Ian McKellen gives a Master Class on acting Shakespeare, 1982
01.28.2014
09:00 am

Topics:
Television

Tags:
Theater
Ian McKellen
Shakespeare

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These days, Sir Ian McKellen is best known for playing characters in big-budget CGI films such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Magneto in The X-Men, but once, not so long ago, when he was just a plain “Mister,” McKellen was to be found giving incredible performances on TV in the likes of Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, where he played an imprisoned dissident; or, his unforgettable, ambitious and murderous Thane of Glamis in Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Macbeth; or, an increasingly paranoid commuter in Armchair Thriller; or, just as himself reading children’s stories on Jackanory.

All of the above was my introduction to the talented Mr. McKellen, and these productions have remained lodged in my memory long after some of the things he has done with CGI, no matter how compelling and brilliant his performances. (This has little to do with the quality of his acting, rather my own aversion to the bloody awful world of CGI movies.)

One of my favorite McKellen productions from way back then was his “entertainment” Acting Shakespeare, in 1982.

You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to enjoy this brilliant one-man show, in which McKellen interweaves key moments of his life—from childhood productions of Hamlet, to his beginnings as an actor at school, university and beyond—with stunning performances of the Bard’s best known works. McKellen performs on stage without props or costume in front of an audience, and his talent to almost shape-shift from one character-to-another is something to behold.
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
It’s been ten years since Spalding Gray disappeared
01.10.2014
05:39 pm

Topics:
R.I.P.

Tags:
Theater
Spalding Gray


 
It’s ten years since the actor and writer Spalding Gray disappeared in New York. He is believed to have committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. His body was surfaced in the East River two months later.

Gray achieved international success as a story-teller, who used the events, adventures, traumas and fascinations of his life to create the acclaimed productions Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box. Gray enthralled with his personal tales, told in a direct though intimate style, seated behind a desk, with a minimum of props. He drew an audience in and kept them engaged, amused and thrilled with his unique, moving and often hilarious tales of life.

It was probably a car accident in Ireland, June 2001, that started Gray’s severe depression. He suffered a broken hip, that left his leg almost immobilized, and a horrifically fractured skull that left a jagged scar across his forehead. It was said that during the operation to replace part of his shattered skull with a titanium plate, the surgeon found shards of bone embedded in Gray’s frontal cortex. Thereafter, Gray suffered from a debilitating depression.

He tried various therapies to cure his condition. This included a course of treatment with neurologist Oliver Sacks. On the first anniversary of Gray’s disappearance, Sacks suggested that suicide was perhaps a part of the writer’s “creative” end to his life:

“On several occasions he talked about what he called ‘a creative suicide.’ On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a ‘dramatic and creative suicide.’” Sacks added, “I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.”

I met and interviewed Gray some twenty-odd years ago. He was in Glasgow to perform Monster in a Box, and we met in an hotel off the city center. He was tall, friendly, polite, enthusiastic, dressed in his uniform of plaid shirt and back jeans. Though jet-lagged, he entertained with amusing answers to questions he must have been asked innumerable times before. Then for the camera, he improvised about traveling and performing and living in hotels, and how he’d asked for a quiet room, a hushed room, away from the city tumult, and instead found himself perched over a cobbled lane where the click-clack-click-clack of late night revelers and day-time shoppers kept him awake, leaving him sleepless to count down the hours between shows. 

The day he disappeared, Gray said to his wife, Kathleen Russo:

“OK, goodbye, Honey.”

“And I go, ‘You never call me Honey!’

“And he goes, ‘Well, maybe I’ll start!’

So I left for work that day being hopeful that there was a future for us, that he was really going to try to get better.”

When Gray went missing, his disappearance was featured on TV news and America’s Most Wanted. Sadly, the hope he would turn up one day and recount magical tales of his misadventures were all too quickly destroyed.

This is Splading Gray in Gray’s Anatomy, directed by Stephen Soderbergh, in which our monologist talks about his rare ocular condition, and interweaves it with his Christian Scientist upbringing, Elvis Presley, sweat lodges, and his own fears around surgery.
 

 
H/T NPR;

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Harold Pinter: ‘A Celebration’ with Jude Law, Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen and Colin Firth
12.05.2013
02:52 pm

Topics:
Literature

Tags:
Theater
Harold Pinter

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In June 2009, a group of Britain’s leading actors gathered to perform a celebration of the work of playwright Harold Pinter, for one night at London’s National Theater. The cast included Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Gina McKee, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Cranham, Susan Wooldridge, Michael Sheen and Henry Woolf. Jude Law and Penelope Wilton had to dash from their matinee performance of Hamlet to take part. The quality of this ensemble gives an idea of the respect with which Pinter is regarded.

The group of actors then presented a selection of extracts from Pinter’s plays, writing and poetry. The set was simple, with the cast remaining seated on stage throughout. The evening of celebration opened with Stephen Rea reading “Death,” written and published in 1997, the year Pinter’s father died. This was followed by an excellent selection from the playwright’s writings, notable amongst which were: Douglas Hodge’s reading of the playwright’s memoir “Mac,”  a comic tale of his early career in repertory theater with the famed Irish actor Anew McMaster; David Bradley eking out all of the comedy and pathos to the character of the tramp, Davies from The Caretaker; Colin Firth also delivers superb performance as the character Aston, talking about his electro-shock therapy, from the play; while Janie Dee and Michael Sheen in Betrayal, and Jude Law and Indira Varma in The Lover, bring out the strong sexual tensions inherent in both plays.

Filmed for BBC’s Arena, Harold Pinter: A Celebration is a remarkable piece of theater.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Woman dressed as vagina stops attack on man dressed as penis
06.21.2013
01:47 pm

Topics:
Amusing
Sex

Tags:
Theater
Glastonbury
Nomadic Academy of Fools

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Passers-by watched in amazement as a woman, dressed as a vagina, stopped an attack on a man, dressed as a penis. The incident took place on a Friday afternoon, last week, in Glastonbury High Street, England.

The Vagina and Penis were performers with the Nomadic Academy of Fools, who were out in the High Street promoting their production Fooling Around, four days of plays at the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms. It is believed that a member of the public took great offense at the actor dressed as a penis and began to attack him. Performer Chris Kelly, who was dressed as the penis, later explained:

“He started shouting at me, saying it was disgusting and children could see us. I could tell by his body language that he was really angry. I tried to calm him down, I wasn’t looking for a fight; but he grabbed my hat, tore it off and chucked it on the pavement.”

Both the Penis and the Vagina then headed back towards the Assembly Rooms. In the meantime, another member of the public had telephoned the police. The actress, Joanne Tremarco, who was dressed as the Vagina, told police they did not want to press any charges against the man.

“Then he explained that I needed to take the costume off, or I could be arrested. They also removed flyers for the plays we were performing.”

Ms. Tremarco understood how some members of the public could be offended by their costumes, but went on to explain:

“We’re trying to highlight the contradiction in society. People were offended by us walking around in costume, but it’s nothing you can’t see in magazines and newspapers that are often displayed in a child’s eye-line. On the whole, the reaction we had was positive from most people.”

The Nomadic Academy of Fools agreed not to give any more street performances, while a spokesperson for the Assembly Rooms said:

“We were deeply surprised by the reaction of the police in this situation. This is not the first time these shows have been performed here. The plays were very well attended and we experienced no trouble at the venue.”

Inspector Mark Nicholson, of Avon and Somerset Police, said:

“We wouldn’t have stopped the play going ahead, but it’s not appropriate to have costumes and swear words like that in the streets where young children and other people could see them and be offended.”

The incident has been the talk of Glastonbury, and led to one of the most bizarre headlines in the local press.
 

 
Via Arbroath, with thanks to Saskia Baron

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘Prick Up Your Ears’: Kenneth Williams and John Lahr talk Joe Orton in 1978

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John Lahr discusses Prick Up Your Ears, his superb biography on playwright Joe Orton, with actor and friend, Kenneth Williams and theater critic, Michael Billington, on the book’s release in 1978.

The cherubic Orton was arguably the most exciting and original playwrights to break through in the 1960s—his first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was an influence on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, while his last What the Butler Saw led to political controversy and questions being raised in parliament—in reference to the size of Winston Churchill’s cock. Sadly, Orton’s life was cut short by murder—he was working on a film script for The Beatles (Up Against It) when he died (the Fabs made Magical Mystery Tour instead)—and one can only imagine what works of brilliance he would have concocted had he lived.

The quality of this interview is iffy, but it is a marvelous and important piece of cultural history for those with an interest in Orton (or even Williams). It’s also fascinating to hear some of the “politically correct” language used by presenter, Valerie Singleton, and interviewer Billington, where Orton is described as a “practicing homosexual”—as if he was in training for an examination. All jolly good fun.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Because We’re Queer: The LIfe and Crimes of Joe Orton


Book-jackets defaced by Joe Orton in 1962


 
With thanks to NellyM
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Vincent Price talks Art and Acting: A scintillating interview from 1974

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Vincent Price started collecting Art at the age of 12.

‘It was just one of those things. I’d read so many books on Art that one day I walked into a little art store, downtown St. Louis—mainly a framing place—they were having an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings, and there was one that really took my fancy.

‘I said, “How much is it?” And the man said, “It’s thirty-seven dollars, and fifty-cents.”

‘Well, I had $5 in my pocket, so I said could I put that down on it? And he said, “Yes.” I think he knew my father was good for the other thirty-two dollars and fifty-cents.

‘I paid for it myself, and from it, I learned a tremendous amount about the importance of the ownership of Art. The importance of buying a recording, of owning a work of Art, so you could study it, and live with it, and make it really your own, rather than just a thing you pick-up at a cursory glance in a museum. And [Art collecting] lasted all my life.’

Alas, Mr. Price had to sell his Rembrandt when he was broke, but his love of Art and Art History never left him.

It was in London, while working as an Art Historian at the Courtauld Institute, that Mr. Price’s love of theater began. As the theater was cheap in London, he saw as many productions as he could, before taking the plunge. He quickly moved form bit part to lead, and was on Broadway by 23.

A fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyable interview, in which Vincent Price relishes discussing those things closest to his heart—Art and Acting. From the public access TV series Day at Night, April 1974.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘Very unpromising material’: A review for Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, from 1955

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A review for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot from when the play first opened in England, at the Arts Theater Club, London, in August 1955.

Writing in the Guardian, critic Philip Hope-Wallace described Beckett’s play as “inexplicit and deliberately fatuous..” and claimed it “bored some people acutely. Others found it a witty and poetic conundrum.”

‘TWO EVENINGS WITH TWO TRAMPS

“Waiting for Godot”

By Philip Hope-Wallace

“Waiting for Godot” at the Arts Theatre Club is a play to send the rationalist out of his mind and induce tooth-gnashing among people who would take Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen and Lear’s nonsense exchanges with the food as easiest stuff in the world. the play, if about anything is ostensibly about two tramps who spend the two acts, two evenings long, under a tree on a bit of waste ground “waiting for Godot.”

Godot, it would seem, is quite possibly God, just as Charlot is Charles. Both tramps are dressed like the Chaplinesque zanies of the circus and much of their futile cross-talk seems to bear some sort of resemblance to those music-hall exchanges we know so well: “You know my sister?” “Your sister?” “Yes, my sister,” and so on, ad lib. One of the tramps is called Estragon, which is the French for tarragon herb; the other is called Vladimir. On the first evening their vigil is broken by the arrival of a choleric employer called Pozzo (Italian for “a well”), and a down-trodden servant Lucky, who looks like the Mad Hatter’s uncle.

On the second evening this pair reappears, the former now blind and led by the latter, now a deaf mute. As night falls on both seasons a boy arrives to announce that Godot cannot keep the interview for which the tramps so longingly wait. And at the end of it, for all its inexplicit and deliberately fatuous flatness, a curious sense of the passage of time and the wretchedness of man’s uncertainty about his destiny has been communicated out of the very unpromising material.

The allegorist is Sam Beckett, who was once James Joyce’s secretary and who writes in French for preference. His English version bears traces of that language still. The language, however, is flat and feeble in the extreme in any case. Fine words might supply the missing wings, but at least we are spared a Claudelian rhetoric to coat the metaphysical moonshine.

The play bored some people acutely. Others found it a witty and poetic conundrum. There was general agreement that Peter Hall’s production did fairly by a work which has won much applause in many parts of the world already and that Paul Daneman in particular, as the more thoughtful of the two tramps, gave a fine and rather touching performance. Peter Woodthorpe, Timothy Bateson, Peter Bull and a boy, Michael Walker, the mysterious Godot’s messenger all played up loyally. There was only one audible retirement from the audience though the ranks had thinned after the interval. It is good to find that plays at once dubbed “incomprehensible and pretentious” can still get a staging. Where better than the Arts Theatre?”

While the daily papers were generally negative in their reviews of the play, Kenneth Tynan was more favorable and wrote in the Observer:

By all the known criteria, Mr Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum.

It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end.

Unavoidably, it has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it deals with the impatience of two tramps waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but the situation is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive.

Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare: yet it gets through as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than any in the books.

A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.

Not long after this review, Waiting for Godot transferred to the West End, London, and went on to win an Evening Standard award.
 
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H/T the Guardian
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘Waiting For Godot’: As performed by Guinea Pigs

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A condensed, cartoon version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as imagined by Guinea Pig Theater.

Many people view this play as one in which nothing whatsoever happens. Clearly, if you’re [sic] hold this view, you have missed the existential boat that Samuel Beckett so poignantly explores in this modern classic. Since guinea pigs excel at waiting, among other things, who better to bring this masterpiece to life than Guinea Pig Theater!

Sit back, enjoy a carrot, and experience Waiting For Godot as you never have before.

Hardly as Beckett intended, when the play was first performed sixty-years ago at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris, January 4th, 1953, but still fun.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Helen Mirren: Talks ‘balls,’ ‘guts’ ‘Teeth ‘n’ Smiles’ from 1976

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Helen Mirren interviewed about her starring role as Maggie, a rock singer, in David Hare’s play Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, and its revival at the Wyndham’s Theater in London’s West End, 1976.

The play related the events of a May Ball at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1969, when a fading rock band are hired to perform to the College’s indifferent students, leading to a meeting of two very different worlds, which ends with Maggie burning down the marquee, in which the band played. Teeth ‘n’ Smiles originally opened at the Royal Court in 1975 to some mixed reviews for its author, but generally positive reviews for its star.

With its revival on the West End, Helen appeared on BBC’s news and current affairs show Tonight, where she was asked by interviewer Donald MacCormick, whether she thought the production would have a good West End run?:

‘You never can tell with the West End. You have a play here that is not usual West End material, in the sense that it’s not middle aged and middle class, particularly. It’s got a lot of swear words in it, a lot of very loud music. On the first public preview quite a lot of people walked-out, quite early on in the play when the first music takes place as it was too loud.’

Dame Helen was attracted to the central role of Maggie because the character had “balls” though she did find the part “worrying” as it made her feel “unattractive.” She explained this here and in other interviews given at the time:

I’m very like Maggie in many ways, only she’s much more ballsy and gutsy than me. I endorse most of what Maggie says, in fact in many ways it’s difficult to talk about her because I feel so close to her…

When I was first offered the part I was so scared. I’ve never wanted to play a part so much since I played my first part when I was seven years old [Gretel]. I get very bored going to the theatre now. I’d much rather go to rock concerts [JJ Cale, Dr John and Led Zeppelin are among her favourites]. So when I was offered the part of Maggie, a singer, well, I’m not a natural audience, I’m a performer, I had to do it. Of course I felt scared about the singing, I love singing but I can’t sing. [Nick Bicat, music director for the production, says she can sing ‘because she’s herself and very brave’.]                       (Time Out, 1975, parentheses in the original)

There aren’t many good parts for actresses. Maggie is a good strong part and that’s quite rare in modern theatre. So I like it for that. I don’t like it because it gets to me in a funny sort of way. Perhaps too close to sides of me I don’t much like. But it just makes me feel unattractive.

… Maggie’s doing it [struggling with a boring middle-class background] in one way. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, possibly. But I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for people who go to the extremes of energy and wit. They’re terribly, horribly destructive often, but there’s something really fascinating and very lovable about them. I find it very difficult to let go. I mean I find it practically impossible to let go. I just get very sulky instead. I don’t think I can do a Maggie at all. I’m too self-conscious.

… When I played Miss Julie, it was the same cathartic experience, because you let it go. You let it all come out without ever actually committing yourself personally – although I do try to commit myself personally as much as possible on stage and try to make it as real and present as possible.                     (NME, 1976)

Teeth ‘n’ Smiles was very much an important part of its day, reflecting a time when London’s theaters were filled with old school socialist machismo—where male writers (David Hare, Howard Brenton, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, amongst others) dealt with the issues of politics and society, often with little recourse (or collaboration) to women.

Ms. Mirren has thankfully gone on from strength-to-strength, to become one of England’s greatest actresses.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Bugger the Natives: The Trial of Howard Brenton’s ‘The Romans in Britain’


 
With thanks to NellyM
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
David Bowie: Extracts from his first TV drama ‘The Looking Glass Murders’

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When his debut album flopped in 1967, David Bowie thought his pop career was over. The years of practice and ambition had sadly delivered nothing but the indifference of the public (who preferred The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s) and the bewilderment of critics, who could not quite understand this young singer (who sounded like Anthony Newley) and delivered such diverse and original songs. Bowie had discovered the width of his talent, but not its depth. Understandably, disheartened, Bowie considered packing it all in and becoming a Buddhist monk at the Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland, but fate played a hand and he soon found himself under the influence of a charismatic fan - the brilliant dancer, performer and choreographer Lindsay Kemp.

Kemp loved Bowie’s first album, and used one its tracks “When I Live My Dream” for one of his shows. Kemp offered Bowie a new career - as dancer, actor and member of Kemp’s dance troupe

On 28 December 1967, David Bowie made his theatrical debut in Kemp’s mime Pierrot in Turquoise or, The Looking Glass Murders at the New Theater in Oxford. Bowie wrote and performed the music, and co-starred as Cloud, alongside Kemp’s Pierrot, Jack Birkett’s Harlequin, and Annie Stainer’s Columbine.

The production was still in rehearsal when it played for its one night at the New Theater, which perhaps explains why the Oxford Mail described the show as “something of a pot-pourri,” though it highlighted Bowie’s contribution for praise:

David Bowie has composed some haunting songs, which he sings in a superb, dreamlike voice. But beguilingly as he plays Cloud, and vigorously as Jack Birkett mimes Harlequin, the pantomime isn’t a completely satisfactory framework for some of the items from his repertoire that Mr Kemp, who plays Pierrot, chooses to present….

...No doubt these are shortcomings Mr. Kemp will attend to before he presents Pierrot in Turquoise at the Prague Festival at the invitation of Marceau and Fialka next summer. No mean honour for an English mime troupe.

The mime told the story of Pierrot and his attempts to win the love of his life, Columbine. Of course things are never simple, and Columbine falls for Harlequin, and is then killed by Pierrot.

After a few tweaks, Pierrot in Turquoise or The Looking Glass Murders opened at the Rosehill Theater, Whitehaven, before its proper run at the Mercury Theater, and Intimate Theater, both London, in March 1968….
 

 
More on Bowie & Kemp in ‘The Looking Glass Murders’, after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘The Ritz’: Rita Moreno & Richard Lester talk about making the cult, comedy classic

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Rita Moreno will admit to some similarities with that great, comic character Googie Gomez, who she played in the film version of Terrence McNally‘s play The Ritz. They are both survivors, they are not losers, and they will both always come out on top.

Moreno certainly came out on top - she won a Tony Award, for her original stage performance as Googie, in 1975, and was the star turn of Richard Lester’s film version of McNally’s play, the following year.

The Ritz tells the story of Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston), hiding out from the Mafia at a gay bath house. The film crackled with McNally’s superb dialog, and the brilliant performances from Moreno and Weston, with the support of Treat Williams, F. Murray Abraham and Jerry Stiller.

In this interview, from December 1976, Miss Moreno and director, Mr. Lester discuss their roles in the making of this cult film, which certainly deserves to be rediscovered a great comedy classic.
 

 
With thanks to NellyM!
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Jerry Sadowitz as Jimmy Savile (NSFW)

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A shameless plug for Jerry Sadowitz’s new show at the Leicester Square Theater, London, December 2012.

Strange that after all these years that one of the funniest comedians in the world should receive some of the attention he rightly deserves, all because of a recording he made twenty-five years ago.

Thankfully Mr. Sadowitz (‘Comedian, Magician, Psychopath’) will be touring the UK in the New Year, so those who haven’t seen him can find out what they’ve been missing.

Meantime check Mr Sadowitz’s site for details.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Phil Silvers: A funny thing happened on the way to this interview

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I think every man goes through a phase when he thinks he’s as funny as Sergeant Bilko. Or Top Cat. Smart, funny, wise guy who nearly gets away with some scam. That’s why The Phil Silvers Show, and Top Cat will be immortal.

This is a brief interview with Phil (Sergeant Bilko) Silvers explaining why he was an Anglophile, his love of cricket and his talent for song-writing. Recorded when Silvers was starring in the British revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1974.

Bilko’s funny. Silvers not so much. But he’s still a legend.
 

 
With thanks to Nellym
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘The Theater is Bigger Than Life’: Dame Sybil Thorndike interviewed in 1969

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Actresses today don’t have half as much fun as we did, Dame Sybil Thorndike tells her interviewer in this short news report from 1969.

Dame Sybil was starring in There Was An Old Woman at the Thorndike Theater in Leatherhead, sixty-five years after she had first appeared as the Green Fairy in a production in Cambridge of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The reason Dame Sybil thought younger actresses were missing out on fun was because of television.

‘They have do television all the time, which is such a bore after the theater. Excuse me, but it is. After theater, to do television, which is that size compared to life. It’s tiny, much smaller than life. The theater’s bigger than life.’

Dame Sybil was a socialist, and an active member of the Labour Party. During the Second World War she was a pacifist, and raised money for the Peace Pledge Union by giving theatrical readings across the UK. Together with her husband, the actor Lewis Casson, she brought Shakespeare to workers’ groups and factories. George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan for her, and her performance in the title role is still considered the best. Thorndike also appeared in Major Barbara, MacBeth, Uncla Vanya and the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. She also famously worked with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic.
 

 
With thanks to Nellym.

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Rainer Werner Fassbinder died 30 years ago today

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When she found him in the early hours of the morning, it seemed as if he was sleeping. Lying on the bed, with an ink-marked script beside him, still dressed, his shoes carelessly kicked off, a television flickering in the corner. The room smelled of smoke and sweat, a table lamp, cigarettes, an overfilled ashtray. It seemed as if he’d fallen asleep as he worked on his latest screenplay Rosa L., a film about the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. He looked pale. An unlit cigarette drooped from his lips, a small trickle of blood glistened from one nostril. For 4 years, Juliane Lorenz had been his partner, she had seen him tired out like this before, falling asleep while working late at night, geed-up by cocaine and alcohol, but this time there was something different. Juliane listened. He was too quiet. When he slept he snored. But now, all she heard - the ticking clock, the television, the hush of traffic outside - was his silence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead.

It’s still hard to believe Fassbinder managed to do so much in his short thirty-seven years of life. That fact he was working on a script at the moment he died, says everything about his dedication to his art. In less than 15 years, Fassbinder made 40 feature films, 3 short films; 4 TV series, 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays. He also acted in 36 productions and worked scriptwriter, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.

Born into a middle class family, his father was a doctor who worked near Munich’s red light district. His mother helped with her husband, and neither had much time for their son. After their divorce, Fassbinder lived with his mother, who worked as a translator but was often absent, hospitalized with tuberculosis. Then, Fassbinder spent his time with neighbors, listening to their life stories or, going on his own to the cinema - he later claimed he saw a film a day during his childhood.

“The cinema was the family life I never had at home.”

His favorite films were melodramas, his favorite director Douglas Sirk, of whom Fassbinder said:

“The important thing to learn from Douglas Sirk’s movies is that on the screen you are allowed to, or better still, supposed to, enlarge people’s ordinary feelings—as small as they may be—as much as possible.”

Fassbinder started writing plays, and read about the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, who had over 1,800 plays attributed to him. This became the gold standard to which Fassbinder aimed his ambitions. At 18, he joined a theater group, and the first hint of his incredible talents and ambitions became apparent.

Within 2 months of joining the Action Theater group, he became its leader. This proved too much for other, older members, who led to the group’s disbandment. Fassbinder then created a new company and drew together a team, or family of actors - Peer Raben, Harry Baer, Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann - who were to work with him until his death.

His first movie was a “deconstruction of the gangster films”, called Love is Colder than Death, it caused considerable controversy at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969, where Fassbinder was jeered and denounced as a “dilletante” by members of the audience. Even so, it established his reputation as a talent to watch, and led on to his next film,  Katzelmacher, which was adapted from his stage play. It was the start of his movie career that saw such an unparalleled output. Everything in Fassbinder’s life went towards his film-making. He was often ruthless and allegedly pimped some of the theater group actresses to raise money for his films.

“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”

The turning point came in 1971 with the release of The Merchant of the Four Seasons, the tale of a merchant who is slowly destroyed by circumstances beyond his control. the story epitomized Fassbinder’s world view as tragedy. Life was battled out against insurmountable odds, at great cost to its players. Though his films were often described as “bleak”, I never found them less than engrossing, for the theme to all his films is love - the cost love has on us all.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Fassbinder made such unforgettable films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) (adapted form his play); World on a Wire (1973); his first major international success Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of love between an older woman and Moroccan immigrant, played by Fassbinder’s then lover El Hadi ben Salem; Effi Briest (1974); Fox and His Friends (1975); Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975); Despair, his first English film, with a script adapted by Tom Stoppard form the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978), Fassbinder’s bleakest and personal movie, made in response to the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier; The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), which became a breakthrough movie in America; Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a 13-hour TV series adapted form Alfred Döblin’s novel; Lili Marleen (1981), another big budget English movie; Veronika Voss (1982) which was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; and his last major feature, which progressed cinematic narrative in a new and original way, Querelle (1982), adapted form the novel by Jean Genet. Fassbinder had just finished editing Querelle when he died.

The official cause of his death was “an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills”. The cost of his lifestyle and his ambition took too great a toll. Before he died, his body had bloated from an excess of drink, food and drugs, and he once said, he became fat to make it harder to be loved. Fassbinder used his body, as he used chain-smoking, or his excessive drinking, as means to protect and distance himself from others. His sense of being unloved or, of being unworthy of love, stemmed from the parental indifference of his childhood. When he was older, he often treated his lovers and those closest to him badly, testing their loyalty and love for him. Emotionally, Fassbinder was childlike, as he always searched for that imagined lack, which would make him feel loved. It was this, Fassbinder’s own emotional biography that underscored his films.

Thirty years after his death, we can more fully appreciate the scale and quality of Fassbinder’s genius; and see the real beauty of the man who was Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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