Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor by Simon Callow

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Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor by Simon Callow

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the once popular but now semi-forgotten actor, equally known in his time for his theatre and film work. Callow’s study of one of his heroes is sympathetic without being sycophantic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 327 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099581956

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Once a towering presence on stage and screen, the star of fifty films and forty plays, Charles Laughton seems largely forgotten these days. As an actor of a younger generation and keen admirer of his work, Callow is well placed to bring him back to the fore. He notes in his preface that the man has increasingly slipped out of public consciousness, and even within his own profession he is virtually unknown to anybody under the age of forty.

Just old enough to serve in the army during the Great War for a year prior to the armistice, Laughton initially followed his parents into hotel management in the family business at Scarborough, while taking part in local amateur theatricals and studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Making his stage debut in 1926, he moved into films a couple of years later. Like several other actors of his generation, he soon moved to America, and although he returned to England occasionally, for the rest of his career he and his wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, were based in Hollywood, becoming American citizens in 1950.

In this biography, first published in 1987 and reissued with a new preface to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the author suggests that Laughton belonged to the generation of Englishmen to whom the nature of English social existence in the twenties and thirties was pompous and restrictive. He portrays vividly the personality of a somewhat tortured, insecure soul, an awkward, self-conscious, self-doubting boy-man. A perfectionist, he found the theatre frustrating, and film offered new possibilities of physical freedom and quality of craftsmanship. Despite years of success, he was never satisfied and regarded himself as a failure. His marriage was rarely happy, and they went their own separate ways much of the time, although they never separated; he was bisexual, and longed for children although his wife did not want any. They were evidently an ill-matched couple, intellectually poles apart. She was quick-witted, while he was slow and often ponderous.

The various theatre and film roles, their successes and failures, are all thoroughly described. 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' (1933) is recognised as one of his crowning achievements, and made him the first British actor to be awarded an Oscar, although the author’s verdict is that he did not give of his best, and after having brought the role to the stage, on the silver screen he was warming over something he'd done before. By the end of 'Rembrandt' (1935), he notes that the viewer is ultimately disappointed, cheated of a full exploration of the central character. From his last years, 'Abbot and Costello Meet Captain Kidd' (1952) is generally regarded as the low water mark of his career, and is described in these pages as proof, if one were needed, of the terrible degringolade (rapid deterioration) this once-great actor had suffered. 'Hobson’s Choice' (1954) is criticised for his unconvincing performance. Callow has respect for his artistry, yet is clearly very objective in his assessments.

One of his last roles, which saw him return to the British stage, was the leading role in 'King Lear' in 1959. By this time his health was beginning to fail, and he was under no illusions. It had long been his ambition to take the role, and he had been preparing for it all his life, yet before he left America for England, he remarked self-deprecatingly to a friend, I shall fail, of course. Yet it was probably a more agreeable commission than his deputising as host on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 when the presenter was recovering after a car accident. The occasion also marked Elvis Presley's first appearance on television, and while introducing him an out-of-place Laughton looked like the Victorian he always essentially was. Could you picture Olivier or Gielgud compering Top Of The Pops? No, I couldn’t, either.

The book is supplemented with a full filmography, list of theatre performances, and even a discography of 78 rpm discs and LPs. One minor criticism I would make is of the index, with some names omitted, and also the rather old-fashioned principle of not providing an entry for the book's main subject.

That apart, this book can be recommended as a good read. It is admirably sympathetic yet never sycophantic, and conveys vividly the character of a talented yet often unhappy man.

If this book appeals then we think you might also enjoy:

Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards

Stage Presence: The Actor as Mesmerist by Jane Goodall

Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow

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