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A Clockwork Career

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

British actors are compulsive worker bees, and they often build up fat filmographies that contain a bewildering mixture of masterpieces and glaring missteps. Michael Caine has admitted that he has a string of stinkers on his resume, and even Laurence Olivier was pretty undiscriminating in the roles he chose in his later years.

Malcolm McDowell belongs to this category of indefatigable, sometimes indiscriminate thespians. Just this year he had a part in Disney’s “Just Visiting,” played the Sheriff of Nottingham in a TV movie called “Princess of Thieves” and completed a miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel “Firestarter” for the Sci-Fi Channel. Over the course of his 30-year career, he’s done movies, TV films, plays, even a sitcom with Rhea Pearlman that had a brief run in 1996.

“I’ve done over 100 movies,” McDowell says. “I don’t even dare look at the list. I can’t remember all of them. I sometimes feel like a gunfighter. You know, I come into town, sort ‘em out, and I’m gone in a cloud of dust.”

It may be just as well that he doesn’t remember “Mr. Magoo” or “In the Eye of the Snake” or “Jezebel’s Kiss.” Audiences have probably forgotten them, too. But the sheer volume of activity and the mediocrity of many of his movies shouldn’t obscure the brilliance of his best work. Starting Thursday and running through Sunday, the American Cinematheque presents a series of seven of his movies, including his recognized classics “if....” and “A Clockwork Orange,” as well as a couple of films--"The Assassination of the Tsar” and “Gangster No. 1"--that are receiving their first showings in this country. McDowell plans to attend many of the screenings and discuss them with the audiences.

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“I think it’s only right that I should be here to face the music for my past sins,” he muses. “I’m going to try not to feel old.”

McDowell has just turned 58, but with a shock of white hair and blazing blue eyes, he’s as charismatic as ever. He loves to regale listeners with tales of the greats and not-so-greats with whom he’s worked, often peppering the anecdotes with impeccable vocal impersonations of the supporting players. Take his tale of playing the rebellious schoolboy Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film “if.... .”

McDowell went for an open audition and almost missed it because he was delayed at a rehearsal for a play he was doing. “I rushed in,” McDowell recalls, “and apologized for being late. I said, ‘I’m doing this awful production of “Twelfth Night” at the Royal Court Theatre.’ I’d put my foot in it because Lindsay was a director of the Royal Court. I had no idea.”

Tickled by his impudence, Anderson asked him to read a scene. Later Anderson called him back to read with the young actress who had been cast as the waitress who befriends the student revolutionaries. McDowell recalls, “The script said, ‘Mick reaches over, grabs hold of the girl and passionately kisses her on the lips.’ I thought, well, I’ll not shirk my duty. I reached over, grabbed her, our teeth hit, and her lip started bleeding. As I came away, she slapped me so hard that tears came to my eyes. . . . I always think it was because of that slap that I actually was cast in ‘if....’ and went on to have a movie career. It was a Zen moment in my life.”

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McDowell relishes the process of acting; he knows the results are out of his hands, and he seems philosophical about the fate of his movies. “I can’t spend too much time worrying about the outcome,” he says. “I get a great kick out of working. And I’ve had the best time sometimes on the worst movies. James Mason once told me, ‘Malcolm, there are three reasons to do a movie: the part, the location, the money. If you can get two out of three, take the job.’ And he was right. If you can get three out of three, your name is Tom Cruise.”

Under the Mentorship of Director Anderson

Anderson took McDowell under his wing, and they worked together again on “O Lucky Man” in 1973 (Warners is striking a new print of the film for the Cinematheque screening) and “Britannia Hospital” in 1982. “Lindsay was everything to me,” McDowell says. “A mentor, a father figure. . . . Lindsay used to tell me, ‘I’m not interested in naturalistic stuff. I’m interested in a performance that elevates.’ ”

It was after seeing “if....” that Stanley Kubrick approached him to star as Alex, the Beethoven-loving thug in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even critics who had reservations about the violence in the film were bowled over by McDowell’s performance. Pauline Kael, one of the film’s detractors, said McDowell had “the power and slyness of a young Cagney.” The comparison was apt, since McDowell counts himself as James Cagney’s No. 1 fan.

“He was just the greatest film actor that ever lived, bar none,” McDowell says. “You were riveted to the way he moved.” McDowell has Cagney’s physical energy, along with a hypnotic voice; his sardonic voice-over narration of Anthony Burgess’ strange, invented language propels “A Clockwork Orange.”

McDowell points out that Kubrick’s direction of actors was completely unlike Anderson’s: “Lindsay would tell you about the emotional undercurrent, everything you wanted to know about the character. Stanley didn’t really dissect character; he wasn’t interested in that. He got good performances, but it was more by attrition. I’m the kind of actor that gets there in one or two takes. Working with Stanley was more like the siege of Stalingrad. I’d ask him what he wanted, and he’d say, ‘Just do it again.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Just do it again.’ Yet Stanley was the greatest audience. If he loved it, he would start laughing into his handkerchief.”

Sometimes the collaboration worked spectacularly well, as in the famous scene in which Alex beats a writer senseless and rapes his wife while singing “Singin’ in the Rain.” That was not written into the script, and filming of the scene was going slowly.

“Nothing we tried was working,” McDowell reports. “Finally, Stanley came over to me one day and said, ‘Malcolm, can you dance?’ And I went, ‘Can I dance? Of course I can.’ And I started to dance and whack the stunt man at the same time, and then I started singing, ‘I’m singin’ in the rain'--Stanley went nuts. It was just a joke, but Stanley loved it. He said, ‘I have to make a call, give me a moment.’ Right on the spot he called New York and bought the rights to the song. He was such a businessman!”

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Nevertheless, the actor and director had a rift toward the end of filming that never really healed. At one point, McDowell came down with tonsillitis, and he felt the single-minded Kubrick was cavalier about his health. In addition, he was bothered by Kubrick’s remoteness. “Because Lindsay had become a great friend, I presumed the same thing was going to happen with Stanley,” McDowell says. “I’d given him everything, and what I got was rejection. Looking back on it, that’s pretty much what I got from my own father. I was angry about it, and it’s only since Stanley’s death that I’ve been able to reconcile myself.

“If there’s anything I regret in my life, and there aren’t many things, it’s not picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hi Stanley, let’s get together for a drink.’ Because of course I loved him. I loved him and I hated him, but I did great work with him. It’s some of the greatest work I’ll probably ever do.”

At the time, the ferocious controversy about the film surprised McDowell. “I thought we’d made a good black comedy,” he says. “But then, in everything I do, I go for the humorous approach, even if I’m playing the most vicious killer.”

Portraying Villains Becomes Signature Act

Partly because of “A Clockwork Orange,” villains became McDowell’s stock in trade. He played evil to the hilt in “Caligula,” “Cat People,” “Blue Thunder,” “Star Trek Generations” and many other movies. “You look into his eyes, and you see a hint of wildness, a provocative come-on, and so it’s natural to cast him in those roles,” says director Hugh Hudson. “But he merits better than a lot of the movies he gets.”

As a result of this typecasting, McDowell was grateful for the few non-villainous roles he was able to play, including the part of the rambunctious uncle in Hudson’s 1999 coming-of-age tale “My Life So Far.” One of McDowell’s favorites, which will be shown in the Cinematheque retrospective, is “Time After Time,” in which he plays H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper through a time machine to modern-day San Francisco, where the Victorian writer falls in love with a liberated bank teller played by Mary Steenburgen.

“I was a fan of Malcolm’s from ‘if....’ and ‘O Lucky Man,’ ” says Nicholas Meyer, the film’s writer-director. “When I suggested him to Warners, they resisted at first. They said, ‘But he’s the baddie.’ And I said, ‘He can’t always be the baddie. That’s why it’s called acting.’ ”

Unfortunately, some of McDowell’s best performances have gone largely unseen. In 1990 he played Albert Schweitzer in a South African film; he considers it one of his most rewarding roles, but because of plagiarism charges brought against the film, it was locked in a vault and has never been released. In 1991, after the fall of Communism in Russia, McDowell made “The Assassin of the Tsar” (screening at the Cinematheque on Sunday), which is a marvelous showcase for him. He expertly plays two roles--a mental patient who believes that he killed Nicholas and Alexandra, and the actual assassin in the movie’s flashback sequences. The movie was well received at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1991 but has not been shown in the U.S. until now.

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McDowell still dreams of making “Mario and the Magician,” based on the Thomas Mann novella, which he has been trying to film for 20 years. But if that doesn’t come to fruition, he’ll do a horror movie or a gross-out comedy and tickle viewers with a few moments of gleeful malevolence.

“Even when I was in my 20s,” McDowell reflects, “I always said, ‘I don’t want to be a movie star. I want to be like John Gielgud. I want to be working when I’m in my 70s.’ And with a bit of luck, I will be.”

* The American Cinematheque presents “Outside Looking In: A Tribute to Malcolm McDowell,” Thursday through Sunday, Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-FILM.


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