An A-Z of Actors: B

Just a reminder to add your own choices in the comments. Don’t forget, surnames beginning with ‘B’, not first names. I have tried to feature some lesser-known names, and leave lots of scope for your own favourites.

I am starting with one of my favourite actresses. She is from the Silent Film era, so may not be that well known. However, few actresses have ever held me so spellbound to watch on screen, or ever had such a wonderful hairstyle. Louise Brooks was an American, but best known for a short career in European cinema, specifically in Germany between the wars. She also retired from acting in 1938, though she was only 32 years old at the time. Famous for three starring roles, she captivated as Lulu, in ‘Pandora’s Box’ (1929), going on to roles in ‘Diary Of A Lost Girl’ (1929), and ‘Miss Europe’ (1930). Though she later returned to America and made more films, she was never well-received at home, and ended up dancing for a living, after going bankrupt. For the time, she was considered to be outrageous. Openly bisexual, and not afraid to pose for photos that were considered to border on pornography. She died in 1985, but remains an icon of style, loved by many.

British actress Kathy Burke has managed to prove that you don’t have to be a ‘glamour girl’ to have a successful career. With a long list of TV credits to her name, as well as stage and film appearances, she has also branched out into direction, and has most recently directed a revival of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ on the London stage. If you don’t recognise her name, you may have seen her in ‘Elizabeth’ (1998) playing the dying Queen Mary with great conviction. She was also cast as Connie the former spy, in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (2011). But without doubt, her greatest work was as the abused wife in ‘Nil By Mouth’ (1997). Directed by Gary Oldman, she stars alongside Ray Winstone in a powerful and critically-acclaimed film that won numerous awards, including Best Actress for her, at the Cannes Film Festival. Still only 53, we can expect much more from this talented lady.

Australian actor Bryan Brown is one of those faces that tended to pop up in any Australian film for a while. But he managed to expand his career outside of that country, and is still very active today, at the age of 70. Very much the ‘leading man’ figure, he actually began his acting in London, performing at The Old Vic in the 1960s, before returning to his home country. I first noticed him in the Australian Vietnam War film ‘The Odd Angry Shot’ (1979), and a year later, he achieved some fame with his role in ‘Breaker Morant’ (1980), a true story set during the Boer War. He then transferred to television with the mini-series ‘The Thorn Birds’, and ‘A Town Like Alice’. Now noticed in America, he starred in ‘FX Murder By illusion’ in 1986, then in ‘Gorillas In The Mist’ two years later. One of his best known roles is alongside Tom Cruise, as a bartender in ‘Cocktail’ (1998). He has been in numerous films since, and recently supplied the voice for Mr Rabbit in ‘Peter Rabbit’ (2018).

Another Australian, Eric Bana seemed to appear out of nowhere in 2000, with the crime thriller ‘Chopper’ gaining him instant recognition. But he had worked hard in his native country before that, with over ten years of constant parts on television, and in films. In 2001, he was cast in ‘Black Hawk Down’. Star status followed, and he was soon on the screens in ‘Hulk’ (2003), followed by ‘Troy’ (2004) where he played one of the leads, Prince Hector. His role in ‘Munich’ (2005) showed more nuance, and he also delivered a convincing Henry VIII, in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (2008). Since then, he has made fourteen more films, and he is not yet fifty years old. I have always thought he was one role away from gaining real acknowledgement, and has a lot more to give.

My last choice today is someone I mentioned recently, in a review of the film ‘Taras Bulba’. Yul Brynner was a true Hollywood star, and someone I grew up watching at the cinema. His distinctive look meant that he would always be noticed, and he worked in many film genres too. Perhaps best known for having a shaved head at a time when it was unusual, it is perhaps too easy to forget what a consummate actor he was. Born in the far east of Russia, in 1920, he was taken to Paris by his mother, in 1932. During his time there, he played guitar, sang songs, and worked as an acrobat in the circus. The family emigrated to America in 1940, and the following year, Yul was on the Broadway stage, in small roles. His breakout part was as the King of Siam, in ‘The King And I’, which he famously also played on film in the 1956 Hollywood version. Other film credits are well known, but I will list some, to highlight his career. ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), ‘Cast A Giant Shadow’ (1965), ‘Villa Rides’ (1968), and ‘Westworld’ (1970).
He died in 1985, leaving behind an unusual legacy in addition to his acting. As a heavy smoker, he suffered from lung cancer. Shortly before his death, he made a powerful commercial for the anti-smoking lobby which was shown just after he died. It is credited with helping to change the laws on the availability of cigarettes, and public smoking.

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An A-Z of Actors: A

For this new alphabet series, I am looking at actors; male and female, British and foreign, stage or screen. I will be listing some that I like very much, and reasons why I think they are worth including. Please add your own choices in the comments, and feel free to disagree with any of mine.
Remember though, it is the surname beginning with the letter, not the first name. As usual, I will mainly try to avoid the obvious choices, and leave lots for you to consider.

I am starting with an American actor who doesn’t usually get mentioned that often, and shares the same surname as his less-talented older brother. I first noticed Casey Affleck in his Oscar-nominated role as Robert Ford, in the lengthily-titled ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford’, in 2007. I thought he brought some real talent to the screen in a villainous role, and acted Brad Pitt right off it in the process. Before that film, he had already been in no less than twenty others, few of which I have seen. After ‘Jesse James’, he starred in ‘Gone baby Gone’ (2007), a film directed by his brother, Ben. Then he delivered a chilling performance as a serial killer, in ‘The Killer Inside Me’ (2010), before going on to win the Golden Globe and Best Actor Oscar for ‘Manchester By The Sea’ in 2016. (A film I have yet to watch.)

British actress Dame Eileen Atkins is unfortunate to have often been overshadowed by Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren. But her acting talent is at the very least on a par with both of those, and often superior, in my opinion. As well as an illustrious stage career, she has appeared in many films, with memorable appearances in ‘Gosford Park’ (2001), ‘Cold Mountain’ (2003), and ‘Cold Comfort Farm'( 1995), among many others. She is now 83 years old, and has been acting since 1957, winning numerous awards along the way. Still very active, her recent performances include playing Queen Mary, in the mini-series ‘The Crown’ (2016).

French actress Isabelle Adjani has had a stellar career since the early 1970s. She has won many acting awards and accolades, as well enjoying great critical acclaim. I first saw her in 1975, when she played the daughter of Victor Hugo, in Truffaut’s ‘The Story of Adele H’. She has worked with some of the great modern directors, including Polanski in ‘The Tenant’ (1976), Walter Hill in his American crime drama ‘The Driver’ (1978), and Werner Herzog’s ‘Nosferatu The Vampyre’ (1979). Perhaps her crowning glory was as Queen Margot, in the historical drama ‘La Reine Margot’ (1994). Since then, she has appeared in at least seventeen more films, usually in a starring role. She continues to work regularly, at the age of 62.

American actor Alan Arkin (Double-A!) has had a career almost as long as my life. He was in his first film in 1957, and is still working today at the age of 84, with films due to be released in 2019. As well as films, he has also had success in television, and few actors alive today can boast such a list of credits to their name. I have to go back to 1964, when I first noticed him in ‘The Russians Are Coming’, then saw his outstanding performance in ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’ (1968). In 1970, he was highly acclaimed for his starring role as Yosserian, in ‘Catch 22’, and went on to appear in over fifty more films, including the wonderful ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ in 1992.

My last choice today is actually very well known, and British. Sir Richard Attenborough died in 2014, at the age of 90. He left behind an amazing legacy of a career as an actor and director that lasted for almost seventy years. His list of credits is far too long to go into here, but it is worth remembering him as the villainous ‘Pinky’, in ‘Brighton Rock’ (1947), as well as the owner of one of the ‘small ships’ in ‘Dunkirk’. (1958) Other memorable films in which he starred include ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) and ‘The Sand Pebbles’. (1966). He delivered a chilling performance as the real-life serial killer John Christie, in ’10 Rillington Place’ (1971), and went on to be discovered by a new audience in the ‘Jurassic Park’ films. As a director, he made epics like ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (1977), ‘Young Winston’ (1972), and won an Oscar for ‘Gandhi’, in 1982. A true legend of British cinema.

TV Series Review: The Civil War (1990)

In late 1990, the BBC aired an American documentary series made by brothers Ken and Rick Burns. The subject was The American Civil War (1861-1865), something I had always been interested in. Unlike some dramatised documentary films, Burns took a completely different approach to the production of this ten-hour epic series. There was no reconstruction, no film clips, and no sign of any reenactors. Instead, he used a huge archive of contemporary photographs, diaries written at the time of the war, and the occasional interview with an expert on the subject.

This approach was stunning to watch. As a fine narrator talks over photos that are lingered upon, zoomed into, or simply stare out of the screen at the viewer. The voices of the characters of the time, politicians like Lincoln, or generals Lee, Sherman, and others, are voiced by some of the finest actors of the day. These include Morgan Freeman, Derek Jacobi, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, and Jeremy Irons. When experts are called upon to expand on an incident, or comment on the feelings in the country, only the most informed and experienced are used. Shelby Foote, Ed Bearss, and Barbara Fields, among others. There are also music and songs, perfectly in keeping with the mood of the programme.

The series takes no sides, and makes few judgments, simply presenting the facts as seen by people at the time, on both sides. It examines every aspect of the war, from the numerous significant battles, to the bitter border wars, as well as the impact on the many civilians caught up in the war in both parts of the country. Listening to excerpts from the diaries being read, whilst watching the photographs come and go on the screen was completely hypnotic, and something groundbreaking in television back then.

I was completely hooked on this series, and as soon as I could, I bought the nine-part box set on VHS, then watched it all over again. Later, I was given the DVD box set as a gift, something I still treasure to this day. If you are interested in history, great documentary film-making, or even the history of television, then this is something you must try to see. Don’t be put off by thinking you have no interest in that war, as this series will send you back into the period like nothing else you have ever seen.

Retro Review: Taras Bulba (1962)

I had never read the novel, but only 10 years old, I went to the cinema with my parents to watch the epic film based on the book. I was obviously very young. I wanted action, and got it. I wanted stars, and got them. I wanted a big screen cinema-experience epic, and got that too.

Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis, Christine Kaufmann, (She later married Curtis) Sam Wanamaker. They all lined up for this huge film from director J. Lee Thompson. When it hit the London cinemas, I was more than ready for this historical epic looking at the conflict between the Don Cossacks and their Polish masters, during the 16th century. I couldn’t have cared less if it was historically accurate. It had sieges, hundreds of extras, combat, and cavalry. Even before I got to the cinema, I was already over-excited at the prospect. For me at the time the plot was secondary to the action, and there was plenty of that.

In the late 1500s, the Turks were threatening Europe; and as far as this book and film was concerned, the empire of mighty Poland, one of the biggest players on the European stage at the time. Poland had the benefit of an alliance with the Russian Cossacks; a fierce and warlike group of men who owed allegiance to their clan leaders, as well as to Poland. But the Cossacks were also devout Christians, and feared the expansion of the Muslim Turks. So, they were happy to fight as mercenaries for the Polish empire, and answered the call to defeat the Turkish invasion.

Once they had helped the Poles defeat the Turkish army, they were betrayed. Fired upon by their Polish allies, who feared the power of the Cossacks, the tribes were scattered back to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Living under Polish rule, Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) decides to send his two sons to be educated by the Poles in Kiev. They are cruelly treated there, but one of them, Andriy, (Tony Curtis) falls in love with the local Polish Princess. (Kaufmann)

Meanwhile, the Poles call the Cossack army to assemble at Dubno. But Taras suspects them, and besieges the city instead. Inside, Andriy is besotted by his love for the Princess, and agrees to betray his father, by leading the Polish Army in an assault out of the city, against his fellow Cossacks.

With great set-piece battles, authentic locations, and serious performances from the cast, (though Curtis looks like a 1960s pop star) this is an old-school epic of the highest order. Brynner is just right as Taras, Sam Wanamaker is great in a supporting role, and the battles are well staged, with lots of extras. This was 1960s big-screen cinema at its best. Though it will now be showing its age, it is still stirring stuff, and worth your time for a slice of little-known history.

Here’s a great old-fashioned trailer.

Retro Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

I have long believed in the possibility of life in other places in our vast universe. And at one time, I was an avid reader of books written by people who claimed to have been abducted and returned. So when I heard about a new science fiction film with this theme, a big-budget production conceived and directed by Stephen Spielberg, I was ready to watch it as soon as it hit the cinemas. The cast included such flavour of the month names as Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr, as well as an acting appearance by the famous French film-maker, Francois Truffaut.

The scene is set very nicely. French scientist Lacombe (Truffaut) makes some startling discoveries. A missing squadron of WW2 planes, parked neatly in a desert location in America. A lost and intact cargo ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and witnesses describing how they saw a near miss between civil airliners and a UFO. We know this is going to be good, straight off.

The action cuts to Roy, (Dreyfuss) and his wife Ronnie. (Garr) Roy works as a lineman for the electric company, and as he is investigating a power cut one night, a UFO flies over his truck, with the light from the craft leaving slight burns on one side of his face. Roy becomes obsessed with UFO sightings, and begins to build a huge model in his house, using dirt from the garden. As he builds, it takes the shape of a flat-topped mountain.
In another home we see Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her young son. His toys activate themselves after a burst of light outside the house, and Jillian also begins to have visions of a flat-topped mountain.

With all the UFO activity being reported, Lacombe arrives in the US to investigate. Research identifies a mountain in Wyoming, the Devil’s Tower, as the flat-topped mountain seen in the visions, and the government seals off the area, issuing false reports of a toxic gas spill. Roy has become consumed by his obsession with the UFO sightings and building his replica of the mountain. This ruins his marriage, and Ronnie leaves, taking the children. Despite the government reports, both Jillian and Roy decide to make their separate ways to the site, unable to resist the overwhelming urge to see the UFO they believe to be there. Meanwhile, Lacombe has set up a means to communicate with the aliens, using musical notes as language.

Hundreds of people are converging on the site, and most are caught by the Army, and denied access. Eventually, Jillian and Roy meet each other, and contrive to sneak into the location. Hiding from the authorities, they watch Lacombe begin to communicate with his musical device.

What happens next is true cinema. Something that has to be seen on a big screen, in the dark, to be best-appreciated. Perhaps the best-realised spaceship ever seen on screen appears, appearing to dwarf the mountain by its immense size. I was 25 years old, and actually said “Wow” in a cinema, that’s how impressive it was. After increased musical communication that begins to sound like an electronic concerto, the ship lands, and opens a huge hatch. Out from the ship come men dressed as WW2 pilots, looking dazed and confused. Schoolgirls in uniform appear too, (referencing ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) and more and more people emerge dazed into the light.
A team of volunteers has been assembled, ready to enter the spaceship with the friendly aliens to embark on a voyage of discovery. After being found at the site and interviewed by Lacombe and his team, Roy decides to go along too.

I liked this film so much, that the following week, when I had a friend visiting from France, I took her to see it. I watched it twice in one week, something I hadn’t done since ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. The special effects are second to none, even now, and the acting from all concerned is just right. For my money, this is still Spielberg’s best film.

Retro Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Forty-five years later, it is perhaps hard to realise just what an effect this film had on cinema-goers in 1973. Quite honestly, there had never really been anything like it. Newspapers carried articles about the film, people were taken ill in cinemas as they watched it, and some ran terrified from their seats. I was 21 years old, and convinced nothing would scare me, so off I went to see it.

William Blatty adapted his own book for the screen, and solid director William Friedkin was in charge. The cast appeared to be first rate too, with Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb, as well as a young actress I had never heard of, Linda Blair. It seemed to me that all concerned were taking this story of the demonic possession of a young girl very seriously indeed.

We don’t have to wait long for the action to start. Young Regan (Blair) is living with her mother (Burstyn) in Georgetown, USA. One evening, she plays with a Ouija board, and contacts a spirit, who she calls Captain Howdy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Iraq, Catholic Priest and exorcist, Father Merrin, (Von Sydow) has discovered a demonic amulet. Back in America, Regan starts to behave very strangely; swearing, cursing, and urinating on the floor. Her bed shakes violently when she is in it, and strange sounds and voices come from her mouth. Her mother tries to find out what is wrong, and enlists the help of doctors, priests, and psychiatrists, including a Father Karras.

One night, Regan is being looked after by a family friend, Burke. When her mother returns, she finds Burke dead, apparently after falling from a window. The police become involved, with a detective (Cobb) investigating the death. The psychiatrists suggest that an exorcism is tried, and father Karras enlists the help of an expert, who just happens to be Father Merrin. With Regan now having to be confined to her bedroom, the two priests begin their work.

What happens next has become the stuff of legend, as well as parody. Regan speaks with the voice of a demon, projectile vomits green bile, and masturbates with a crucifix. She is able to levitate, and to make objects fly around the room. Her head can turn 360 degrees, and her physical appearance begins to resemble a rotting corpse. The priests discover that the demon is Pazuzu, the same one shown on the amulet discovered by Father Merrin in Iraq. After long struggles with the demon inside Regan, the only solution seems to be to allow Pazuzu to leave her body, and possess someone else. So Father Karras makes this happen, taking the demon from the girl before leaping to his death from the window.

But the viewer is cleverly left wondering if that is the end of the matter.

Make no mistake, this is an incredibly powerful film, seen in the context of its time. I felt a real sense of dread every time anyone mounted the stairs to walk up to Regan’s room, thinking to myself “What now?” each time they entered. For their time, the special effects were startling, and often repulsive too. It was a hard watch, in every way imaginable. The cast took it all very seriously indeed, and young Linda Blair was incredible as the girl possessed by a demon. She was 14 years old at the time she played the 12 year old Regan, and looked younger.

I left the cinema feeling drained by the experience. My girlfriend at the time had been with me in the cinema, but had hardly watched anything apart from the introductory scenes. She was so scared, she had spent the bulk of the film hiding her face under the huge lapels of the jacket I was wearing. (It was 1973!) As we walked to the car, she asked me “Was it as bad as it sounded?” I answered “Worse”.

Retro review: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

I was too young to see this film in the cinema, so had to settle for a late-night TV showing, when I was around 12 years old. Directed by the estimable Charles Laughton, this film stars Robert Mitchum in one of his finest performances, ably assisted by Shelly Winters, Lilian Gish, and Peter Graves.

Set in West Virginia, during the depression-era 1930s, Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, a fire and brimstone travelling preacher, who hides a dark secret. He is a serial killer, a fake preacher, and a man without a conscience. During a short spell in prison for car theft, he meets a man called Ben Harper, who has killed two men during a robbery. Harper confides in Powell, telling him he has hidden the loot at his home, and nobody will find it. When Harper is executed for his crime, Powell travels to Ben’s home town to meet his widow, and search for the concealed loot.

He soon charms the devout widow, Willa, (Shelly Winters) and tries to ingratiate himself with her two children too. But the boy, John Harper, is suspicious of the supposedly affable reverend, though his sister Pearl accepts him. He even marries Willa, claiming to want to care for her and the children. But when she discovers his true intentions, he kills her, and hides her body. Powell tells all the local people that Willa has run away, and left him alone to care for the children. They all rally round to help, and feel sorry for him.

The reverend eventually discovers that the money is hidden in Pearl’s rag doll, and the children run away. They hide at the home of a local old lady, Rachel Cooper, (Gish) as Powell tries to hunt them down.

This is an excellent film, with convincing performances from all involved, and a great sense of menace instilled by Laughton’s near-perfect direction, unusual camera angles, and stark black and white cinematography. At times, it is also very frightening, as Mitchum goes from concerned and caring preacher, to psychotic maniac. It is undoubtedly his film, and he commands every scene he is in by totally inhabiting the character of Powell.
Highly recommended.