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Charles Laughton : A Difficult Actor

This is that rare celebrity biography that's truly well-written and filled with substantive information. Fascinating as Laughton was, it's s as much a book about the creative process generally as it is about him.

While Callow, an actor as well as a writer, does not ignore Laughton's private life and personal background, he uses that information as a sandwich to stuff with the results of his inquiry into what Laughton was trying to do as an actor and how far he succeeded in doing it. The top crust of this sandwich, called "Origins" represent's the author's attempt to show something of where Laughton and his acting came from. The bottom crust, called "Coda" is designed to help the reader understand his emotional life. This organizing principle works remarkably well. It may not satisfy those looking for a tell all gossipy read but it makes for a must read for anyone interested in the theater, especially so if that interest extends to a theatrical career. While the biography of Colleen Dewhurst which we recently posted--( SeeColleen Dewhurst review)--also did not go in for deeply personal revelations, it was more a personal tribute to a warm and interesting personality who happened to be an actress, than an in-depth examination of the acting process.

The fact that Laughton's career encompassed many famous movie roles and these movies are still popular videos, even those who've never seen him on stage or in the theater versions of the films will most likely be able to call to mind vivid pictures of the unique "plump mask" that was Charles Laughton. His dual career as a stage and screen actor is particularly interesting. Unlike many actors for whom Hollywood is strictly a place to make money, Laughton was thrilled at the way it allowed him to give free reign to his perfectionism. After years of having been forced to conform to the theater's requirement to get the whole play more or less right by opening night, he fully appreciated the right to re-take possible when making a movie. It was an opportunity which he exploited notoriously (and often expensively). He also loved the camera closeup and is quoted as telling a movie magazine interviewer "Imagine a face like mine photographing so well. My features cut through the screen like a knife through cheese. It's sheer good luck--but who would have believed it."

Callow's details about Laughton's film acting career includes much enlightening anecdotal material and personal insights. Some examples that come to mind:

As Callow zig-zags with Laughton from London to Hollywood and back again, he inevitably stops at the Old Vic which Laughton found "both dingy and worthy." His view of its dingyness stemmed from the low priority given to Design. However, for Laughton design was a major preoccupation that dated back to his days of managing and collecting art for the Laughton family's hotel and led to his becoming a major art collector. It was at the Old Vic that the actor also came face to face with his difficulties vis-à-vis Shakespeare, specifically, Macbeth . It seems Laughton, fine speaking voice notwithstanding, was never comfortable speaking with verse and the Bard as Callow puts it was his "Great White Whale."

This author/actor does indeed prove that you can write about acting. His many descriptions of Laughton's acting include a particularly memorable summation on Laughton as Quasimodo in which, he states:
"Laughton does with acting what great creative artists attempt: to sound the deepest and the highest notes of human possiblity, to exalt the human soul, and to heal the damaged heart. (the Quasimodo role) is a yardstick for all acting. . .it was the last time he risked madness and physical collapse to fashion from his own psyche an image of the human condition. He decided, instead that he would join the human race, and try being Charles Laughton, instead of Philocteres, the bleeding, smelling patron of artists, exiled to his island with his wound and his bow. Now he wanted to like himself, and to be liked; to create, certainly, but from materials that lay outside his own body. He climbed down from the cross, pulled out the nails, and made with uncertain steps for real life."
Clearly the biographer found much in his subject to admire which may make you wonder at the subtitle. Until you read the book youself, this explanation from the introduction will have to do:
"Charles Laughton was a 'difficult' actor, not only because he was not easy to work with, but also in the sense that some books, some paintings, are said to be 'difficult': they require close attention, they are not what, at first sight, they appear to be."
What's not difficult to see is why this volume met with so much praise when first published in hard covers in 1987. It's nice to have it available in From International's less expensive new edition.

Charles Laughton : A Difficult Actor is is available in a paperback edition ( published by Fromm International, June, 1997) Its 318 pages include appendices that list his stage and film work and a very thorough. It's available on line at the Amazon book store
Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor .

©right July 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp. Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from

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