Archive for the ‘What a Character’ Tag

Patrick Magee: Food? All Right?   7 comments

A Clockwork Orange

Perenially vexed and menacing with a gravelly voice that retained just a hint of his Irish roots, Patrick Magee played doctors, policemen, military officers, and the occasional psycho in films and television starting in the late 1950s. Though he worked most often on the British stage, Magee alternated theatrical roles with TV and film appearances, working with directors like Joseph Losey, Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick.

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Kubrick films Magee and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Born in Armagh in Northern Ireland in 1922, Patrick George McGee, who changed his name to Magee, began performing Shakespeare and other classics in Ireland in the early 1950s. After coming to London for a series of Irish plays, he met Samuel Beckett and recorded some of Beckett’s plays for BBC Radio. Beckett and Harold Pinter, who Magee acted with in Ireland, remained close to him throughout his career and the two writers often requested Magee for pivotal roles in their plays and film adaptations. Beckett even wrote Krapp’s Last Tape with him in mind and said, while writing the play, Magee’s “voice was the one which I heard in my head.”

NPG x127341; Patrick Magee as Krapp in 'Krapp's Last Tape' by Ida Kar
These whale songs aren’t as calming as I had hoped.

After a handful of appearances in British television shows including Dial 999 and the BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Magee started working in small, British crime films like Concrete Jungle (1960), directed by Joseph Losey. Stanley Baker stars in the film about the brutal lives of small-time criminals both in and out of prison. Magee has a small, but memorable part as a sadistic warder.

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Magee sizes up Baker.

Magee married another Armagh native, Belle Sherry about this time and later had twins, Mark and Caroline. Despite Magee’s bouts with alcoholism, the couple stayed married until his death in 1982.

His stoic, aristocratic manner often tinged with cruelty and/or wisdom worked well in his roles in Roger Corman’s The Young Racers and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13. In the modern gothic horror, Dementia 13, Magee is Dr. Caleb, a creepy physician who seems to live on the estate of the wacky Haloran clan during a series of grisly murders. Until the end of the film, we’re never sure whether Magee is good or evil, but he plays the part like he has a locked room in his house where he keeps his collection of femurs.

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“That’s right, little mouse. Just one more step and you’re in a sandwich.”

Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) came next. Magee’s evil in this one. Then, in Bryan Forbes’ phenomenal Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), he’s a police detective tasked with finding a kidnapped child. In Zulu (1964) Cy Endfield’s vivid retelling of the massacre at Rorke’s Drift, he plays a military surgeon. Sensing a pattern here?

Patrick Magee Seance on a Wet Afternoon
“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. I’m a detective? Oh. Nevermind.”

The wonderful Amicus film, The Skull, which, by the way, is awesome, has Magee as a police medical examiner and stars a couple nobodies named Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It also features a malicious floating skull, so you should probably run out and watch it right now.

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The skull in question

In the 1965 film, Die, Monster, Die! Magee and Boris Karloff do Lovecraft and again, he plays a doctor. The film isn’t as good as the title, but it does involve radiation and large plants.

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Not the plant in question

The skull I mentioned earlier belongs or belonged, depending how you look at it, to the Marquis de Sade, who Magee played later in Marat/Sade (1967). The film takes place in an insane asylum in France and has the famous sadist directing a play about good and evil set during the French Revolution. Magee won a Tony for playing the role on Broadway.

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“You’re rushing it. Relax and follow through.”

William Friedkin directed the disturbing Harold Pinter play, The Birthday Party (1968) in which evil torturers, Magee and Sydney Tafler, team up against a vulnerable Robert Shaw. I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen this one yet, but after reading the description, it jumped to the top of my watch list.

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“THAT BOOK WAS DUE ON THE 14th!”

Magee got a chance to do some serious emoting in the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. A Clockwork Orange. He plays the writer, Mr. Alexander, victimized by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) who exacts revenge using a little Ludwig van, big speakers, and a plate of pasta. Kubrick cast Magee in Barry Lyndon too. In the sprawling epic, he plays sympathetic gambler, the Chevalier du Balibari, who takes young Lyndon under his wing.

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I love Barry Lyndon, but hahahahahahaha.

My favorite Magee performances are in the Amicus films The Skull, Tales From the Crypt, Asylum, and And Now the Screaming Starts!. I’m a big fan of the Amicus portmanteau films and Tales From the Crypt and Asylum, in which he plays a blind man pushed a bit too far, and a doctor in a mental institution, are two of my favorites. All of the films here were directed by Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker and they’re terrific.

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“I sat on my keys.”

Magee even shows up in a Charles Bronson classic, Telefon as a Russian KGB officer and in The Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, as Lord Cadogan, head of the British Olympic committee. His last film roles were in Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club with Vincent Price and Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat in 1981. In the Fulci film based on the Edgar Allen Poe story, Magee plays a psychic who converses with the dead and has a cat. When he has a bad day, Magee employs his cat as a hitman hitcat.

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Patrick Magee in disguise

Between the films in this article, Magee also acted in Antigone, King Lear, many television series, and a host of stage plays. He appeared in Krapp’s Last Tape, the play Beckett wrote with him in mind, in the theatre and on TV as a part of the British anthology series, Thirty-Minute Theatre in 1972.

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“I’ll divide my kingdom up and give it away. It’ll be great. Trust me.”

Earlier this year (July 2017), the Ulster History Circle honored the life of Patrick Magee by placing a blue plaque in Edward Street, Armagh, Ireland where he was born. Fellow Irish actor, Stephen Rea unveiled the memorial.

Patrick Magee had a long, successful career in both stage and screen. Though he tended to play authority figures on the edge of sanity, he had the talent to play a wide range of characters. He’s even in two films with exclamation points in the titles, which can’t be bad. Next time you serve your family dinner, remember his patented method to stop unwanted chatter.

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I wrote this piece as a part of the What a Character blogathon run by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Thank you, ladies, for organizing this for the sixth time!

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Bruce Dern: The Guy You Love to Hate   Leave a comment

 

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Marnie sees red and panics. As she struggles to remember the events of a long repressed night from her childhood, we see Marnie as a child awakened from a deep sleep and sent to the sofa to sleep while her mother uses the bed for ‘business’. A storm rages outside and thunder frightens the sleeping child. Mom’s client, a sailor, tries to comfort Marnie but the child resists him. She wants her mommy who enters and pushes the man away from her girl. A fight breaks out and Mom falls, hurting herself. In an attempt to help her mother, Marnie grabs a poker from the fireplace and beats Bruce Dern to death. Marnie (1964)

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Dressed in a tuxedo for a society party, Bruce Dern waits in a solarium for a tryst with his beloved, Bette Davis. The meeting doesn’t go as planned. Seconds later we see his face full of fear as an axe wielded by a mysterious stranger descends and his head rolls across the floor. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

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Dying violently with very little screen time may seem like an inauspicious start to a film career, but it added to the CV of a prolific actor who has played killers, scumbags, and downright nasty guys. Bruce Dern started in television in the 1950s and continues to work today. To be fair, he also plays some non-psychopathic roles, though Bruce Dern, as a rule, is known for playing heavies. Tall and lanky, with a toothy grin that goes from friendly to malevolent in an instant, Dern plays nasty like no one else. In the western Hang ‘Em High (1968), his murderer/cattle rustler taunts Clint Eastwood and jumps him when he’s not looking. In Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), he and fellow Hell’s Angel Peter Fonda, clad in Swastikas and other Nazi insignia threaten veteran Dick Miller with a pair of plyers. In his most infamous role, Long Hair in The Cowboys, Bruce Dern shoots John Wayne in the back, killing him. When they discussed that scene John Wayne told Dern, “America will hate you for this.” Dern replied, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.”

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Dern cemented his counter culture reputation after a series of films he did with Roger Corman and others during the 1960s. He even strayed from his nasty persona in a few. In The Trip (1967), Dern plays a benevolent soul guiding Peter Fonda through his first acid trip.  His calm, thoughtful demeanor and compassionate tone are a far cry from the snarling villain he usually played. I watched The Trip recently and listened to director Roger Corman’s audio commentary on the film. He said of all the cast members, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern was the only one who never touched drugs. A marathon runner who almost qualified for the Olympics, Dern lived a healthy life. During one scene in which partiers pass a joint, Dern is the only one not smoking.

Bruce The Trip #4

Jack Nicholson, a close friend, said Dern was one of the best of a breed of actors coming into his own in the 1970s.  Films like The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Silent Running (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), and The Driver (1978) allowed Dern to show his range. In King of Marvin Gardens, as the ne’er do well with a dozen get-rich-quick schemes, Dern is all charisma and charm and you get caught up in his enthusiasm even when you sense his plans will never come to fruition. In Silent Running, as astronaut Freeman Lowell, Dern gives a nuanced performance. You know his actions are wrong, but his motives and the way he relates to little Huey, Dewey, and Louie charm you into rooting for him. As Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Dern’s callous aristocrat uses people and tosses them aside without a thought. I cannot think of the book or film without picturing Bruce Dern in that role. The spare The Driver lets Dern show his malevolent side again when, as The Detective, he orchestrates a robbery to frame Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver and seems unaffected by the ensuing violence.

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It might surprise you to learn that Bruce Dern’s background is closer to the patrician Tom Buchanan (The Great Gatsby 1974) than the scuzzy gang member Loser (The Wild Angels 1966). Bruce MacLeish Dern, born in Winnetka, Illinois in 1936 went to the prestigious New Trier High School in Illinois before attending the University of Pennsylvania. He left Penn after a couple years for The Actors’ Studio and a career in acting. Dern’s grandfather served as Governor of Utah and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. His other grandfather established the department store Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. and the poet Archibald MacLeish is a maternal relation. Dern’s godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Throughout his career, Dern has done scores of television shows including Route 66, Thriller, The Outer Limits, the Kraft Suspense Theatre, Branded, Bonanza, Big Valley, Rawhide, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, The FBI, and more recent appearances on Big Love, and CSI:NY. He even hosted his own series from 1996-2001 called The Lost Drive-In during which he sat in a vintage car and talked about drive-in movies, old cars, and that era in general, then showed a film which might have played in one. It was a fun show and Dern came off as well-versed and natural. I was sorry to see it end.

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With a career spanning almost 60 years, 164 films, and countless television appearances, Bruce Dern remains a working actor. He, his daughter Laura Dern, and ex-wife Diane Ladd received their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and imdb lists nearly a dozen projects in production for this versatile actor. In May of 2013, Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Nebraska. Even more recently, Dern played a small, but nasty part in Django Unchained and a larger role, General Sandy Smithers, in Quentin Tarantino’s western Agatha Christie/Sam Peckinpah hybrid, The Hateful Eight.

I even had a brush with Bruce. In 2014, I appeared briefly on HuffPost Live to ask him a question during an interview. He said he liked my glasses.

Nebraska #7

I wrote this piece for the What a Character Blog-a-thon in November 2013.  Run by @IrishJayhawk66 @Paula_Guthat @CitizenScreen the blog-a-thon highlighted supporting actors who make movies worth watching.  Fun stuff!

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