Friday, November 17, 2006

When H.G. Wells met Jack the Ripper

One of my favorite actors talking about one of my very favorite actors:

I also loved working with James Garner, who is so unsung. When we were shooting the scene where we have lunch together, I'm throwing grapes up in the air, catching them with my mouth, and he's just sitting there. "Doncha want a cuppa coffee?" I ask him, and he says, "No, you're doing it all." I'd love to work with him again. He's in the same league with Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Gielgud, in a different way. All of them are coming from the inside, and all their thoughts have to be right. James Garner makes acting look effortless – that's hard work.

That's Malcolm McDowelll talking about working with Garner in Sunset. Quote's from an interview McDowell did with N.P. Thompson of The House Next Door. Thompson was focused on McDowell, naturally, so he didn't chase that down---Garner in the same league as those three great British hams? What did McDowell mean?

I'm guessing that when he says that, like those three, James Garner is "coming from the inside" he means that when you watch Garner you have to look into his eyes. He makes you read his thoughts. His characters don't move about much (neither do Olivier's but he vibrates so intensely when he's just standing still you feel as if he's moving as much as Gene Kelly does when he's dancing) but they're always thinking. You can see their minds working, which is how Garner can dominate a scene in which he has few lines, he's playing opposite an actor as volatile as McDowell, and that other actor is doing something as flamboyant as tossing grapes up in the air and catching them in his mouth. McDowell appears to have been worried about upstaging Garner but Garner knew. He can afford to give away space to anyone who's onscreen with him.

Garner once said he learned everything he knows about acting from watching Henry Fonda in the stage version of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It was one of Garner's first acting jobs. He played a member of the panel of naval officers trying the case and he had no lines. He kept himself occupied by studying Fonda, another actor who I'd say worked "from inside."

That's my guess. I'll find out. I'm making Sunset family movie night next week. Tonight's family movie night is, coincidentally, Time After Time, which stars McDowell as H.G. Wells who, movies being movies, turns out to have actually invented and built the time machine that's at the center of his novel. And, movies being movies, it turns out that Jack the Ripper uses the time machine to escape from the police and Wells jumps in it after him and chases him into the 20th Century to bring him back to justice. Wells, who thinks of himself as a visionary, is shocked but then enthralled by all the things he never envisioned, particularly Mary Steenburgen.

Introducing the interview, Thompson describes one of his favorite scenes from Time After Time:

In a revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency, the spires and blue mists of San Francisco swirl behind McDowell, as he and Steenburgen glow at each other like a couple of school kids. "We knew it had to be magical for the film to work," McDowell told me on a recent October morning, nearly a full three decades later. And magical it is: Anyone who has listened to Time After Time's DVD commentary track knows that McDowell told Steenburgen he loved her prior to shooting the scene. The fluster that she exudes isn’t acting; it's real. H.G. Wells tries to impress Amy by telling her he's just published a series of articles on "free love." When she bursts his bubble ("I haven't heard the term 'free love' since eighth-grade") his prowess turns momentarily to embarrassment. Hardly a few frames flicker past, however, and the McDowell/Wells goofy grin exultantly returns – he's smitten (as was I).

Thompson calls the scene "one of the most teasingly playful, emotionally satisfying comic romantic scenes that we have on film." He goes on to say, "It's also beautiful for this reason: There isn't anything else like it in the long line of McDowell's career."

We'll watch the movie, you go read the interview. It's a long one, but worth it to see what McDowell thinks about working for the gread directors Stanley Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson, Blake Edwards, and Martin Ritt, how he attempted to goad a shy actress into getting naked for a scene the script called for her and McDowell to get naked in---it involved a jock strap and some embroidery work that co-star Christopher Lee thought was in very poor taste---and how McDowell sees it as his job as entertainter to "keep the audience awake!"


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