“How nice,” suggested Sir Tyrone Guthrie, acknowledging my Fulbright year abroad in London, England, “to visit a country where there are only superficial similarities of language!”
I was then an aspiring young actor at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Yes… well… the cultural gulf between myself and the Brits in general, with their instant distrust of my villainously Irish surname, had been widened by tons of such insightfully acerbic repartee.
Verbal intimidation had always been my initial memory of England and the English.
Most of the Brits’ not-always-so-veiled insults were delivered to me while in London, not only during my scholarship year abroad but in subsequent trips to perform in films such as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and during the London premiere of a William Saroyan play, Don’t Go Away Mad, at the Donmar Warehouse Theater.
Last night, however, I saw 84 Charing Cross Road!
Oh, the memories which that film provoked!!
Not only my “memory lane”, but my entire, 71-year experience with the English-speaking Theater erupted!
Before I go any further, my admiration at times, unrestrained awe before the acting gifts of Sir Anthony Hopkins continue to soar even higher. With new glimpses of Hopkins in previously overlooked films such as 84 Charing Cross Road, I doubt, or rather am certain that, regarding actors, “I shall not look upon his like again.”
If this theme of the English-speaking Theater were to be seen with Anthony Hopkins as the zenith of English-speaking players… well then all other actors, regardless of their first language, would have a hard time reaching the throne I put him on.
Sir Anthony Hopkins has unmistakably surpassed my previous first two choices for the world’s greatest actor: Marlon Brando and/or Lord Laurence Olivier.
Hopkins’ simultaneously verbal transparency and verbal perfection.
Such translucency translates also into his infinitely rich silences. He combines verbal fire at any temperature, any at all, with the see-through silk of his stunningly transparent soul.
Only Simone Signoret could surpass such “transparency” and, being a woman, she had the natural edge.
That Hopkins’ irrepressible genius always leaves us in the mysterious wake of almost a “spell” upon us… well… Sir Anthony Hopkins surpasses all players before him!
I met Anthony Hopkins only once and that was in his legendary drinking days. He was appearing in the Broadway production of Equus and was, at the time, dreadfully unhappy with the experience. His director, John Dexter, whom he eventually praised much later in his career, had made the whole experience of Equus hell for him. Despite winning a Tony Award for that performance, Hopkins was profoundly unhappy.
Having seen Hopkins’ brilliance in Equus, I sympathized entirely with how awful it is to have John Dexter’s whip at his back! I’ve suffered under such “enlightened despots.”
“Faster! Faster!” seemed to be the only thing Hopkins kept hearing out of John Dexter.
Dexter, after Laurence Olivier, was the ruling maestro of the National Theater of England in its early days. I had met Dexter at an obligatory cocktail party for the Fulbright Scholars and he was quintessentially snobbish, complaining that none of us knew the titles of William Butler Yeats’ plays.
Few of us knew that Yeats even wrote plays. Wikipedia’s brief acknowledgement of William Butler Yeats as a dramatist was the shortest entry I’ve ever read in Wikipedia.
“And you call yourself scholars?,” exclaimed Dexter for all to hear.
No wonder John Dexter was incapable of directing film. His obsessive verbal pace would eventually make a film look and sound like a Sotheby auction. The Broadway production of Equus had that feeling to it.
By contrast, the brilliant head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Trevor Nunn, wrote and directed the best screenplay and film performance of Shakespearean comedy. The mad worthies of Twelfth Night.
This film of Twelfth Night is a corner of the Bard’s most dauntingly insane brilliance that is held together or rather “grounded” by Trevor Nunn’s wife at the time, Imogen Stubbs. She has been one of the most criminally underrated and underused actresses of the English-speaking world.
The numerous, mid-iambic pauses within Twelfth Night’s staggeringly rich dialogue make comprehension of Shakespeare’s multiple meanings possible. Any faster pace would leave, as they say, too much meat on the bones still to be eaten. The entire pace within the world of Nunn’s Twelfth Night helps you to devour Shakespeare and leaves you still ravenously hungry for more.
Ah, the English-speaking Theater! With Shakespeare as its God!!
Now that I’m retired and have no desire to reenter theater or film in any way, I have the rest of my life to review an enormous body of film drama, comedy and history… and to put much of it in some comprehensible order.
No, I hardly wish to be a Harold Bloom of film and theater… but my first-hand experiences make the entire universe of such entertainment a joy to visit again.
I know the realities behind the craft within making theatrical “magic” happen. What progress has been made, particularly in the technical advances of film-making, are sometimes quite jaw-dropping.
“How did they do that?!”
None of them equal my favorite acting moments within a great film or play.
For example, there is not “one moment” more than another that I would single out and adore in Imogen Stubbs’ performance of Viola in Twelfth Night. Her own persona alone and whatever she negotiated between herself and Shakespeare’s Viola were so seamlessly “transparent”, visible and unmistakably real that she almost began a new art form: Shakespearean Realism!
Meanwhile, back on the living stage, Laurence Olivier’s performance in the National Theater’s production of Othello was so gigantic that it will resonate within my soul till long after my death. I’ve singled it out during my television interviews and do so again now!
Unforgettably searing moments?
Olivier’s voice on these line excerpts:
“I will chop her onto messes!!!”
The first is the climactic moment in Othello’s most abandoned quest for “patience.”
The second is in the height of a rage that Iago has oh-so-quietly whipped Othello into.
I was in the balcony at the performance I attended and almost stood up to scream out loud at Frank Finlay’s Iago: “Get off the stage! If Othello knows what you are up to, he will pull your limbs off, gouge your eyes out and eat them all in front of us!!!”
Olivier’s relationship to text was well beyond melody. It is or was and must have been “symphonic” in his own imagination. His being as Othello was a full modern orchestra, out of which the explosions would erupt.
With that in mind, read the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan and his analysis of the Olivier vision: “Every speech, for Olivier, is like a mass of marble at which the sculptor chips away until its essential form and meaning are revealed. No matter how ignoble the character he plays, the result is always noble as a work of art.”
Olivier lowered his own, light baritone voice for the role of Othello by actually abusing his instrument, literally breaking it down. The subsequent roughness carried it several notes lower than God’s initial gift to him. Yet he’d lost nothing of his fiercely high tenor range. His voice would shoot up from the basement to soul-piercing heights!
These were vocal gymnastics only Olivier could rain on an audience.
The filmed version of Olivier’s Othello carries none of the black magic this Maestro could bring to the live stage. Thank God Franco Zeffirelli, the great Italian director of Shakespeare, saw Olivier’s Othello in the theater and had this to say: “I was told that this was the last flourish of the romantic tradition of acting. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last three centuries. It’s grand and majestic, but it’s also modern and realistic. I would call it a lesson for us all.”
Then, why is Olivier, in my eyes, no longer the world’s greatest actor?!
The secret magic of film acting, aside from the power of Olivier’s charismatic youth in Wuthering Heights, escaped him. He didn’t understand what film literally demands. He was never transparent. He was always, as Tynan pointed out, carving, with each speech, his “works of art.” Such superb craftsmanship in film must be either invisible or a side-effect of the actor’s surrender to transparency.
With Olivier on film, the craft was all too visible.
Brando, of all male film stars, embodied “transparency” on a level no male player had achieved or any audience had ever seen before.
Couple that with the high level of performance within the technical demands of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Even Brando’s co-star, John Gielgud, dropped his well-known contempt for most American actors in order to honor Brando’s singular genius.
Why then is Anthony Hopkins now my favorite actor of all time?
Hopkins combines the best of Olivier and Brando!
It is that simple.
What Hopkins will do with his next role, the magnificent maven of mischief, Alfred Hitchcock, is such a delicious thing to anticipate, I simply enjoy imagining what it will be like. His rendering of Richard Nixon was so profound and breathtakingly compassionate, I thought I’d seen Shakespeare’s Richard II instead of enduring one of American history’s greatest embarrassments.
In closing and in tribute to the power of human transparency, a film with both Simone Signoret and Sir Anthony Hopkins might have been decidedly too divine to bear! It might have been so excruciatingly realistic that I would have had to receive its abundant transparency in scene-by-scene increments.
What a lovely way to die!