Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Big Three...

Above, Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier and John Geilgud in their only film appearance together, WAGNER, starring Richard Burton.

I am fascinated with the great stage actors of the twentieth century.  Relics of a golden time.  I'm speaking mostly of the Brits.  Olivier, Geilgud, Richardson, Guinness, Redgrave, even Burton and O'Toole.  There are a few that are even now still around, Finney, Scofield, Courtney and of course, Hopkins.  I'd give anything to hang out with Sir Anthony all day and hear his stories.  Although from what I understand, Sir Anthony is completely bored with such talk.

Angie actually had the great pleasure, back in her casting associate days, of spending an entire day with Sir Anthony Hopkins.  She says he was the absolute picture of perfect British charm and politeness.  To this day I think she has a bit of a crush on Sir Anthony.

I have read everything I can get my hands on over the years with regards to these guys.  An era that will never come again.

Olivier, of course, was the top of the food chain.  Back in the day, my good buddy Jim Barbour, was an Olivier freak.  Loved him.  When we first met, many years ago, we would have endless, sophomoric conversations about the various pros and cons of the two great forces of twentieth century acting - Olivier and Brando.  In fact, we were doing a play together when news reached us of Olivier's death.  Jim was dumbstruck.  Just devastated.   Years later, I was down in Florida doing a play, when news of Brando's death reached me.  I immediately contacted Jim.  Our respective idols were now dead.

Ah, to be working in the theatre in those days...the 1920's through about 1965.  Back when stage was still considered to be the lion's den of performance and film still regarded as an easy but profitable way to make some money so one could return to the stage to do the real work.  When the great roles of Shakespeare were  considered the litmus test for any actor looking to be regarded among the greats.  Back when people spoke of an actor's Hamlet or his Lear or his Cassus or his Iago or his Romeo.  Doing a compare and contrast study of their work.

Along with Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellan is still around to carry this mantle, this royal pedigree handed from one actor to the next.  Finney and O'Toole are still around, too, but both are in ill-health now.

The stories are boundless.  Olivier and Geilgud swiching roles in the famous 1933 Romeo and Juliet...One night one would play Romeo, the next Mercutio.  They didn't really care for one another, Olivier and Geilgud, by all accounts.  Geilgud was of a refined and rigid school of thought concerning performing Shakespeare.  Olivier, on the other hand, was hell-bent on making The Bard accessible to everyone, speaking the text so as to make it universally understandable.  Geilgud was the poet, Olivier, the plumber.  And then there was the third member of 'the big three,' Sir Ralph Richardson, possibly the most inherently fascinating of them all.  He served as both Olivier's and Geilgud's best friend, and yet, according to many, was the one they both admired the most.  One can see his famed quirkiness in a few films...The Wrong Box, Richard III, the television mini-series, Wagner, in which Richard Burton played the composer and was the only time all three, Oliver, Geilgud and Richardson appeared together onscreen.  In private they called each other 'Larry, Johnny and Ralphy.'

In this blog, over the past 150 entries or so, I've recounted many of the stories of those days.  Oh, to have seen any one of them onstage.  I know people that know them.  Two degrees of separation, as it were.  I have worked with actors that have worked with them.  That, in itself, endlessly fascinates me.

Back when I was a very young actor, I worked with a guy, then in his seventies, that had done some eight or nine plays with Geilgud.  Sitting and chatting with him was sheer delight for me.  He told wonderful stories of being directed by the great Geilgud.  How he would tell his actors upon the first day of blocking, "Don't bother to write anything down for a couple of weeks because I shan't be using any of the blocking I'm giving you today."  How another time he stopped rehearsal for a full hour to swap gardening tips.  How he would, on occasion, rise to his feet and do long passages of Shakespeare from memory just to give the actors an idea of what he wanted.

I worked with another actor in NY years ago that had done a couple of plays with Olivier when he was running The National.  How Olivier would sometimes be directing a show and suddenly leap onstage and simply say, "Do it this way."  And then proceed to do exactly what he wanted the actor to do.  Heresy in this day and age.

Back in the old days in NY there used to be a huge, Equity lounge area in the old AEA office.  I once sat and talked to an old actor there for hours about working with Burton in Hamlet in 1963.  How Burton would sort of shuffle through the rehearsal every day and then suddenly and without warning do the role full-out for a few minutes and leave everyone in the room aghast at his fiery and intense talent and then just as suddenly go back to his apparent disinterest in the role.

I worked with an old-timer once in, of all places, Dallas, who had done Lear with Richardson and how when Sir Ralph did the death scene one day in rehearsal and said the last lines of the part, "Pray, undo this button," he let out a girlish chirp, like "a small bird had died" and then simply looked heavenward and closed his eyes.  The effect, this actor told me, was as "close to actual magic as I'd ever been."

We can still see some of the great performances on film.  Not exactly the same, but enough to give us an idea of what the actual stage performance must have been like.  In fact, right now I have a DVD sitting beside me of the 1955 Julius Caesar with Geilgud as Cassius and Brando as Mark Antony.  Watching Sir John next to everyone else in the film, Brando included, is like watching Michael Jordan, at the peak of his powers, play a game of pick up ball with a crew of high schoolers.

Ah, to have been there.  To have seen Oliver's famous 'Hamlet leap' when he jumped some twenty feet off a balcony on stage into the outstretched arms of a bunch of soldiers.  To see his famous Othello when he completely changed his physical gait and appearance and actually lowered his voice a full third to do the role.  To see his Malvolio in the role Kenneth Tynan called, 'the funniest Shakespearian interpretation I have ever seen.'  To see him turn to the audience in Richard III and say the line, "I am not in the giving vein today," and give everyone in the house chills.

To watch O'Toole shout his way through his now infamous Hamlet under Olivier's direction.  Uncut and four hours plus of O'Toole in bombastic splendor barking out the great words of the finest play ever written.  To see Olivier break the mold in Othello and making it nearly impossible for another actor to do it for a decade or so.  To see Burton from night to night in his NY Hamlet, some nights so disinterested as to be unwatchable and the next so brilliant as to erase any other Hamlet in memory.

There are a few films, one of them being The Dresser with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney, that give us an idea of what these times might have been like.  There is a scene in a recent O'Toole movie, a film called Venus in which O'Toole received his ninth Academy Award nomination, in which he recites a full sonnet while standing on a London pier, looking out over the foggy ocean, and one gets a glimmer of the brilliance.  Even in silly movies such as Arthur, in which Geilgud won a supporting actor Oscar as the dry and unflappable butler, Hopkins, one can see the absolute surety within which the actor worked.  He towers over that film with that performance.

Ah, to have been there.  To have seen that sublimity.  To have drank in the excellence and dedication.  To simply enjoy.

See you tomorrow.