CHARLES LAUGHTON: A Difficult Actor by Simon Callow
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CHARLES LAUGHTON: A Difficult Actor

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Look elsewhere--to Charles Higham's gossipy 1976 ""intimate biography,"" to Elsa Lanchester's memoirs--for details on Laughton's quite wretched private life. Here, although actor/writer Callow draws on new interviews as well as a wide range of archival materials, the emphasis is on reassessment rather than revelation. References to Laughton's material difficulties, to his semi-secret homosexuality, surface only insofar as they lend support to Callow's intensely sympathetic yet briskly rigorous study of the actor-director's work: a critical career-history that flirts with ""psycho-biography"" of the trickiest sort. For Callow, the pre-1940 Laughton is the actor as genius, a creative artist to be taken as seriously as any great composer, painter, or poet. ""He wanted to show what human beings were, to offer the raw material""--by painstakingly displaying his own feelings of self-disgust, of physical grossness and sexual sinfulness. As a stage actor in the 1920's, the young Laughton quickly became a star with portrayals of monster-villains, thrusting his (to him) ""morally and emotionally ugly soul"" at the public. But film, with its close-ups and re-takes, was an even more inviting medium for Laughton's confessional perfectionism: ""That plump mask might have been expressly designed to be framed by a cinema screen."" Callow by no means minimizes the two heroic 1930's impersonations: the extroverted king in The Private Life of Henry VIII; the ""idealized self-portrait"" in Rembrandt. The key roles here, however, are the studies in evil, repression, and suffering--from Nero (in The Sign of the Cross) and Dr. Moreau (in Island of Lost Souls) to the sadistic Mr. Barrett, Captain Bligh, above all Quasimodo. And these performances, reaching beyond character-acting to something universal through risky self-exposure, were immensely painful work, pushing Laughton to the brink of insanity. So, in later years, he settled for a shallower, more endearing sort of bravura movie-acting; his creative genius went instead into directing (Night of the Hunter) and stage-work--especially his collaboration with Brecht on Galileo. Callow is sometimes glib in his psycho, interpretations. (Circa 1953, ""he was at last someone in whom he could believe, someone he could almost like."") But the close-up analyses, with lots of attention to little-known films, are vivid, insightful, often eloquent. And the persuasive central argument--Laughton's ""almost totemic representations of the human condition,"" rivaled only by Brando--makes this required reading for all students or serious fans of film-acting.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1988
Publisher: Grove