I watched a bad movie last night and I was completely enthralled. The film is called 'The Formula' and it's from 1980 and it stars George C. Scott, Marlon Brando and John Gielgud. It's about NAZI's and oil and synthetic fuel and, oh, I don't know, it really doesn't matter because it has George C. Scott, Marlon Brando and John Gielgud. In ONE movie.
The movie itself is pretty much a mess; hard to follow, gaping plot holes, scooby-doo reveals, etc., just too much information in the final analysis. But there's Scott, in a rare leading man performance, holding it all together with a forceful, very typical George C. performance.
Early on Scott, playing a weary police detective, meets Brando, a billionaire oil tycoon, in a scene in which he explains the murders, clues, suspects, whatever to him, trying to get a handle on who he is and what he's dealing with. And immediately it's acting magic. Watching Brando LISTEN is more exciting than watching most actors ACT. We tend to forget that the reason Brando was generally considered to be our finest American actor was not just because of his slumbering volatility and his realistic, heretofor unseen naturalistic screen behavior, but also because he did EVERYTHING better than other actors including the simple act of listening. He's genuinely engaged in these scenes, carefully reacting, however subtly, to every tiny utterance of Scott. He finds unexpected interpretations of even the most mundane dialogue. Scott, who was never in the same league as Brando in terms of unpredictability, had one of the most forceful, juggernaut-type personalities ever put on screen (see PATTON). He's a force of nature with anything he does. (I had the great privilege of seeing him onstage many years ago along with John Cullum in a not-so-well-written two character play called The Boys of Autumn or The Boys of Winter or something like that. My buddy, Greg Orosz and I saw it together and afterwards I remember we talked about Scott's overwhelming PRESENCE onstage. Poor John Cullum, a very fine actor in his own right, never stood a chance.) Watching Scott with Brando is like watching Nolan Ryan pitch to Babe Ruth. And an interesting side note - they are the only two actors to ever turn down an Oscar; Scott because he didn't believe in 'competition in the arts' and Brando because, well, something to do with Hollywood shooting too many Indians.
A little ways into the film Scott has a scene with John Gielgud. For the uninitiated, Gielgud was one of the 'Big Three,' (along with Olivier and Richardson) one of the three greatest Shakesperean actors of the twentieth century on the British stage - or ANY stage, for that matter. He and Brando had actually worked together in the fifties in the film JULIUS CAESAR. Gielgud was so impressed with the young Brando that he offered to direct him onstage in HAMLET shortly after the film was made. Of course, by then, Brando was done with the stage and turned him down and a few years later Gielgud directed Richard Burton in the role. But it's fun to watch Sir John in this film (a year later he would win an Oscar for ARTHUR). He's a technical wizard of an actor, making the simplest things like coughing or sipping tea or walking with a limp utterly fascinating. He has way of speeding through his dialogue, very British, and then suddenly and unexpectedly BARKING a line out catching the audience off guard. He and Scott clearly respect each other and they play the scene like Borg and McEnroe in a long volley leaving poor Wendy Hiller, the third actor in the scene, lagging far behind. The interesting thing about watching Gielgud is noticing his complete lack of respect for 'the pause.' He doesn't like them. And when he finally uses one, it's frought with power. Watching him in this scene is like auditing a short Master's Acting Class. One can almost see Scott surpressing a smile at his work.
The film culminates in a scene in which Brando and Scott confront one another over the McGuffin of the movie, the hidden formula for the synthetic fuel. Of course, by this time, no one gives a hoot about the formula but we keep watching simply because these three titans of the craft keep throwing a dazzling array of curve balls, sliders, fastballs, knuckleballs, change-ups...well, you get the point.
Most likely, for anyone not fascinated with great acting, this film is devastatingly dull. But for those of us interested in watching three of the best actors of the past 100 years, it's tremendously compelling.
I've read that Scott and Brando got along famously and played endless games of chess during the filming...Scott constantly accusing Brando of cheating. Which he probably did. The same can be said of their onscreen work together...Brando keeps cheating. And winning. Because Brando, like no other actor, understood there are no rules in acting, there is only what works and what doesn't work, what is fascinating and what is not fascinating. It's one thing to watch him outshine a pedestrian actor in a scene, but to watch him take on Scott, one of the very best, and still come out on top is something else entirely. It reminded me of a letter the actor, Bruce Dern, wrote to Jack Nicholson after he watched a movie called 'Missouri Breaks' with Brando and Nicholson in the leads - and I'm quoting, "Just finished seeing Missouri Breaks. I felt like I was watching the best actor in the world against the second best actor in the world. Sorry, Jack, but you got your ass kicked."
My final thought on the film is this: I was curious to see how these great actors handled substandard writing. The dialogue is so bad in this film, in parts, as to be laughable. But after seeing it and thinking back I realized the writing seemed bad only when OTHER actors in the movie were saying it. When Scott, Brando and Gielgud took hold of it, it seemed like Pinter, Williams, Miller and Albee all in one script. Made me realize that acting nearly always trumps writing. It's the old adage...A good actor can sometimes save a bad play but a good play can NEVER save a bad actor. These three guys could have been reading the dictionary and I suspect it would have been interesting to watch.
In other news, entirely unrelated, I had a curious audition yesterday...got a call back for next Monday. I found out late yesterday afternoon that the role (a large one, to say the least) is down to two actors. Myself and a very well-known film guy. A little premature to comment on it right now, but I'll write about it next Tuesday...regardless which way it falls.
See you tomorrow.