Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0008837, Fri, 31 Oct 2003 09:17:28 -0800

More on James Mason & Nabokov
EDNOTE. Barbara Wyllie <bwyllie@ssees.ac.uk> is the author of a new book on
Nabokov & Cinema

There's some correspondence from Mason to VN in the Berg Collection at the
New York Public Library. They lived near each other in Switzerland. Mason
saw the manuscript of VN's new translation of King, Queen, Knave and liked
it very much, particularly for its cinematic quality.

Barbara Wyllie

----- Original Message -----
From: Donald B. Johnson
To: NABOKV-L@listserv.ucsb.edu
Sent: 31 October, 2003 4:33 PM
Subject: James Mason & Nabokov: occasional dinner companion of Nabokov's
.... (fwd)

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Guardian Unlimited Film

Odd man out

He hit the director of one film, drank himself through several others and
openly despised some of his best-known roles. Geoffrey Macnab on the
contradictions of James Mason

Thursday October 30, 2003
The Guardian

[Image: "James"]
James Mason

On the first day's shooting of The Wicked Lady in 1945, the film's star,
James Mason, hit the director, Leslie Arliss, on the nose. Mason, playing a
highwayman, was disgruntled because he had been kept waiting all day on
set, but hadn't been used. The incident is described with a mixture of
amusement and alarm in the unpublished diaries of his close friends, the
producers Sydney and Muriel Box, who worked with him on the box-office hit,
The Seventh Veil (1945).

The assault on Arliss was hardly out of the blue. If you scan the fan
magazines and trade papers of the 1940s, it quickly becomes evident that
the actor, whose career is to be celebrated in a season of films at the
National Film Theatre in London, had a peculiarly fraught relationship with
producers and hack directors. He accused them of "polluting artistic
aspirations" and of jumping too eagerly to the promptings of "vulgar men in
Wardour Street". His run-ins with Arliss had begun when they worked
together on the thriller The Night Has Eyes in 1942. "Mason told us that he
was constantly called early in the afternoon and not used till late
afternoon, but he noticed that Wilfred Lawson (his co-star) was always shot
at whatever time he arrived because he got so tight so often they dare not
let him out of their sight for long," the Boxes wrote in their diary,
noting that Mason followed Lawson's example when he worked on The Seventh

Getting "tight" was often Mason's solution to the tedium of appearing in
the Gainsborough melodramas that made him such a huge star in 1940s
Britain. He was good-looking ("the dark young God", as Michael Powell
called him) and invariably cast as saturnine and misogynistic sadists. He
freely acknowledged that he despised his role as the 18th- century roue
Lord Rohan, who thrashes Margaret Lockwood with a poker in The Man in Grey.
"I have to conclude that my sheer bad temper gave the character colour," he
later recalled. He admitted to playing his part as the bullying husband in
They Were Sisters (1945) with an almost permanent hangover. Nor did he make
any secret of his desire to decamp to Hollywood as soon as he could.

Despite his popularity, his constant grumbling about the insularity and
lack of glamour in British cinema risked alienating press and public.
"During this period, I was making a bad name for myself, partly because I
was a compulsive tease and partly because my experience with producers had
me regard them as natural enemies," he wrote in his autobiography.

These were strange years for someone widely acknowledged as one of
Britain's greatest cinema actors. The one performance of which he was
really proud was as the fatally wounded IRA leader Johnny, who limped
forlornly around night-time Belfast in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. Mason
conveys brilliantly the mix of yearning, anger and fear Johnny feels as the
net draws in on him.

For an actor reputedly so truculent, he was adept at playing idealists:
witness his fiery-eyed cameo as the pilot fighting against fascism in the
Boulting brothers' Thunder Rock (1942). Even in the most overblown
melodramas of the era, he could bring a strange, erotic undertow to his
roles. "He was one of the few people who could really frighten me, and yet
at the same time he was the most gentle and courteous of men," Ann Todd,
the co-star on whose fingers he slams down a piano lid in The Seventh Veil,
said of him. (The intensity of their scenes together was largely
attributable to the fact that they were having an affair.)

Jean Kent, who appeared with Mason in Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and The
Wicked Lady, wasn't surprised that his relationship with Arliss was so
fraught. "Nobody cared for Leslie," she notes, acidly. None the less, she
disputes that he was always a bad-tempered curmudgeon on set. As an actress
in her early 20s, she was nervous on set, but remembers that Mason
encouraged and flattered her. "During The Wicked Lady, we were sitting in
this cart going to the execution. They [the producers] wanted me to be pale
and wan, and so I didn't have any make-up on. He looked across at me and
said, 'You should never wear make-up. You look so wonderful as you are.'"

Arguably, much of Mason's cussedness is attributable to his background.
Born in 1909, he was the son of a Huddersfield textile merchant. There was
something contradictory about him. On the one hand, he was blunt and
outspoken. On the other, he was extraordinarily sensitive and softly
spoken. He was an architecture graduate, a skilled cartoonist and wrote
poetry. "He was always uneasy in his own skin," suggests his biographer
Sheridan Morley, who likens him to Dirk Bogarde. "Both men lived abroad.
Both men found the English film industry unbearably suffocating and

What distinguished Mason from many of his contemporaries was his
classlessness. There was nothing in that silken, purring voice that
suggested he was a toff or an actor on leave from the Old Vic slumming it
on screen. Nor was he the callow, easygoing matinee-idol type who treated
films as if they were drawing-room comedies. "What James believed - and it
was a brave belief for the time - was that a great film could be as great
as a great book or a great play. There was nothing fundamentally
second-rate about it," Morley suggests.

Inevitably, his decision to decamp to California in the late-1940s was
resented by the British critics. "I am sufficiently human to want to become
a star of international standing," he wrote in a letter to Picturegoer
after he left for the US. "Besides, I want to work in the sun and see how
they operate."

The move failed to bring immediate prosperity. "He started very slowly in
Hollywood," Kent recalls. His first role was in Max Ophuls's Caught. ("The
truth of the matter is that I was desperately broke, needed a job and this
was the nearest thing to an acceptable project that was offered to me.") He
wasn't always discriminating about his career choices. With an expensive
divorce from Pamela Ostrer to pay for, he couldn't afford to be. None the
less, the studios offered him infinitely more opportunity than he would
have received appearing in the vacuous comedies or creaky war films being
turned out at Pinewood.

In his best Hollywood parts, there is invariably that same sense of
yearning and fatalism that he brought to Odd Man Out. Witness the sheer
pathos of his Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, the fast- fading matinee idol
who drinks far too much and sees his own career eclipsed by that of his
beloved Vicki (Judy Garland). As he demonstrated in The Prisoner of Zenda
and North By Northwest, he was also a redoubtable and complex villain.

One of his most extraordinary performances was as the high-school teacher
prescribed cortisone in Nicholas Ray's searing melodrama Bigger Than Life
(1956). Under the influence of the drug, this all-American family man is
turned into a suburban King Lear, raging against society, haranguing
milkmen and spouting crackpot educational theories. "Childhood is a
congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it," he tells
his listeners at a parents' evening, going on to declare that "God is
wrong" as he threatens to sacrifice his own young son. Audiences had seen
Mason bullying those closest to him in the Gainsborough melodramas. The
difference here was that the teacher was a character in torment. We are
aware that he is suffering too.

Equally striking was his Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, a
loser with an idealistic streak and infinite resources of sardonic charm
who worships a young girl (Sue Lyons). Mason was an admirer and occasional
dinner companion of Nabokov's.

Morley rates Mason's Brutus opposite Marlon Brando and John Gielgud in
Julius Caesar (1953) as the actor's finest screen performance. "What James
did - and it was very unusual for its time - was to allow the camera to see
him think," Morley notes, pointing out that he was ready to "pause in odd
places" and to underplay.

Asked just what made Mason so unsettling on screen, Morley speculates that
he had "an effeminacy about him", that distinguished him from most other
leading men of his era and enabled him to give rich and nuanced
performances. "In my book about James, I uncovered no evidence that he was
gay, but if you look at the way he plays certain roles, there is an
extraordinary bisexuality... what's so interesting is that it's a secret.
He left you guessing."

· The James Mason season is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, from
November 7 until December 30. Box office: 020-7928 3232.

[Image: "Guardian"]


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D. Barton Johnson