Sunday, March 23, 2008

A sphinx for all seasons

Had to cut my blog break short by one day. A favorite actor died last Wednesday, didn't even hear about it until tonight. Here, from the New York Times:

“Paul Scofield, the acclaimed British actor who created the indelible role of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play 'A Man for All Seasons' and then repeated it on film in 1966 in an Oscar-winning performance, died Wednesday near his home in southern England. He was 86.

“Mr. Scofield was regarded by both critics and his peers as one of the greatest actors in the English-speaking world, one who brought freshness and power to Hamlet, King Lear and many other classic roles... [He] was a wide-ranging actor who, thanks to his bearing and his height--he stood six-foot-two--could project power and authority in one role and an air of inscrutability in another. As early as 1949, the critic Harold Hobson wrote that all Mr. Scofield’s performances 'have something of the other world about them: invariably he looks as if he has been reading ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and seen ghosts at midnight.'

“Sir John Gielgud admired Mr. Scofield’s stillness and sense of mystery, describing him as 'a sphinx with a secret.' Peter Hall, who directed Mr. Scofield’s acclaimed Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s 'Amadeus' in London in 1979, said that as a young man Mr. Scofield brought 'a sulfurous passion, an entirely new note' to the stage, and that there was always a tremendous tension beneath the surface, 'like a volcano erupting...'”

Actors would kill for praise like that, but Mr. Scofield was of a different breed. He was offered knighthood by the Queen several times, but he declined it every time. He became a bona fide movie star when A Man for All Seasons became one of the most popular movies of its era. But he preferred working in the theater, appeared infrequently in films, and eschewed the celebrity merry-go-round of TV interviews and media appearances. More people today know Sir Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) and Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings) than the plain yet arguably more protean Mr. Scofield (he played Lear at 40 years old!).

Apart from performances that have passed into legend, Mr. Scofield also notched a peculiar place in world history. He was the first English actor to be invited to perform in the Soviet Union since the country's 1917 Revolution. This was in 1955, when he brought his celebrated Hamlet to the then-archenemy of the West. He returned to Moscow in 1964 as Lear.

I never got to see him live on stage, of course. But the (lamentably) few times he acted in movies, he was an indelible presence--as the eminent man of letters Mark Van Doren in Robert Redford's Quiz Show, for instance, or the forbidding Judge Danforth in Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible. Mr. Scofield was one of those actors whose voice you heard once and heard forever--deep, ancient, rumbling, terrifying in its implacability. In The Crucible, he never raised his voice once when questioning John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), but it was the cold hand of the Inquisition all over again...

Sorry, Across the Universe. I'm supposed to watch you tonight, but my Scofield DVDs have just given you the boot.

PLUS: Reposting this video clip of Mr. Scofield as St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, thundering forth on the the law and its rigors. A speech that cuts even now, don't you think?

“William Roper: So, now you give the Devil benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast--Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!”

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Search this blog or the Web