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5 for the Day: Terence Stamp

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5 for the Day: Terence Stamp

“What do you feel about your penis?” asks Terence Stamp, in his almost comically deep baritone voice, as a “sex therapist who operates on the edge of the law” in Bliss (1997). Not the easiest line of dialogue to utter with a straight face, and it must be said that Stamp and the whole film itself risks absurdity at every turn. Yet as he counsels Craig Sheffer, who has hit a sexual roadblock in his marriage to Sheryl Lee, Stamp has the cheeky confidence and the aplomb, not to mention the weathered erotic magnetism, to make Bliss into a surprisingly serious investigation into what it takes to create physical intimacy between two people. He has always been drawn to arty sex films, from a Laura Antonelli vehicle (The Divine Nymph {1975}) to Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which brazenly presents Stamp As Sex Object, the camera worshiping his compact body and small, round, exquisitely formed face, with its killer blue eyes flashing out over his largish nose and tiny, rosebud mouth. Repeated close-ups of Stamp’s crotch in Teorema basically bring about the total destruction of the bourgeoisie; politically, sexually and spiritually, Stamp is an icon of the most idealistic side of the sixties, a Gerard Philipe who’s willing to get naked, an amused and amusing narcissist who has cultivated a come-hither yet chilly mystique.

That mystique has had to endure many bad movies, alas. After his sixties heyday, it was an unhappy thing to see Stamp turning up in films as dreadful as Link (1986) and The Real McCoy (1993), not to mention even worse recent credits like My Boss’s Daughter (2003), where he is a figure of fun confronting jackass Ashton Kutcher. Actors can only do their best with what they are offered, of course, but Stamp seems as upset with these crass films as we are watching him in them. In his best work, he can be touching, gruesome, self-pitying, repellent, sensitive and inviting, and he is as vivid and tantalizing a camera subject as one of his 60s girlfriends, Julie Christie (they were teamed for an adaptation of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd {1967}, and their combined amatory presence nearly burned the screen to shreds, especially when he daintily undressed her with a phallic sword). It’s high time that someone rescued Stamp from the drek of his recent work; until then, let this serve as a reminder of his uncanny on-screen charisma.

1. Billy Budd (1962): For his film debut, Stamp was given the practically unplayable role of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, a seafaring angel who comes up against the protective sadomasochism of his ship’s master, Claggart (Robert Ryan). Stamp is perfect for the part because he is aware of his own beauty in an un-self-conscious way; Julie Christie has always seemed slightly embarrassed by her looks, but Stamp relishes his own attractiveness in a manner that should be a turn-off, but never is, mainly because he’s so mysteriously self-possessed. There’s no insecurity in his knowledge of his good looks, no need to showily display them or be ashamed of them; he has the ease that Ingrid Bergman shows when she’s told she’s beautiful in Saratoga Trunk (1945), and blithely replies, “Yes, isn’t it lucky?” Stamp’s looks give him confidence and a kind of serenity that matches the almost non-human innocence of Billy, who’s so overtly beguiling and lovable that you can see why he so unnerves Claggart. Billy is Melville’s homoerotic fantasy figure as well as a saint, and Stamp brings him to life with easy warmth, an open mind and face, and just the right touch of ambiguous slyness.

2. The Collector (1965): In a startling reversal of type, Stamp transforms himself into a homely, fastidious, deadly and deadened collector of butterflies in William Wyler’s grueling adaptation of John Fowles’ novel. As a former clerk and lottery winner who kidnaps art student Samantha Eggar and keeps her a prisoner in his cellar, Stamp dresses like a young director of a funeral home, and his mannerisms combine Boris Karloff’s stately menace with James Dean’s grotesque gesticulations; working class Stamp emphasizes this madman’s class envy as the source of his psychosis and he never introduces any kind of charm or seductiveness into his portrayal of a boy so warped and repressed that he cannot deal, finally, with another human being or with anything living. Eggar has said that Wyler and Stamp treated her just as badly on the set as they do in the film, and her character is not very clever, which makes her plight increasingly sad and then maddening; it’s a drag of a movie, but the ending is resolutely, even daringly grim, and Stamp has successfully shattered any thoughts that he’s just a swinging London fashion plate. This film, coming so soon after Billy Budd, made us see that Stamp was an actor who could play anything. Unfortunately, after a few more varied sixties movies, he went into a monastic retreat through most of the seventies, and when he returned, he had to take what he could get.

3. Superman II (1981): For my generation, Stamp is mainly known, and cherished, for his outrageous performance as General Zod in this sequel to the first Superman (1978) film. Both Superman movies were to be directed by Richard Donner, but he was taken off the second one and replaced by Richard Lester, who added a lot of slapstick and also deepened the love story between Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). The recent DVD release of Donner’s awful “director’s cut” of this sequel shows how much Lester had to do with the wonderfully shameless style of Stamp’s performance; his plummy line readings have reached an immortal status in certain circles (and they have even inspired a website, GeneralZod.net). Anyone who saw this film as a child will be able to supply the correct cadences for the lines quoted below, and if you can, I’d encourage you to read them out loud in Stamp’s lordly General Zod voice:

1. “So this is planet Houston ... a very strange surface.”

2. “These humans are beginning to bore me….”

3. “I win! I always ... win….”

4. “Come to me, son of Jor-El! KNEEL before Zod!”

5. “I’ll draw his fire ... with some of my own.” (This is the only line that makes Stamp look like he’s about to crack up laughing, right in the middle of it).

6. “Come! The three of us will crush the son of our jailer!”

7. “Now ... the son of Jor-El will be my slave ... for-evah!”

8. “Lex Luthor ... ruler of Australia! Activate-the-machine.”

With slicked back black hair, a goatee and red-rimmed eyes, Stamp is almost unrecognizable at first (he has always been able to do different things with his looks, to suggest other faces and attitudes). This is not really a defensible movie, per se, even if it is a childhood favorite for many; the script doesn’t make sense most of the time, and Lester’s comic interpolations can seem mistimed. But I would always defend Stamp’s performance as the General; he makes the comic book villain into an endearingly vain aesthete, subtly preening when he first sees himself on television, putting down the “style” of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and fearful most of all of boredom.

4. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): In the middle of this frivolous bit of Australian camp, Stamp does another full-scale transformation of himself and his looks. As Bernadette, a transsexual den mother and once-famed drag queen, Stamp effortlessly makes his still-pretty little face feminine, but he keeps his low voice as butch as possible, so that the contrast between female and male, between Stamp and his role, gives the whole film a sort of creative tension. The performance is exciting because a lot of Stamp’s distinctiveness always revolved around his mix of girl and boy, of femininity and masculinity, and he turns his own natural hauteur into a convincing kind of old queen dignity. Bernadette, with her Veronica Lake hairdo and cautious walk, is more of an old-fashioned Floradora girl than a disco creature, so it feels right that Stamp should be slightly awkward with the lip-synching and dance numbers set to 70s pop. Outclassing his material, as he always does in his latter-day work, Stamp is a serious presence in a silly movie.

5. The Limey (1999): Steven Soderbergh’s fetching, if shallow, blend of Stamp’s past and present features footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) to stand in for the youth of Stamp’s Wilson, a career criminal in search of his daughter’s killer. A lone wolf who often speaks in Cockney rhyming slang, Wilson is seen in fragments, lost in thought on a plane, and Stamp gives himself over to close-up contemplation with the sort of intense concentration that he must have learned in his years of religious seeking in the early seventies. His hair might have gone white and sparse and his face might have lines not visible in the Poor Cow footage, but Stamp’s eyes have remained the same: challenging, angry, witty, above-it-all. In the years since this outright Stamp tribute, he has had nothing suitable to work with, and his eyes get cloudier and more withdrawn. I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it bears repeating: put Stamp and Julie Christie back together on screen. Let those blue eyes open up for her, let him smile and stroke her hair and then let them look into a mirror and both smile, at themselves and at us, with all her misgivings and all his completely justified vanity.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.