In Sheridan Morley’s biography of James Mason, practically all of his co-stars described him as a quietly unhappy man, restless, ill at ease, indecisive, a skittish pacifist, and a classic loner. He could be driven to physical violence if provoked, and this aggressive streak was mined in the trashy Gainsborough costume films that first made him a star in Britain in the forties, where he played brutes who gave raven-haired Margaret Lockwood “a good thrashing.” To quote Shaw’s Henry Higgins, Mason had thick lips to kiss you with and thick boots to kick you with, and he could have relaxed into easy stardom in this mode, but he was ambitious for more meaningful work than he could find in the impoverished British cinema. He went to Hollywood in the late forties; always too opinionated for his own good, Mason never quite established himself as a star player, but he managed to make a large and varied impact on some of the finest films of his time. He generally brought a kind of heightened immediacy and intensity to his scenes, letting off flares of irritation, bitchery, anguish and menace that worked best in short-ish takes, so that unlike many actors of his country and generation he was not a man of the theater but totally a man of the cinema.
Possessed of no little intelligence, Mason had a taste for adventurous work and made a long career filled with unusual nooks and crannies, moving from vital trash to high art and playing both for all they were worth. He helped Max Ophüls make two of his American movies, Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), and he infused both of them with great poetic feeling and tenderness. Mason was capable of a fine Brutus in a film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953) and also alert to the fiendish intricacy of Harold Pinter in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), where he lets loose with one unforgettable explosion of vile ill-temper. His persistent note of self-criticism led to a superb Trigorin in Sidney Lumet’s version of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull (1968), where he solves the difficult seduction scene with Nina (Vanessa Redgrave) by choosing to play it on a wave of total sincerity. And Mason cinched his role as auteurist hero when he bought Buster Keaton’s old house in Hollywood and subsequently found and saved many of the Great Stone Face’s films.
He was not infallible; challenged to play a much older man in A Place of One’s Own (1945), he turns very fussy and false, and he shouts and grimaces his way through another Lumet movie, the deadly A Deadly Affair (1966). Nor was he comfortable in the exuberantly awful Georgy Girl (1966), a film of total Mod incoherence that nonetheless proved a big, inexplicable hit. In his twilight years, Mason was forced to take what he could get to pay for an expensive divorce from his first wife Pamela, and he would turn up in just about any type of ’70s movie, growl his way through a scene or two and then disappear. He had two final hurrahs, however, first with Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), where he thoroughly enjoyed playing an unscrupulous master defense attorney, and The Shooting Party (1984), where he matched his gruff Yorkshire vowels against the smooth cello tones of John Gielgud, taking tremendous pauses before spitting out another cascade of contemptuous words. With his beefy head and saturnine manner, Mason was most himself on screen when he was spewing disgust, and a lot of the best cinema of the twentieth century is unthinkable without his bemused, often tormented discrimination.
1. Odd Man Out (1947): In Carol Reed’s beautifully designed portrait of a wounded IRA man moving toward death, Mason brings you so close to his character’s physical and emotional suffering that it seems as if you could actually touch the raw feelings that keep oozing out of him. His famous voice here has a kind of orgasmic, purring breathlessness; it’s one of the sexiest of all movie voices, like Ronald Colman pumped full of testosterone, but he can also make this inviting voice express the terror of a soul and a body in agony. Mason holds our attention throughout with a minimum of dialogue, but he’s literally transfixing when he starts to quote from the Bible, rising up on a cloudburst of emotion and then sinking back down again, drool falling out of his dying mouth. The role is an actor’s dream, basically one long death scene, and you can see why this was Mason’s favorite movie, even if he made better films after he left England.
2. A Star Is Born (1954): Meant as a comeback for Judy Garland, this George Cukor psychodrama would collapse, as would Judy, without the unflagging, sensitive support Mason brings to the whole exhausting enterprise. As Norman Maine, a film star who plays Svengali for Garland and then hits the skids, Mason makes this man into an understandable monster, but a monster all the same, a brat always grabbing for his favorite toys, booze and easy women. “I destroy everything I touch,” he says, quite believably, but he can’t stop himself from marrying Garland’s singer, who becomes a big star while he slides into oblivion. Mason said that he felt “a sort of love” for Garland, and that comes across in all their interactions together, so that the film’s excesses always have an emotional basis in truth. Lying in bed at the end, when Mason has to give in to despair, he throws his whole head back and his jaw clenches; this kind of choking back of tears is common in life, but you rarely see actors do it, maybe because it’s so visually ugly. Mason has no such qualms; he’s signed up for the full-throttle Garland/Cukor experience, and he goes all-out for them, giving up nearly every bit of his own personal stock of sadness.
3. Bigger Than Life (1956): Mason actually produced this great Nicholas Ray movie, a messy, extremely upsetting dispatch from the front lines of fifties Conformist Hell. This is a complex film that can lend itself to many different interpretations, and it’s spearheaded by Mason’s scarifying turn as a Dr. Jekyll schoolteacher who turns into a nearly Hitlerian Mr. Hyde when under the influence of cortisone, a supposed miracle drug. His Ed Avery feels like a failure but has learned to bury these feelings; when the drug brings them to the surface and even starts to magnify and distort them, Mason throws his whole body into this man’s elating sense of power and superiority, only occasionally letting us see a sidelong glance that lets us know that the original Ed is still alive in there somewhere, sheepishly holding the reins as his alter ego gallops through some textbook megalomania. Nothing speaks more for the fineness of Mason’s performance than his reading of the classic line, “God was wrong!” Another actor might have thundered out this blasphemy to impress us, whereas the subtle Mason reads it simply and seriously, as if he’s just discovered a fairly easy solution to a problem. This is a performance of Greek tragedian dimensions; it’s Mason’s biggest and probably his best.
4. North by Northwest (1959): A bit hurt that he wasn’t considered for the lead, Mason stalwartly sets about creating one of the all-time best Hitchcock villains, a smooth, amusing man with a devoted gay male secretary (Martin Landau) who matches wits and weird vocal emphases with hero Cary Grant. In only a handful of scenes, Mason more than holds up his end of the film’s romantic triangle, especially in the auction scene where Grant gets under his skin about the fidelity of his girlfriend, Eva Marie Saint. When he punches Landau, Mason makes sure that we see that this superman agent has badly hurt his hand; he always emphasizes and even gloats over physical and emotional pain and weakness.
5. Lolita (1962): Up against the hurricane force of enjoyable but self-indulgent performances from Peter Sellers and Shelley Winters, Mason’s Humbert Humbert is a bastion of smart underplaying amid the general uncertainty of Stanley Kubrick’s distended version of Nabokov’s ode to America and its Coke-guzzling nymphets. When he first sees Sue Lyon’s Lolita (who seems a lot older than the twelve year-old she is in the novel), Mason looks stricken with the grandest of romantic loves. In the many long scenes he shares with Lyon, Mason helps her maintain a steady kind of chatty naturalism, all the while diving as deep as possible into his character’s unseemly obsession with her nubile youth. He takes us on a long tour of the ugliness of Humbert’s passion, finally landing at a point of purification that brings him to a Greek kind of pity and terror, an elevated mode that Mason always reached for in all of his very best work.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.