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:
The actor's admiration of Gary Cooper as someone who epitomized a quality essential to film acting. To
quote Laughton on Cooper: "He gets at it from the inside, from his own clear way of looking at
life." (His comparable idol in stage acting was Gerald DuMaurier).
Laughton's penchant for memorizing and reciting large sections from the Bible and literature, which
amazes his biographer. "Unlike pianists or singers we are not ready at the
drop of a hat to perform for the delight of our fellow-guests," says Callow. " Indeed most of us would rather die
than do so. But Charles Laughton obviously found it easier than making small talk, which he
anyway regarded as a waste of time."
- The revolutionary film-making enterprise, Mayflower Productions, with which he hoped to stamp
out the star system and develop the film equivalent of a repertory theater. To do so he flung
himself into the role of executive (not as unaccustomed for Laughton the erstwhile Hotelier than
some actors) and appeared daily at an office in suit and tie and polished shoes (very unusual for an
actor with whom Tallulah Bankhead once refused to shake hands because he had such dirty
The friendship with Brecht who was particularly delighted with Laughton's very precise and
intentional answer to his question as to why he acted--"Because I like to imitate great men."
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."
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. ..it (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.
©right July 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp. Information
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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 .
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