James Mason by David Thomson
Director Sidney Lumet said of James Mason: "I always thought he was one of the best actors who ever lived. Whatever you gave him to do he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own. The technique was rock solid, and I fell in love with him as an actor, so every time I came across a script I wanted to direct I would start to read it thinking is there anything here for James? He had no sense of stardom at all. He wanted good billing and the best money he could get, but then all he ever thought about was how to play the part. In that sense he reminded me more of an actor in a theatre repertory ensemble than a movie star, and it was what made him so good." Lumet also directed Mason in The Sea Gull (1968), Child's Play (1972) and The Verdict (1982).
Every word a poison dart
James Mason - career villain, smooth talker, creative powerhouse - would have been 100 today. David Thomson looks back on an unforgettable actor who never settled for the easy option
The Guardian, Thursday 14 May 2009
Breakthrough role ... James Mason in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. Photograph: Kobal Collection
James Mason had good friends, and sometimes that is the measure of a man, especially in the picture business, where it's all too easy to lose contact as golden opportunities fade away. Consider his situation in the late 1940s. After giving his youth and his early beauty to British pictures and theatre, he decided to go to Hollywood. There must have been people who told him he was too patrician, too intelligent, as well as too old to break through in America. But he made wonderful contacts. There was a chance of doing the Svengali-Trilby story (with Jane Wyman), and Mason longed to have Jean Renoir as its director because he could see that the Frenchman loved actors. Alas, that project fell through, but then Renoir offered Mason the role of the wounded veteran in his Indian picture, The River. I can't do it, sighed Mason; I'm set to play the male lead in La Duchesse de Langeais - which was to be the comeback picture for Greta Garbo.
... Advancing into his 40s, Mason had reason to think of bad luck as he played Erwin Rommel in a couple of movies, Rupert of Hentzau in a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda and "Hendrik van der Zee" in the dotty but deliriously beautiful romance, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. In Britain, there were already superior figures in acting who marvelled over what was happening to "poor Jimmy Mason". But as we come to celebrate today what would have been his 100th birthday, there are those who only wish there was more of Pandora, more Rommel and an entire picture about Rupert of Hentzau, the only interesting person in that whole Zenda nonsense.
In every decade, from the 1930s to the 80s, James Mason did some poor work in disappointing pictures, just as he missed out on mouth-watering opportunities. So, yes, it's lamentable that he was to have been Prospero for Michael Powell, only for that Tempest to blow out. But don't forget that their long friendship did lead somewhere: to Australia, for the quirky but vivid Age of Consent, where Mason was the film's co-producer and he and Powell managed to discover the 18-year-old Helen Mirren to be the muse for the beachcomber painter Mason plays.
Yes, I know you can see Mason in these parts, but it's just as evident that you hear him and, before we go any further, it's vital to consider the unique and languid but impassioned voice of this man. Is it enough to say that he was a lad born in Huddersfield (the son of a wool merchant) who was sent to Cambridge to speak properly? Should we consider also his years on the Dublin stage as a prelude to his tragic figure in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out - the film above all that promoted him from British pictures to a Hollywood player? Or is there not still something in Mason's voice - aristocratic, but full of connoisseurship, too - that allowed the actor to become his true self just once, as the voice of Humbert Humbert in the film of Lolita? Humbert is not American. He is a scholar of comparative literature, as well as a judge of nymphets. He is a very bad man (if you like, or if you don't like), but he may be the purest-spoken scoundrel in all the movies. For he has to deliver Nabokovian prose as if to say it was the most normal and sensible way of speaking the English language yet invented.
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