Monday, September 1, 2014

Richard Attenborough: A giant for our time

There are different types of men. Likewise, there are different types of actors. Some we emulate, some we are too overwhelmed to emulate, and some we ignore. There are actors we look up-to, so much so that we feel betrayed whenever they take on lesser roles. To admire, imitate, or ignore someone, however, you must see him again and again. I didn’t see Richard Attenborough enough. I don’t remember at what point I began attributing to him the qualities of a great actor. Probably not too long ago. He was certainly no Laurence Olivier. But he didn’t need to be. He was Richard Attenborough. And unlike all the Oliviers who shook the stage and cinema, he was difficult to define.  For he was of a rare breed.

“I come from a very radical background,” he said. His father, a college principal, had secretly brought Jewish academics out of Nazi Germany. His mother had done the same with refugee children from Spain. Richard was born in 1923 in Cambridge. He attended a Grammar School in Leicester, and later attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The war, meanwhile, was lurking nearby. Attenborough found himself, in the midst of it, in the R.A.F., with a camera by his side, working in propaganda films. “My first excitement with the camera,” he would dub it.

For those who measure an actor’s role by his figure, Attenborough’s first few performances suited him. In Which We Serve (1942) had his first performance, albeit a minor one, in a story not far removed from the propaganda work he had done for the R.A.F. Then there was Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), again in a minor role. In both performances there was a deliberate underplaying on his part. Both used his war experiences. Understandably, they did not quite exploit his full capabilities.

Then came 1947. The film which launched Attenborough was Brighton Rock. That brought out of him the dexterity that had eluded him in his previous roles. As “Pinkie” Brown, the boyish and brutal gang leader, his figure was cut out perfectly for the role. There were in him certain physical traits – the languid eyes, the slightly corpulent figure, the cherubic face – that were quite incongruous with the brutal, vicious role he had to play. This was exactly what Graham Greene, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, had envisioned in his character. With a stare as dreamy as it was intense, a voice as aloof as it was piercing, and a figure as murderous as it was cowardly, Attenborough fitted the bill quite perfectly.

There were those who claimed that Attenborough did not quite rise up to the standard that other British actors, Alec Guinness included, had. They pointed out, and not unjustifiably, his childish, immature look and his limited voice. Guinness’ role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, as complex a performance as you could ever get, was apparently very far removed from that of Attenborough in The Great Escape. That’s true. The limitation on Attenborough’s part was evident. As the mild-mannered but stubborn R.A.F. Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, his performance paled before those of co-stars Steve McQueen and James Garner.

Attenborough himself was aware of this. “I was cursed with a sort of an idiotic, cherubic face,” he said, perhaps putting things too excessively. Tired of playing “psychopaths and little squirts,” as he called them, he decided to move on, to get away. So instead of acting in movies, he decided to make them. And as with all actors who made that transition, Clint Eastwood included, Attenborough’s first few attempts at directing were shaky. His debut film, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), satirised World War I by infusing warfare and bloodshed with song and satire. Not a very happy combination. But the attempt worked, winning him five BAFTA Awards that year.

Then there was A Bridge Too Far (1977), with a title that could just as easily have fitted the film itself. As with his earlier ventures, Attenborough tried his hand at the larger-than-life. The film had almost every actor in demand at the time, from Laurence Olivier to Ryan O’Neal. There were heroics, melodramatic in their own special way, oozing at times from the film. Attenborough rightly felt justified in using them, no matter what audiences and critics thought. Besides, these attempts were precursors to the most ambitious film of them all.

If ever Attenborough created a personal testament, it was Gandhi (1982). Monumental for its time, this epic, sweeping biopic of the Mahatma could never have been replicated by anyone – not even, it must be admitted, by Attenborough. The film caught every facet and angle to one of the 20th century’s most endearing figures. Gandhi was, like his previous films, larger-than-life and sprawling: why it worked was because the character depicted happened to be both those things. Gandhi won him eight statuettes at that year’s Oscars, at a time when bio-epics had long exited that ceremony.

Directors, like actors, come in different shades. There are those who believe in a minority art. They are rare. There are also those who pander to mass audiences. They are many. Attenborough was of neither shade. He had no set “style.” He was no “auteur,” if by that term you include directors who were iconoclasts. “Whatever you need to convey has to be in the terms of a world mass media,” he said. That came closest to describing the cinema he stood for, if ever he did stand for any cinema. This meant, of course, that all his films, commendable as they were in their themes, made concessions to the audience. And here his weaknesses stood out.

In Cry Freedom (1987), his homage to the slain anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko, he tried to adapt the epic canvas of Gandhi to South Africa. The attempt failed, not least because, being unable to achieve it completely, Attenborough fell back on clichés, heroics, and rhetoric. Not that the film failed completely. But critics were harsh: “a routine cliff-hanger,” Roger Ebert called it. Inevitable, considering the difficult terrain between mass appeal and critical appeal Attenborough had tried to stay in.

In Chaplin (1992), three films after Gandhi, he attempted the impossible: to depict in a larger-than-life manner someone who had become larger-than-life both in history and in cinema. The story of Chaplin needed honesty, wit, and frankness, quite different to Attenborough’s vision of it as a “rags-to-riches” fable. Not surprisingly, the attempt backfired.

Meanwhile, he didn’t completely give up acting. He made up for his lacklustre films with some commendable performances. He was outstanding as General James Outram in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players, brilliant as a benevolent but megalomaniac billionaire in Jurassic Park, and simple as a kind-hearted Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. As the years rolled by, his performances reflected his age, and his age added to their charisma. He was down-to-earth and modest. He was one of a kind.

Richard Attenborough had his highs and lows, both as actor and as filmmaker. Not even a knighthood could summarize them. Just as well, I should think. Maybe he was cherubic in the characters he played, even to the point of stereotype. Maybe he was larger-than-life in the films he made, even unjustifiably. His was a career which was in pursuit of an overarching goal. That goal may have been the stripping away of needless frills from the roles he played and the stories he filmed. That he succeeded, even halfway through, no-one is in doubt. Perhaps that is the most fitting tribute we can ever pay him. I’m sure no other will do. At all.