Sunday, January 31, 2010

Detectives, drunkards and vampires: same role, different actors

[Was asked by Crest newspaper to do this piece about characters played by many different actors onscreen. Fairly assembly-line and hurried, as such write-ups tend to be, but fun to do – reminded me of the light cinema pieces I used to write for the Cafedilli website a decade ago. Only putting this up here because the blog is malnourished these days]

When Robert Downey Jr took off his shirt for an action scene in the new Sherlock Holmes, movie historians dashed to their research hubs: was this the first onscreen Holmes to get into a topless fight? We may never know the answer – the legendary detective has been portrayed so many times on film that keeping track of “firsts” is impossible. It’s best to stick with the subjective assessment that Downey Jr has the most impressive pectorals.

Fine actor though Downey Jr is, he isn’t the best Holmes; the competition is too stiff. Consider Christopher Plummer, nicely sardonic in Murder by Decree, which pitted the detective against no less a quarry than Jack the Ripper. Or Michael Caine,
playing an actor hired by Dr Watson - who's the real star of the show - to impersonate Holmes in the genre-bending comedy Without a Clue. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes in the 1980s series was probably the most “authentic”, but that was television so I’ll only give it an honourable mention. My personal vote for best feature-film Holmes (and I haven't seen them all, I should add) goes to the urbane Basil Rathbone, who played the part in a very popular series of films in the 1940s. The profile, the cap, the voice... everything about Rathbone was exactly as readers of the original stories envisioned, even if the plots were sometimes updated to fit then-contemporary events.

Conan Doyle’s sleuth is one of many fictional characters that the movies never tire of; his closest competitor in the popularity stakes (pun unintended) is Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel. The Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi initiated the portrayal of the bloodthirsty Count as a darkly attractive figure, Christopher Lee sank his teeth even further into the part in the British Hammer films, and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version had Gary Oldman playing a dashing combination of Dracula and Vlad the
Impaler, with a bit of werewolf (!) thrown in. But the creepiest vampire portrayal ever is from the great silent film Nosferatu. With his lean physique, spidery fingers and rodent-like face, the German actor Max Schreck was perfectly suited to the part. His vampire was repulsive and otherworldly – so otherworldly, in fact, that it was possible for another film made decades later to play around with the premise that Schreck was a vampire in real life! Nosferatu gets extra points for being decidedly unsexy, unlike the vampires in popular culture today.

Dracula is famously undead, but Death has a long tradition of appearing in human form in movies, the most iconic representation being in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, about a medieval knight being shadowed by the Grim Reaper. Brad
Pitt made a luscious Death in the overlong drama Meet Joe Black – the camera was clearly in love with this toy boy – but my favourite is the Grim Reaper parody in the goofy comedy Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. In Bergman’s film, the knight challenged Death to chess; in this one, Bill and Ted make him play Twister and electric football, and beat him like a drum. Cheating Death was never such fun.

It’s difficult to choose just one among the actors who played another death-cheater, James Bond, but we’ll do the purist thing and stick with Sean Connery. Timothy Dalton, George Lazenby (remember him?) and Daniel Craig were more laconic – arguably closer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels – but Connery’s roguish charm and litheness gave 007 a dimension that even Fleming hadn’t envisioned. Roger Moore comes a close second. Pierce Brosnan? Fine actor, but for anyone who watched Remington Steele for more than one season it’s impossible to associate him with another recurring character.

From the ultimate man of action to a tragic hero burdened by indecision: Shakespeare's Hamlet has long been a litmus test for actors, and its screen adaptations are innumerable. Laurence Olivier won the best actor Oscar for the atmospheric 1948 version, and Mel Gibson gave one of his better performances (which isn’t necessarily saying much) in Franco Zefferelli's 1990 film, but I have to go with Kenneth Branagh, whose sumptuous-looking four-hour version retained the entire text of the play, yet still managed to be gripping throughout. Branagh was a wonderfully energetic Hamlet; his recitation of some of the key soliloquies was so vivid that I can still hear the words in my head years after I last saw the film.

Among the Bard's heroines, Lady Macbeth has had a long and varied screen life. In Roman Polanski’s excellent 1971 Macbeth, the fragile-looking Francesca Annis performed her hand-washing soliloquy in the nude, whimpering as she is supervised by nurses. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool gave us a fine desi Lady Macbeth, Nimmi, all the more effective because we never thought the ethereal Tabu could be a manipulative vixen. But the best Lady Macbeth by a country mile was in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Throne of Blood. Isuzu Yamada’s chilling performance as Asaji isn’t rooted in psychological realism – the film is based on the Noh theatrical form, and Yamada’s face is made up to resemble an impassive mask – but when she’s on screen it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

One character it’s surprisingly easy to take your eyes off is Indian cinema’s favourite tragic hero, Devdas. Here’s a role that can make a lazy performance look good: produce a distant, glaze-eyed expression, slur a little and you’ll be admired for “understated acting”. This is what most actors from K L Saigal to Abhay Deol have done over the decades, so why not judge the role by its very limited requirements and hand the trophy to that master of self-conscious “understatement”, Dilip Kumar, who played Devdas in Bimal Roy’s 1953 movie? (Yes, this IS a back-handed compliment.)

Of course, recurring characters don’t have to be fictional. Historical figures can be very popular too, and the more colourful the better: take England’s Henry VIII, famous for dispatching wives and ministers to the royal chopping block. The mercurial monarch has been played by some fine actors, including Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days), Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons) and, most recently, Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl), who took the modern, interior approach and avoided being influenced by stereotypes. These are all fleshed-out
performances, but ironically the best screen Henry of them all was a deliberate caricature of the king as a gluttonous buffoon. The 1933 British film The Private Life of Henry VIII makes no pretence at being historically accurate, it just has a grand old time depicting Henry’s boudoir shenanigans, and the great Charles Laughton (who, incidentally, also gave the definitive screen performance of other popular characters such as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) chews up the scenery magnificently, in an Oscar-winning role.

In fact, so iconic was Laughton’s performance that it ended up defining Henry for generations of viewers. Which returns us to Downey Jr and a troubling question: will future generations think of Sherlock Holmes as that dude with the rippling muscles?


  1. Have you seen Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes?

    I haven't seen it yet, but have heard a lot of good things about it.

  2. shrikanth: I saw one-third of it on TCM (or was it TNT then?) many years ago, seemed quite good but never managed to catch the full thing.

    Nicol Williamson made a good Holmes in The Seven Per Cent Solution too.

  3. I'm surprised you missed Othello, including its two (that I'm aware of) Indian adaptations.

  4. mangad: oh, I "missed" literally hundreds of other notable characters. But needless to say, this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive listing - just a few selected names. Couldn't do more than 8 or 9 characters, assuming I wanted to give each of them a few sentences.

    Had originally wanted only Lady M among Shakespeare's characters but was specifically asked to throw in Hamlet as well, because it's such an important part for an actor.

  5. Dilip Kumar would come a distant second to the best portrayal of a weak vapid Devdas as played by Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR)in the telugu version. I recommend you check it out as an intro to classic regional movies

  6. Maa? Nirupa Roy? Doesn't qualify? Certainly more iconic than Devdas!

  7. Tom Ripley has been played by some fine actors -

    Alain Delon (Purple Noon)
    Matt Damon (The Talented Mr Ripley)
    Dennis Hopper (The American Friend)
    John Malkovich (Ripley's Game)

  8. I've got a soft spot for Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman, but nobody did Dracula better than Max Schreck. It's not just the fact that I prefer the walking corpse Dracula over the suave gentleman Dracula; even if I preferred the latter, Schreck would still blow every other Dracula off the screen.

    Purple Noon is easily the best Ripley film, and Alain Delon is easily the best Ripley. I'll defend Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich all day, but I don't picture them when I'm reading the books the way I picture Delon. Matt Damon is a decent enough actor, but the fact that Jude Law was in the movie and didn't play Ripley drives me crazy, along with the movie's misguided interpretation of the character.

    I'll risk getting death threats and admit that I prefer Craig and even Moore to Connery, but Dalton is my personal favorite Bond.


    jai, thought you'd enjoy this