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“Keep the Audience Awake!”: An Interview with Malcolm McDowell

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“Keep the Audience Awake!”: An Interview with Malcolm McDowell

My introduction to the screen work of Malcolm McDowell came on a Halloween night in the late 1970s, the year I decided I was too grown-up for the childish maneuvers of trick-or-treating, and instead went to the mall and slipped into Time After Time. Although I may not have realized it then, the soul of the picture lies in the lunch date between McDowell’s H.G. Wells, who has traveled from London to America in his time machine, and Amy Robbins, a modern-day career woman faultlessly played by Mary Steenburgen. 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).

Not to resort to Kael-like exaggeration, I can’t help but consider their exchange to be one of the most teasingly playful, emotionally satisfying comic romantic scenes that we have on film. It’s also beautiful for this reason: There isn’t anything else like it in the long line of McDowell’s career.

At age 63, he’s one of the few living links to a host of great British actors who are now gone: Gielgud, Olivier, James Mason, Alan Bates, Rachel Roberts. And while McDowell’s name is seemingly inseparable from Stanley Kubrick’s, it’s with the director Lindsay Anderson that McDowell forged a deeper, more lasting connection.

Anderson came to making movies by having first been a film critic. Several of his razor-sharp appraisals are gathered in Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, including “Stand Up! Stand Up!” the essay in which he chided critics who ignored the moral dimensions of the films they reviewed as “indulging in a voluntary self-emasculation.” To his fellow critics who objected to certain kinds of subject matter, Anderson lobbed this grenade: “There is another kind of philistinism, timorous rather than pugnacious, which shrinks from art because art presents a challenge. This can be an even more insidious enemy, because it often disguises itself with the apparatus of culture, professing the very values it is in the act of destroying.” (We are undoubtedly in a new era of timorous philistinism. Anderson’s diagnosis fits today’s alternative press like a glove.)

In tandem with the screenwriter David Sherwin, Anderson and McDowell made three of the most savagely free-wheeling films to emerge from British cinema, the so-called Mick Travis trilogy: If…. (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). The first two of these are not on DVD. The Palme d’Or-winning If…. was McDowell’s movie debut, and Anderson supplied him with an exquisite entrance: Cloaked in black from top to toe, McDowell’s Mick Travis scurries through the dorm rooms at Cheltenham College, only his eyes visible.

All three of the Travis films are eerily prescient in one way or another: In O Lucky Man!, two characters plunge to their deaths from a skyscraper, holding hands on the way down, an image that summons the future memory of 9/11. Britannia Hospital’s standoff between flower-bearing protestors and riot gear-clad police prefigures the WTO clash in Seattle by nearly 20 years, yet feels uncannily much the same.

In the ultraconservative early ’80s of Thatcher and Reagan, Britannia Hospital met with immense hostility from the English-speaking press (though the film was admired in France and Eastern Europe). This portrait of an insanely dysfunctional bureaucracy, in which arbitration trumps humanity every time, climaxes with a raid on the Millar Research Center. Earlier, we’ve been told that the doors are fitted with an electronic locking device and can withstand unlimited pressure. That’s merely prelude to Anderson’s terrifying, wide-angle image of the steel double doors coming down in slow motion, the angry, rainbow coalition of rioters stampeding silently as the voice of Dr. Millar (a superb Graham Crowden, who steals the show from co-star McDowell) continues off-screen. With Britannia Hospital, the director had reached a new, more visually sophisticated level of expression, such as the sense of mad rush he establishes by showing us the rioters in profile, bouncing up and down within the frame. Anderson, who died in 1994, would never again tackle anything this ambitious cinematically.

A couple of years ago you performed a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival, “Lindsay Anderson: A Personal Remembrance.“How did that go? Would you stage it again?

It was amazing! I had no idea how it was going to turn out. I was making a movie in Saint Andrews about the golfer Bobby Jones when somebody from the Festival came on the set and said, “It’s the 10th anniversary of Lindsay Anderson’s death next year. We want to do a retrospective—would you do something for us?” And rather sort of flippantly and stupidly, I said, “You know what, I’ll do a one-man show about him. He’s such an important person in my life and people don’t know enough about him.” So, I had a year to go; I never even gave it another thought. Then six months go by, I vaguely start making a few inquiries about getting some letters. Then, of course, a month to go, and I’m panicking, as I’ve got very little together, except my recollections. Luckily, I called the man up in Stirling University that has the archives—all Lindsay’s papers went there—and I was able to get copies of a lot of the letters that he sent me. I got the galleys of the diaries and I went through them. You know they were cut substantially, and I chose some things out of there. Not too many, because what I was really interested in was Lindsay’s critical writing, which is brilliant. There’s a piece called “Stand Up! Stand Up!—”

I read that.

—which was a rallying call for critics to take film seriously as an art form. It revolutionized critical thought in Britain. And in America. Judith Crist, Pauline Kael, every critic, all knew about this and had read it.

Just to say a little bit about “Stand Up! Stand Up!” this was published fifty years ago, in a 1956 issue of Sight & Sound. I read this piece last week and felt I was reading about the present state of criticism. It’s all come full circle.

Well, now, you know…Lindsay used to get so irritated by the critics because all they would do is copy out the synopsis basically. Very lazy, sloppy writing. It made him furious! I used this in the show and another marvelous essay about the last meeting that he had with John Ford in the desert, six weeks before Ford died, and it is one of the most beautifully moving pieces that Lindsay ever wrote.

Is the one-man show something you’d perform in the States?

I may do it. It’s exhausting, to be honest with you. But it’s very stimulating, too. I don’t learn it, because it’s an improv, but it’s an improv that changes all the time. I have a road map of Lindsay’s writing, and of David Sherwin’s, of everyone connected with that period. For instance, I tell the whole story of how I got the part in If…., then I say that’s from my point of view—now here’s what David Sherwin, the writer, put in his diary from that time. It’s an amazing juxtaposition: a Rashomon, if you like.

One of my favorite scenes in If…. is when you and Christine Noonan are on the café floor, and there’s a sublime cut from the two of you clothed to the two of you naked, in exactly the same position, while on the soundtrack the percussion from the African Missa Luba gradually builds up. Looking at (and listening to) Lindsay’s work, did it ever inspire you to want to direct films of your own?

Not enough. I think I’ve got enough on my plate being an actor, but of course it did absolutely change—or form—the way I approach a part. I’ll always go back to what I learned from him. And what I’ve learned from him is that…naturalism is sort of boring. If you can heighten the stuff, and make it more about the world rather than about the “mini.” He used to call it “the mini and the epic.” He’d shout out, ’Mini, Malcolm! Mini!”

What did he want you to do when he said that? Appear to be doing less?

No, not less. Not realistic, but real. He’d tell me that I was a Brechtian actor. I said, “Lindsay, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about!”

Did he explain?

There are times when you know you’re acting, but the audience believes you anyway. And he said, “Very few people can do that.”

There’s a scene in Britannia Hospital I wanted to ask you about. It comes early on when the kitchen staff refuses to prepare breakfast for the patients, and they’re also refusing to allow a caterer’s truck to unload gourmet lunches that are being brought in for a visit from the Queen Mother. Throughout this, the unionized workers are braying, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” way off-key. With whom are Lindsay Anderson’s sympathies? Because he doesn’t intend us, I don’t imagine, to identify with the Tories, but the Cockneys on strike are too repellent to root for.

He hates them all, that’s the truth. He took a real swipe at the medical profession, because he blamed them for killing his mother. The national health system in England was horrendous: Two years’ waiting list for an operation and all that.

What do you think that Lindsay and David Sherwin were getting at in having a mad scientist be the one who unites all the divisive factions at the end? The rioters, the union workers, the Queen Mum and her entourage, the hospital administrators: they all come together and listen to him. A lot of what Dr. Millar is saying at that presentation makes perfect sense: “What does man choose? Alone among the creatures of the world, the human race chooses to annihilate itself…We give power to leaders…who squander our resources on instruments of destruction while millions continue to suffer…”

That’s very perceptive writing. I don’t know where Sherwin cribbed it from; he probably stole it from something. But it’s used in a satirical way that makes it poignant. The professor’s come up with Genesis, his model for a new, higher form of intelligence, and it repeats these lines from Hamlet into infinity. It’s so perfect an ending, I was screaming with delight when I saw it. We won’t see the likes of Lindsay Anderson again. He was a great teacher. David Sherwin and I miss him; we think about him every day at some point. He certainly had his share of faults. David Storey said that Lindsay was the only person he ever knew who had more enemies than friends. He used to write to critics and tell them off. Then they would get upset because the artistry of the writer is under attack. “Don’t write to them,” I’d tell him. “They’re gonna attack me the next time I come out with something, if they think I’m aligned to you!”

The film of yours that I most wanted to see, but couldn’t locate, was the made-for-television staging of Harold Pinter’s The Collection.

It’s hard to get.

So I did the next best thing—I read the play. In it, you and Laurence Olivier are playing a couple, and your relationship intersects with another couple, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren. The work seemed to me to be about two domineering personalities—the Olivier and Bates characters—lording their power over two more delicate souls, you and Mirren.

Well, it is about control and menace and the enigmatic things that go on in that atmosphere: very much Pinter at his best. Olivier was magnificent. He was back from a serious illness for the first time, and he was determined. It was difficult for him to learn lines but he did get there eventually. He has to make a long speech near the end, the “slum slug” speech in which he berates me, and he’s the only actor I’ve ever worked with who made the hair on my neck stand straight up. We all had such a great deal of reverence for him; he was more than a legend to us.

Was he intimidating to act opposite?

He was more intimidated by me, and by Alan and Helen—the young ones coming up. He wasn’t too thrilled about that. I thought if he could smell intimidation, he’d go for the jugular. But to me, he was adorable. I know he could be a very difficult man, a person of great contradictions. When he was on though, no other actor could hold a candle to Olivier. You were either a disciple of John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, and I was Gielgud’s, because I knew John and had worked with him before. He was such a refined gentleman and a hoot! He could always put his foot in it and find his way out somehow. What I admire about Gielgud is that he changed his style of acting over the course of his career. Stage actors in England between the wars were snooty about film. They thought you don’t have real actors in the cinema and that sort of crap. And John’s early film appearances were too theatrical, and he learned from this. By the time he made Charge of the Light Brigade in the late ’60s—a sensational performance—he’d got it. He knew how to act on film then.

Olivier has been quoted as saying, of The Collection, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in any job before.” When you consider the range of his work, that’s quite a statement. Why do you think that playing Harry Kane was so powerful for Olivier?

It’s a great role for him. Harry’s a repressed, in-the-closet homosexual who’s keeping this boy around. Bill, the character I played, is an opportunist who’ll do anything to get anywhere. The whole point of Harry is that he’s living the life of a London toff, one of those Englishmen who you’re never quite sure what they are. On our first read-through of the script, Olivier played it as if he was swinging a handbag in high heels. Pinter was fuming, and our very young, very good director, Michael Apted, didn’t know how to approach toning down “Sir.” Olivier would start with wide brush strokes, then chip away, whereas we, the moderns, worked exactly the inverse. Helen, Alan, and I started very simple and added on and on as we found the performance. I don’t know why he felt the way he did about the part; I’d never heard that quote until now.

Whom do you consider to be the brilliant performers of today?

I’m dying to see Helen in The Queen. She’s always been fantastic, and if given my choice of leading lady, I’d always want Helen Mirren first. You know she played that spunky detective on TV, which I think surprised a lot of people. Her film career took off when she was in her fifties, and she can do anything she wants.

What about films, say of the last 10 years or so? And is there anything coming out of Britain these days that you especially like? I know you’ve gone on record as not thinking too highly of Notting Hill.

For American films, I’d say Fargo. I’ve seen it 20-odd times, and I could watch it 20 more. Goodfellas, I love. Notting Hill was too sentimental, although Julia Roberts is up there, for me, with Kate Hepburn. Who directed that?

Roger Michell. Have you seen any of his subsequent work? He’s made some films that are vastly more substantial, specifically The Mother and Enduring Love.

He’s in-ter-est-ing, but if you’re talking about great directors, there’s Stephen Frears. He’s the one English director who, when he has a new film, you must see it.

So, does your affection for Fargo mean you’d like to work for the Coens?

In a heartbeat. I’m not expecting a call anytime soon, but I’d jump at the chance to film anything with them.

Do young writers ever bring their screenplays to you, saying I wrote this part with you in mind?

Yes, but it’s too much responsibility. Because I’d have to say, “Why, that’s very sweet of you, but it’s awful.” I always tell them, “Don’t write it for me—just write it!” I do like to work with young filmmakers, though, particularly Paul McGuigan, who directed Gangster No. 1.

When Arliss Howard was one of the guests last year at the Port Townsend Film Festival, he spoke a little bit about working with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. He mentioned that after the long shoot, with all its multiple takes, Kubrick told him, “You’re gonna miss me. You’ll have directors who’ll say, ’We got it,’ and you know they didn’t.” Does that, in any way, sound like the Kubrick you knew?

No, not really. Stanley went a little nuts, I think. He didn’t start the 1500 takes until The Shining. [pause] I could see him saying it, actually. He and I had a complex relationship; he was the antithesis of Lindsay Anderson. A Jewish boy from the Bronx, Stanley was savvy in a street way whereas Lindsay, who was an Oxonian, trained in Greek and Latin, wasn’t. They were polar opposites and yet very great artists. What I consider great about Stanley is that he was fluid enough to go with whatever was on the set. He went with the humor that I brought to A Clockwork Orange. Dr. Strangelove was also written straight—it was originally meant to be a scary tale—until Peter Sellers got a hold of it; he made it a comedy and better than what was on the page.

From what I gather, you’re pretty good at persuading directors to incorporate your input.

When they hire you, they expect you to come with your expertise. That’s what they’re buying. I’m there to realize someone else’s dreams, not to impose what I want.

I know that you and Robert Altman had known each other for a while, but I was wondering how you came to play the Gerald Arpino role in The Company. I ask because you don’t seem all that Italian-American to me.

No. Who does? That’s the great thing about America. You could say you’re from Cuba. Not all Italians are dark and olive-skinned. The northern Italians are blonds. There was an explanatory scene where we talked about where my character was from, but it was stupid and unnecessary. This is America—anything goes. I trailed Gerald Arpino around the Joffrey Ballet studios for a few weeks. He is very Italian, but Bob didn’t want me to mimic him.

I think you most come across as the director of a dance company at the dinner party after the outdoor performance. Someone comes up to your table to talk business, and you set him straight on “the protocol,” and he’s hardly turned around when you announce to the others, “People are so bloody rude!”

That was all ad-libbed. Still, I felt that Arpino would have said that. When he says those things, the people around him leap—the dancers, everybody. They revere him. Little Neve Campbell, she’s an amazing kid to have gotten that film together. The Company isn’t Robert Altman with a full orchestra; it’s a slice of life, an insight into how these people live. Who knew what dancers go through to create such beauty on stage? Well, now you know.

To go back to Kubrick for a minute, what did you think of Eyes Wide Shut? You once said that Lolita and A Clockwork Orange were the only emotional films that he made, and Eyes has always seemed to me to be sensuously emotional.

It isn’t my favorite Kubrick film; I’ll just put it that way. I understand why he wanted to do it. He should have done it before A Clockwork Orange. It was past its “sell by” date in 1999.

I’ve noticed that in interviews no one ever asks you about Martin Ritt or Blake Edwards, so I thought I would.

They’re giants, and I love Marty Ritt! He was a gambler, a great old-Hollywood guy. When he asked me to play Maxwell Perkins in Cross Creek, I played him as Marty Ritt. I don’t think anybody knew that at the time. I had no idea what Perkins was like, but Marty to me was a perfect example of a good, strong American. Mary [Steenburgen] loved him, too. As for Blake Edwards, he’s the most inventive comedy director I ever worked with. Very underrated. People talk about Woody Allen, but Blake is up there.

The Chaplinesque hobo routine of yours near the end of Sunset is, I think, the highlight of the movie. The role you’re playing, Alfie Alperin, is another sadistic killer, but for those few moments, you’re wearing the tramp outfit, with the fake little black mustache, and it’s such a sweet bit of acrobatic slapstick.

That came about because, like Chaplin, Alfie was a vaudevillian who came to America, and because Lindsay and I had just done a revival of Holiday at the Old Vic, in which I had to learn how to do a cartwheel. Only about 200 people saw it. Blake Edwards was open to suggestions, so I thought, why let this cartwheel go to waste? His idea was that I turn it after I threaten my wife’s life, as I’m picking up a jacket off the floor. Genius! 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.

I wished the entire film had been about the hobo character. When you finish, everyone’s applauding, and he says, “Thank you, ladies and gentleman, thank you for remembering.” I felt that the violence in the picture doesn’t ring true, but the clown’s eagerness to please an audience does.

Don’t forget, he’s a performer. He’s not gonna be a nice person necessarily. When he’s on, he’s dazzling.

Was Caligula the only time that you and Peter O’Toole worked together?

Yes. He’s a one-off. I have a lot of memories of him. I remember when as a young man, I had a small part in a production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the cast was invited to Hampstead to a party in someone’s mansion. In through the door walked a god. He had fake blond hair and looked like he had left his motorcycle in the desert. Peter was frighteningly sophisticated—he smoked with a long cigarette holder—and we were sort of rough and unpolished. I admire him because he always went back to the theatre. I remember the first time he staged a play called Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and how he played the same role so well 12 or 15 years later. We have a good giggle about the work in Caligula.

About the [1987] production of Philip Barry’s Holiday that you mentioned, the play strikes me as an unusual choice for Lindsay and for you. How did your conception differ from the Cukor movie?

I hadn’t seen the film since I was a child, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be compared to Cary Grant; nobody can be compared to him. It was a charming production, old-fashioned, but something Lindsay felt was worthy of revival. Mary played Katie Hepburn. It isn’t a sentimental play: there’s darkness to it. I was a bit too old for the role; hence Lindsay has me doing this cartwheel. That was his way of showing “whoopee.” However, the rake on stage was at such a high angle, my back went out every time, and I had to see a chiropractor three or four sessions a week.

David Sherwin adapted his memoir, Going Mad in Hollywood, about his creative battles with Lindsay, as a possible film for you some time ago, but it’s been over 20 years now since he’s had a screenplay produced. Is there any chance we’ll see Sherwin’s work on-screen again?

I don’t really know, but I hope so. He and I’ve been friends since 1968; he’s responsible for my career. Neither he nor Lindsay could have done those films without the other. We all knew what our place was in the making of O Lucky Man! and If…., and David’s place was to be kicked around and abused by Lindsay. I would receive postcards that said, ““Screenwriter drunk on floor. Have to cancel the film. Love, L.”

Oh, I’ve heard some of those; Gavin Lambert makes good use of them in his book on Lindsay. What about the DVD release of O Lucky Man!?

Warner Brothers has pushed it back to 2008. Jan Harlan’s already made a documentary about me that’s supposed to go with it.

Which is O Lucky Malcolm! I wondered if that was meant to be just a DVD extra or will it get a theatrical release first.

It showed at the Traverse City Film Festival, and it’s to go on all three of the films I did for Warner Brothers, the other one being Time After Time. Warners wants to put it on Clockwork Orange first, like that needs any help. I thought that cow had been milked dry.

Wasn’t there some pre-production work done on Going Mad in Hollywood? What happened with that?

Michael Winterbottom was set to direct, with me playing Lindsay and Paul Bettany as David Sherwin, but the script wasn’t good. And if I’m going to play Lindsay Anderson, it had better be a script that does him justice.

Earlier we mentioned some of Lindsay’s work as a film critic. In 1984, in the Chicago Tribune, he reviewed Pauline Kael’s Taking It All In, and I was wondering to what extent you agree with his assessment. He found Kael: “…boring, but not because her tone is spiritless or flat, but because there is just enough spark, perception, and paradox in her writing to provide the illusion of originality, of nourishment, but not enough to disguise the fact what she’s dishing up is intellectual junk food.”

It’s a brilliant way of describing her. The perception of her was that she was a wondrous magician who comes up with lines that will stick—what did she say about Brando? But they’re just lines. Last Tango was such a crock, basically a pretentious mess. At the end of the day, though, we were lucky to have Pauline Kael. She livened it up; the rest are bloody boring. She wasn’t right much of the time, but she was fun to read. And John Simon—thank God for John Simon! He might attack you, he might be vitriolic, but he’s very entertaining to read and spot-on. Often I find myself agreeing with him. He’s a fun guy to have dinner with, too.

Before we go, I wanted to ask you about one of your bad movies, The Passage.

I used to call that The Back-Passage.

I saw it when I was 12 years old.

Oh my God!

And I’ve never forgotten it.


I think because it was the most outré thing I had seen up to that time. The movie’s ostensibly about World War II, but the brutality is upsetting in ways that Clockwork isn’t. Anyhow, there’s a section in Lindsay’s diaries where he writes that J. Lee Thompson, who directed The Passage, took up your every suggestion.

Oh, I adored J. Lee Thompson! It was such a bad script, so boring, I decided to do the whole of the Nazi regime in one character. To do it like something out of Joe Orton. I had just done the play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and so I gave this Ortonesque performance completely out of context with the rest of the film! I got some of the worst reviews of my entire career. And some of the best! We stayed in an old farmhouse in France, in the Pyrenees, while we were making it, and the great thing about that was six weeks of James Mason as a dining companion every night. He used to ask me things like, “Are you in the same film with the rest of us?” The producers were so grateful, though; that was the first time I was ever paid any back-end on a picture.

Whose idea was the swastika embroidered on the Nazi colonel’s jockstrap?

[with a smile that just beams] That was, of course, mine. I’ll tell you how it came about. The girl—Kay Lenz—I was supposed to be raping—this was the first scene we shot on the first day—she wouldn’t show her nipples. She’s in the shower, and I kept telling her that she wouldn’t be wearing pasties or a bikini in the shower. When you read the script, you knew that nudity would be involved, that I’m getting at her to humiliate her father. Six days of fricking around on the set waiting for her to take her clothes off. So I went to the costume designer and we planned this without telling anybody. I figured we’d do it to amuse J. Lee. When we were filming the scene, and I took my pants down, the camera operator—a hand-held—just fell back onto the bed, and J. Lee squealed, “Hitler’s driver had swastika underwear, and that’s how I want you play the part!” Christopher Lee, who was a gypsy in the film, thought it was disgusting. He went around telling everyone what poor taste it was in, but I’m very proud of it. I said fuck it and went for it! Bottom line, I’m an entertainer. I’m the one who’s got to keep the audience awake!