MALCOLM McDOWELL:
O LUCKY MAN?

by John Naughton


IF... AND O LUCKY MAN MADE HIM FAMOUS. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE MADE HIM INFAMOUS. BUT MALCOLM McDOWELL NEVER DELIVERED ON THE INORDINATE PROMISE OF HIS GILDED YOUTH. HERE, HE REFLECTS BACK ON THE BRILLIANT HIGHS AND DARK LOWS OF AN EXTRAORDINARY CAREER. "I'M NOT GONE YET," HE INFORMS JOHN NAUGHTON. "THE PHOENIX HAS RISEN FROM THE ASHES."

The taxi driver escorting your correspondent to a rendezvous with Malcolm McDowell at Julie's restaurant in Holland Park, London, is taking an unusually keen interest in the star of A Clockwork Orange, If...and O Lucky Man!

"Oh yes," he avers, craning his neck around 90 degrees the better to make his point, "McDowell was a diamond actor, absolutely brilliant. I loved his films."

Which films in particular? He ponders the question at length, as if his mental meter were running, before deciding, "He was the business in them Planet of the Apes films."

Oh dear. A popular misconception concerning my dining companion this evening, that of being confused with the former child star turned primate-fancier, Roddy McDowall. Before I can correct the cabbie's faux pas, however, he interrupts, "Nah, mate. I was only teasing you. I know Malcolm McDowell. He was Alex in A Clockwork Orange and he was in If... and O Lucky Man!, wasn't he? Haven't heard much of him for ages, though."

What is the world coming to? The cab-driving fraternity, stout-hearted purveyors of light racist banter, enthusiastic advocates of the widespread application of the noose and unsubtle commentators on the female form, are not meant to be suppliers of succinct cinema histories.

But there it is, the Malcolm McDowell story in the shell of the nut: he was Alex in A Clockwork Orange and he was in If... and O Lucky Man!. And we haven't heard anything much of him for ages.

A resident of Southern California since 1979, Malcolm McDowell has been out of the British public eye but still in gainful employment for most of the 15 years since he settled in the US. There, in 1980, he married the actress, Mary Steenburgen (after co-starring with her in the time-travel fantasy, Time after Time) and together, they had a son and daughter before divorcing in 1990. Professionally however, the '80s, like much of the '70s, were not a good time to be Malcolm McDowell. A decade of US flops and independent European co-productions reduced him to making the rounds of fifth-rate casting calls and, despite frequent fine performances in so-so material, the impression remained of a man unable to deliver on the inordinate promise of his gilded youth.

Since then he's remarried (his American wife, Kelley, is also dining with us tonight) and, after the briefest of cameos in The Player and a co-starring performance as a bigoted South African policeman in Morgan Freeman's directorial debut Bopha!, has set out on a comeback trail. His low profile in his country looks set to change in 1995, as he makes the well-established Hollywood career move of playing the English villain, first in Star Trek Generations and later in the year in Tank Girl, the much-trumpeted adaptation of the British cartoon strip.

Good man that he is, Malcolm McDowell scarcely mentions either film all evening. He's not here to "promote product", but is instead happy to reminisce about his career. The express purpose of this rare visit back to Blighty is to attend a memorial service at the Royal Court for Lindsay Anderson, who directed McDowell in his surreal trilogy about corrupt British institutions, If..., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, and this has sent the actor's memory muscles into overdrive. Almost before his still-trim derriere has touched down on the restaurant chair, he's off on the anecdote trail.

"The last time I came to Julie's there was a birthday party and Peter Sellers was one of the guests, he recalls. "There were about 20 of us and Sellers was sitting opposite me and he didn't say a word all evening. Not a word. Then, just as the coffees started arriving, a woman in the party discovered she'd lost her ring and Sellers sprang into life and set off on this Inspector Clouseau routine, interrogating every member of the party about the ring. It lasted about 20 minutes and was absolutely brilliant, had everyone in stitches.

The venue for Prince Charles's stag night, Julie's is a restaurant with quite a track record, and as menus are scanned McDowell doles out some more local history. The woman who appears topless in A Clockwork Orange in the scene which follows Alex's violent aversion therapy and provokes in him a feeling "to have her right down there on the floor with the old in-out, real savage", now runs a shop opposite Julie's.

"I remember we spent two days together, he recalls "and I remember teaching her how to do this kind of stage bow."

And what of A Clockwork Orange, which was, of course, withdrawn from UK distribution over 20 years ago by its director Stanley Kubrick amid a campaign of demonisation by the media for its "ultraviolence", its allegedly instrumental role in all things corrupting, and fears that it was promoting copycat violence throughout the land.

"It was a great, great novel," states McDowell, with due respect to the late Anthony Burgess. "There's no question about Burgess's brilliance. Definitely Stanley served it brilliantly, incredibly. But it's very sad for me that in my own home country it's never shown. None of the new generation know what the hell it is at all."

Where If...made McDowell famous, A Clockwork Orange made him infamous, his leering, bowler-hatted face becoming synonymous with evil (as well as providing the blueprint for Mark E. Smith's career). Wielding a gigantic alabaster phallus he battered a woman to death; with stick and dagger he assaulted his fellow droog, Warren Clarke; and with his notorious choreographed attack on the writer, Mr. Alexander, to the tune of Singin' in the Rain, fell right off Gene Kelly's Christmas card list.

"Stanley called up for the rights to Singin' in the Rain and I do believe he got them for $10,000 for 3 minutes, though it may have just been 30 seconds . I thought that was exorbitant . But it made that whole section of the movie. It was a master stroke. Gene Kelly wouldn't talk to Stanley when they met at an awards ceremony. Just blanked him."

McDowell was pivotal to the massive success of A Clockwork Orange. Cocky and clever in equal measure, he made believable the paradox that lies at the centre of the novel and the film: that one so evil could be inspired by the beauty of Beethoven's music to such hideous acts of violence. Physically powerful, blithely amoral and brutally sarcastic, McDowell gave an unforgettable performance, not least because of his memorable narration in Burgess's invented languages, Nadsat. The delivery in his deadpan northern tones gave the film much of its narrative coherence and enabled Kubrick to keep true to the spirit of the book.

"It took two weeks to do the narration and we did it at Stanley's house," recalls McDowell. "I'll never forget, because we used go out and play ping pong in this tent and then come back and work on it I remember doing [he slips out of his actorly accent and back into his best Alex voice], 'The Durango 95 purred away real horrorshow. A nice, warm, vibratey feeling in your gutty wuts.' I remember doing it like it like I'd do a Campbell's Soup commercial. That's exactly what it was. Of course, it was very funny. Off we'd go and play more ping pong. We did the takes in his office, with this Stenhauser microphone, with a pencil and rubber band so I'd always be the same distance from the mic. He would operate it himself. Nobody else.

"The postscript to all that," he continues, "is that about three months later I said, 'By the way Stanley, I know you never speak to actors' agents, but my agent tells me you never paid me for this two weeks' of narration that I did.' And he went, 'Two weeks! At least one week of that was ping pong!'- and he refused to pay me!"

More memorable than his voice were the aversion therapy scenes where Alex's eyes are pinned back and he's forced to "sit like a horrorshow co-operative malchick in the chair of torture" listening to lovely Ludwig Van. It looks like it was excruciating to do, and if McDowell appears to be in actual pain, well, he was. "I scratched my corneas and I said, 'Stanley I'm not doing that again.' I had to have a shot of morphine, it was that painful. To be fair to Stanley , he did send me down to Moorfields Eye Hospital to see this doctor, who actually plays the doctor in the scene, and he said, 'Oh Malcolm, it's very safe, we do these delicate eye operations all the time'. Of course it's very safe when you're lying flat on your back, but when you're actually propped up in a straitjacket it's a different story. The doctor was more worried about his lines. I'm like, 'Doc, it's been more than eight seconds get those eyedrops in!' The guy's worried about being the next Hamlet, and my corneas are drying up!"

For his considerable pain and effort, McDowell picked up the vast sum of $100,000, "good money at the time" as he acknowledges, but more than a little offset by the fact that he was paying 90 percent tax. And more paining still was the fact that he failed to negotiate a percentage points deal, despite his relentless petitioning of the eccentric Kubrick. This has cost him, he reckons, "a few million." Nevertheless, there isn't any trace of bitterness in his voice. Perhaps it's been assuaged by the knowledge that his performance will endure in the annals of cinema history, and that he is the star of a film which has been at the centre of Britain's longest-running cinema controversy, attracting opprobrium down the years and memorably attacked by Leslie Halliwell as "pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds."

"Of course that's ridiculous. It's not even that violent," counters McDowell. "The violence in the movie is nothing to do with physical beatings---any TV show's worse than that---it's more violence of a mental, psychological kind. And actually, what can be more violent than the freedom to choose being taken away from you?"

Malcolm McDowell was born on June 15, 1943 in Leeds, but raised in Liverpool where his father ran a pub, The Park Hotel. With one sister six years older and another eight years younger, McDowell effectively lived the life of an only child.

"I hated pub life," recollects McDowell. "It's not much of a home, really, and my parents were always busy. So it was a natural thing for me to become an actor."

Thus after a spell working at the Bull and Dog in Ormskirk and a dismal period as a rep for a coffee firm (an experience that provided the inspiration for o Lucky Man!), McDowell headed south, was taken on by Royal Shakespeare Company, then at the height of its late 60s innovation. After a brief appearance in Ken Loach's Poor Cow, which didn't make it into the final cut, McDowell auditioned for the part of Mick Travers in If. . .

"I was late and as I walked on to the stage I heard this cough, this Lindsay Anderson clearing of the throat. He said, 'Turn round,' and I thought, 'My God! Another cattle call, he wants to see my arse or something. Jesus!' So I had an attitude right from the start. He jumped up on the stage and it was instant: 'Where are you working?' 'The Royal Court.' 'How do you like it?' 'Loathe it.' 'Good!' He was so pleased about that and I knew I'd met somebody who understood."

A scathing indictment of the cruelty of the English public school system, If... forged a bond between the two men that was to last until Anderson's untimely death last year. McDowell remains hugely affectionate towards Anderson and his anti-establishment tour de force.

"Lindsay was a public schoolboy," he explains, "and you can see from If... that he loved all that, that he loved England. No man that didn't love England could make If.... It's impossible!"

Reaching for his mineral water, McDowell is happy to debunk one of the great myths surrounding the film, namely that it went from colour to black and white because the production ran out of money.

"Oh no," he grins. "The real story about the black-and-white sequences is that we were filming in this chapel in Cheltenham, a very old chapel and we couldn't get the lights in there. So Lindsay said, 'Well, we'll shoot it in black and white.' When he saw it he said, "Aah, I just love black and white, why don't we do it again tomorrow? Let's shoot it in black and white.' It was totally arbitrary. He said to me, 'Malcolm. In Cinderella when the clock strikes 12, why does the carriage turn back into a pumpkin?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'It just does.' It was my first taste of surrealism.

McDowell was with his wife in their villa in Italy when he heard the news about Anderson's death, which he calls "the end of an era. He stood for absolutely no compromise. The man was a poet, an extraordinary intellect, and what's more important, the greatest friend any man could ever have. And a brilliant prophet too," he adds. "If you see Britannia Hospital, which they all hate here, it's a fucking great movie. The country then was bound up with the dream of Thatcherism, so of course this was unfashionable, but of course this Thatcher crap was on a very surface level, benefiting a very few people in the city, and the rest of the heartland of the country was gone to the dogs. And he knew that."

If McDowell's association with Anderson was responsible for the brightest moments of his career, his partnership with Italian director Tinto Brass produced some of the darkest, spawning a year of unparalleled misery which culminated in the release, of Caligula in 1979 to universal hilarity and condemnation from critics and cast alike. Playing the title role of the unhinged Roman emperor, McDowell became embroiled in a production which became notorious for its labyrinthine shooting schedule and heavy handed involvement of the money men, most notably Penthouse porn baron-turned-producer Bob Guccione. Disappointed at the level of nudity in director Brass's final cut, Guccione responded by inserting virtually at random - extra footage of Penthouse pets divesting themselves of their clothing. As McDowell ruefully reflects, such a crass decision was perfectly in keeping with the extraordinary events which had preceded it.

"I got involved in it because of Gore Vidal," McDowell recalls. "He called me and said, 'I'm writing a script called Gore Vidal's Caligula.' Talk about no shame!" Rapidly the production degenerated from a highbrow look at the emperor's depravity into total chaos. A madness of which Caligula himself would have approved consumed proceedings as linguistic problems and outrageous directorial decisions took the film far away from the original idea conceived by Vidal, who had long since bailed out. "I found this lunatic stuff completely silly, taking away from the political angle," says McDowell. "And I would like to have seen more humour. I tried to put in as much as I could, but it's tough when you're filming in a foreign country."

Humour of the unintentional variety, however was not in short supply. At one point in the film, in a military manoeuvre of doubtful origin, a unit of Roman centurions run into a lake, having completely forgotten to don any armour. What was that about?

"Oh yes," laughs McDowell. "Tinto had the army going naked into the lake. I was incredulous. I said to him, 'Why the fuck? What's going on? Where's their armour?' He said [slipping into an Italian accent], 'They're beautiful! See their cocks and their arse ... Cock and arse! Then they fuck!'"

The outrage continued. In a film which did little to advance the cause of feminism, perhaps the least laudable episode featured McDowell leading Helen Mirren who plays his mistress Caesonia, around on a leash.

"Helen found a way to do it," McDowell chuckles. "I think she was less affected by the whole thing than I was - I found it to be an extraordinary betrayal. It took me many years to get over it. In fact it was years and years before I even saw the movie."

Not every cast member, however, took such a critical view of the film. McDowell starts to laugh again. "Oh, John [Gielgud] will hate me for telling you this, but I vividly remember his first day on set. He said to me, 'Have you been out on the set yet?' I said that I hadn't and he replied, 'Oh my dear, it's absolutely marvellous. I've never seen so much cock in my life!"'

Nor did the knight of the realm, who played the senator Nerva, share McDowell's reluctance to see the final version. "I bumped into him in New York, I think he was filming Arthur at the time and he said all excitedly, 'Have you seen it yet?' I said I hadn't and he said, 'Oh you must. It's wonderful. I've paid to see it. Twice!'"

Sir John's enthusiasm for a film widely regarded as one of the worst ever made was shared by the video renting public, who made Caligula into an enormously profitable exercise for Bob Guccione.

"It made millions," confirms McDowell. "It's said it built Guccione's casino in Atlantic City, and I can believe it."

The film proved considerably less fruitful for McDowell, however, ushering in a particularly fallow period in his career. The word was that Caligula not only shredded McDowell's credibility, it also torpedoed his chances of a film career in England.

"Yes, I guess it did." Certainly it was a very down period after that. The industry had kind of closed down. Once the Arabs put up the price of oil, every American producer left England, and they were the people who were really making these interesting movies. It wasn't the English, it was the American producers. And that's the truth.

Fifteen years on from the film that almost buried him, McDowell looks like an actor on the rise once again. His attractive wife Kelley is firmly on his case and well-paid work is starting to come his way again. With the experience of someone who's been round the track more than once, however, McDowell is less reverential about his appearance in the new Star Trek movie. He confesses to only having seen one of the Star Trek series and thought it "terrible", while his dealings with Captain Kirk will leave diehard Trekkies horrified.

"Ha ha. Yes, it's goodbye Captain Kirk. I get to do him in," he laughs. "As I said to Shatner, 'Half the country's going to hate me and half the country's going to love me!' He said, 'Which half are going to love you?' and I said, 'The half that are sick of you, and have been for 30 years!'"

Like the cineaste cabbie said, McDowell is a diamond actor, but one who doubtless has never received acclaim commensurate to his talent. I put it to him that his career has paralleled that of his mentor Lindsay Anderson, and that he is, in fact, one of the great lost talents of British cinema.

At this, McDowell's eyes appear to cloud over and for the first time in the evening he appears unsure of himself, uncertain how to answer.

"All I'd say about that," he responds finally, "is that I'm not gone yet. I sort of feel the Phoenix has risen from the ashes, although really I've never been out of work. I'm sort of back in fashion now, doing mainstream movies. Let's hold off judgment for a few years."

As he puts on his coat and prepares to face a freezing London night, he adds, "Gary Oldman called me the other day and he said he'd once asked Lindsay, 'What the fuck happened to Malcolm?' And he said Lindsay looked at him and said, 'Malcolm? They didn't know what to do with him.' "


Originally appeared in Premiere UK, March, 1995. Copyright remains with the publication cited. No infringement of rights is meant or implied.

Thank you to Dorian for this article.
Transcribed by T. del Rosario for www.malcolmmcdowell.org.

 

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