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Weekend Arts: A Holiday for two
By Tom Sutcliffe | Guardian Newspapers 1/10/87
In the Old Vic's production office, Lindsay Anderson, director of
Holiday, checks up on Mary Steenbergen's and Malcolm McDowell's joint
interview. 'As Bette Davis said,' and Anderson is able to quote because he
spent the autumn in Maine directing her in The Whales of August, ''I
can't stand people who come and say 'Oh you're the greatest thing they've
ever seen and they always thought you were wonderful. So boring.''' He
does the accent too. 'Nobody should give interviews. Look back on the days of innocence,
when Ernst Lubitsch or William Wyler made a movie and it came out and that
was it. People either liked it or they didn't'.
But those days are past, and having prompted Anderson to keep a pressing engagement in another part of the building, we went to it. Holiday - Philip Barry's 1928 Broadway hit comedy - is Malcolm and Mary's first time on stage together, and her first time on stage for 10 years. So it's no holiday. In addition six-year-old Lilly has chickenpox and Charlie, three, may be getting it.
The whole family has been on the road for some time. They live 88 miles outside Los Angeles in the small farming community of Ojai. But Mary had a couple of days' work in Maine on Whales, and then Malcolm was in Rome for his latest film, The Caller, and the family joined him there. 'They're marvelous travelers now. They have to be. One parent of course is always with them,' he says. The family fortunately includes Linda, 'this beautiful Scottish girl,' says Mary, 'who has been with us two years. She's a nanny for everybody, me and Malcolm as well.'
After spending most of the last eight years in the US, Malcolm has a definite American intonation. But then the play is American and they've just finished rehearsing for the day. Now 43 and with silver hair, he has managed the transition from long-running juvenile to mature male very successfully. He's still not as good at relaxing as Mary, though, who sits at the head of the table sipping Perrier, calm, collected and beautifully delicate in feature. Mary is from North Little Rock, Arkansas, but you'd never know it from her impeccably East Coast way of speaking.
The accent changed when she went to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. 'I was 19 and had to decide whether I would just specialize in southern characters. Part of me railed against it, because I felt that Arkansas accent was me. But I wanted to do it all, so I worked painstakingly with a tape recorder for about 18 months. I remember in speech class we had to work on the words 'pen' and 'pin', and I had been told by my teacher in Little Rock that though they were spelt differently they sounded exactly the same.'
'I am very suspicious of acting teachers,' says Malcolm, 'but Sanford Meisner, whom I've since got to know, is one of the great men. From what Mary's told me his methods are very similar to ours here.' Mary says: 'He didn't make it an elusive esoteric exercise you'd need a PhD to be good at. ' 'Not too much crap in other words,' says Malcolm. 'The opposite to that Method Studio stuff. '
They first worked together in the 1979 film Time After Time, and they liked it. 'When you live together as we do, you know each other's every move,' says Malcolm. 'She doesn't have to be in a show with me to know what it's all about. Occasionally we have cued each other, though we're a bit too busy doing our own thing for that now.'
'We've used each other as sounding boards,' says Mary. 'Trying out how to play a part. Very healthy actually. I think we're very independent. I really have my own mind, so does Malcolm. The only question whether I should take on an assignment is 'Does it make my heart beat faster?' Not to sound corny, but when I read a script it either does or it doesn't. And if it does, I want to do it, even if it's not good for me and is a 1905 period ensemble piece and I already just did one last year I don't care'
'The other consideration,' says Malcolm, 'is the young family. It's purely practicalities. That's really why I've not been back to England to
work in 10 years.' Holiday came up when Mary was in Britain to publicize the BBC's Tender is the Night and was lunching with Lindsay Anderson at the Savoy. There had long been an unresolved plan for Mary and Malcolm to do a play together, with Lindsay directing. He suggested Holiday. She had done a scene from it at drama school, but didn't remember the 1938 movie with Cary Grant.
'I'm pleased I did see it,' says Malcolm. 'I'm stealing as much as I can from Cary Grant. He does this amazing back-flip. But having had an expert up to teach me, we decided to can that immediately.' As Archibald Leach, Grant had been a circus performer. 'You have to be
born into back flips.' says Malcolm. 'You don't just learn them for a play - unless you're Robert de Niro. We've settled happily on a
cartwheel, which is much more my style. It's a little homage a Cary Grant. That's how I see it. Our daughter is a brilliant cartwheeler. ' 'She's the cartwheel queen', says Mary proudly.
Cartwheels in a comedy of dollars and charm make this sound unusually soft territory for McDowell, whose image is more that of the engaging, embattled and prickly rebel. But he dislikes type-casting: 'Every actor's bitch, is that. Let's face it, heavy parts are usually the
best parts, and it's hard to get the lightness and deftness of touch for a whimsical kind of thing like this.'
Rehearsals followed immediately on a demanding shoot in Rome, for Frank Yeblans's production of a script by the American writer Michael Sloane. Bizarrely, the film was all shot in sequence, inside one house, and with only Malcolm and Madeleine Smith. 'I've never shot a film in chronological sequence, but the subtle changes in the drama made it essential to follow through like that.'
Mary produced a film in Little Rock in the summer and got a lot of cooperation for free that outsider companies would have been made to pay for, so that her $2.8 million movie looks much more expensive. It was written by a man from her home town whom she didn't know but had encouraged and helped to go to Columbia film school. 'It's called the End of the Line,' she says. 'I read and fell in love with it and he asked me to produce it. My father worked for the railroad for 38 years, and his father was also a railroad man, and the film is about that. A passion for me, because it's where I came from. Uncles and aunts and parents figure in the film, one of them even speaking, though her mother just bit the dust of the cutting room floor. It's hoped to make Cannes and come out in the summer. Producing is hard bloody work, not nearly as much fun as acting.'
McDowell's last play in London was Entertaining Mr. Sloane, at the Royal Court. 'Joe Orton changed my whole outlook about acting,' he says. 'I played Alex in Clockwork Orange very much in an Orton way, without knowing it. He was an Orton character really, an appealing, funny monster - immoral, yet with a kind of morality.' In New York since then he has done Look Back In Anger, on which Lindsay Anderson directed the video for cable, and In Celebration also directed by Anderson.
He first worked in film for Anderson in the 1968 if....'It's hard to say in a friendship with a director like Lindsay, where the boundaries are any more. I know instantly whether he's going to like what I've done or not. He was my drama school, if you like, the only person that really taught me anything about acting. Everything physical has to be very precise and clean an focused.'
Mary, apart from the two days' filming in Whales, is working for Anderson for the first time. ''Lindsay's been a figure in our life ever since I met Malcolm because he is this great influence in Malcolm's life, who believed in him and taught him so much. I have someone like that in my life as well - Jack Nicholson (who directed and starred with her in Goin' South) - and there's always the possibility that one loves someone so much it becomes a case of idolizing them. Lindsay here has given me more direction and some of the best direction of any director I've worked with. He always comes up with another choice of how to do something that's better than what I thought of - bigger, more classical, says more about life. I know he has this reputation for being fierce with some people and caustic. With actors he is extremely sensitive, gentle and respectful. He has an incredible eye for things.'
'Don't forget darling,' says Malcolm, 'that you're trusting something to him that is very nerve-wracking for you, getting on stage after ten
years. ' 'The pressure is there,' Mary says, 'because I want to do it well. The Old Vic is the theatre I used to dream about as a kind. In my
life this is one of those big moments. '
Malcolm adds: 'Doing a play is such an intimate experience. It's like a life cycle, incredibly close, with the emotions of a family unit. If I
go backstage to see a friend after a play, I always feel distanced, because it's not my family. Now Mary knows what I've been talking about all these years, and that's good. '
Holiday premieres at the Old Vic on Wednesday and opens on January 20.
3/87 The Face (UK) Magazine with Malcolm
Written by Philip Barry
Performed at The Old Vic in England
Premiered January 14, opened January 20, closed February 28, 1987
Malcolm from Program
This format 2001-08 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net