bipolar tendencies who drank to unconsciousness during one part of his life and until his body could take it no more; a selfish but good man; a literary man who delighted in performing and in the admiration and applause of others. This is all vividly sketched. So why the grumbling? I suppose I would have wanted more on the film career; that’s what we see now; that’s what matters disproportionally now; that was a large part of his life then. As the book makes clear, he loved being a film star. Lastly, I don’t think we get enough of a sense of who Peter O’Toole was as a person; his actions are clearly narrated and well-documented by the book; his fears, dreams, desires still remain opaque. I suppose we can consult O’Toole’s own excellent autobiographies: Loitering With Intent: The Child and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice. But they’re only partially revealing, and only on that period before he became famous. Nonetheless, these are perhaps the grumblings of a fan: Sellers’ book tells us so much more than we already knew that it’s begrudging to criticise him for not telling us as much as we want to know. Thus the book might not be definitive. But it is essential to anyone who wants to know more about Peter O’Toole.
Coarse, stupid, vulgar: What’s New Pussycat is a film that speaks its time — a culture on the cusp of a sexual revolution made possible by easily available contraception — and vomits up the most misogynist aspects of it. The film gets its title from Warren Beatty’s customary greeting to the women who phoned him. Beatty was initially set to play the protagonist, Michael James, a playboy in love with his girlfriend but unable to resist the lure of other women and seeking help for this from a psychiatrist (a role initially set for Groucho Marx but here played by Peter Sellers) who’s got problems of his own.
In his brilliant biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Peter Biskind writes of how Beatty had three reservations about the project as it was being developed: Woody Allen, who was writing the film, kept enlarging his part, initially just a few lines, at the expense of the protagonist’s; the casting of Capucine, who was then producer Charles K. Feldman’s girlfriend; and lastly, in his own words, that ‘My character had turned into some neo-Nazi Ubermensch who was unkind to women’.
Beatty threatened to walk out of the project unless these problems were resolved. Feldman, who was Beatty’s great friend and mentor, shocked him by using Beatty’s threat as an opportunity to re-cast in favour of Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket and then much bigger box-office. But Beatty was right: Woody Allen’s part adds nothing to the story; Capucine is beautiful to look at but painful to watch; and the character of Michael James, even as played by Peter O’Toole, is indeed unkind to women, though not as hatefully as the film itself.
The women in the film aren’t people, they’re dolls, some of them barely sentient, designed to fulfill different male fears or desires: there’s the fat Brünhilde (Edra Gale) who sings Wagner as she charges after her husband, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers); the frigid ‘poetess’ who’s a virgin but only on one side of the Atlantic (Paula Prentiss, redeemed by her expressive low voice, a hoarseness that expresses more humanity than any of the shit she’s made to utter); the nympho with sadistic impulses (Capucine); the dangerous dream with leopard-skin mittens and a shark-skin body-suit who parachutes right onto the hero’s 1936-7 Singer 9 Le Mans racing car (Ursula Andress); and the lusciously pretty hausfrau girlfriend, who suffers, waits, and thinks only of getting a fixed date for her wedding (Romy Schneider, who against all odds, succeeds in making her character into a human being).
Peter Sellers gets top billing but is an unfunny blank. A young, even boyish, Woody Allen, whose film debut this is, does his usual lascivious schtick. These two comic ‘geniuses’ can barely get a laugh between them, and certainly not one that doesn’t make at least this viewer feel diminished as a human being. The film is more in love with Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes than it is with any of its female stars. We’re meant to find him adorable even when he takes his shirt off to reveal a chest that is both droopy and scrawny or when he dances like a shaky stick howling at the moon begging for rhythm. O’Toole, however, also brings a lovely stillness juxtaposed with bursts of theatricality that both centres and sparks the film and makes it bearable.
What’s Up Pussycat? was a top-ten box-office success in 1965, the year that The Sound of Music topped the list. Although it is set in France, it very much evokes the look and attitudes of ‘Swinging London’ not only in its inventive visuals (the animated sequence at the beginning) but also formally (the self-reflexive pop elements of the speech purporting to be a vehicle for the author’s thought indicated through a flashing title; the dream sequence). Today it is probably best remembered for Tom Jones’s singing of the title tune. Fans of the Bacharach-David songbook will also enjoy an early version of ‘Little Red Book’ and the great Dionne Warwick singing ‘Here I Am’. Pop fans of the period may also delight in seeing Françoise Hardy crop up as the Mayor’s assistant. Those interested in film history might also see in this producer’s package an early antecedent to the Simpson-Bruckheimer High Concept cinema of the 1980.
In spite of the above, it is very difficult to see What’s Up Pussycat? today except as an exercise in a male privilege so entrenched it is oblivious to its own ugliness.