Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Arm of God: Peter Cushing (1913-1994)

In acknowledgement of tomorrow's 100th anniversary of Peter Cushing's birth, I have decided to join my friend Pierre Fournier's Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon by reprinting here -- for the first time anywhere -- the following essay, originally written for the November 1994 issue of FILM COMMENT.  

WHEN PETER CUSHING, O.B.E., died at a Canterbury hospice in the early morning hours of August 11, 1994, devotées of the fantastic cinema experienced an unprecedented loss. The great figureheads of horror—Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi, Price—were a sympathetic lot, but their careers are remembered as campaigns of villainy. Cushing, on the other hand, was unique in that he will be remembered as horror's first truly heroic actor. Whether creating life as Baron Victor Frankenstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and its five sequels, or destroying the Undead as Dr. Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and four of its sequels, Cushing—more vividly than any other actor—seemed to inhabit the sliver of space between the fingers of Michelangelo's God and Adam; at his best, he was like the Arm of God, channeling a greater spiritual current into the genre's battles of Good vs. Evil than they had ever known before, or probably ever will again.
 DRACULA, 1958
             Born May 26, 1913, in Kenley, Surrey ("between the towns of Ham and Sandwich," as he was fond of noting), Peter Wilton Cushing became enamored at an early age with movies, particularly the American westerns of Tom Mix. At 25, he decided to become an actor, and jumping past British regional theater, sailed to Hollywood on a one-way ticket. He was not unlucky: his first job was acting opposite Louis Heyward in THE MAN WITH THE IRON MASK (1939)—feeding Hayward the dialogue of his twin brother and later being matted out of the split-screen shots by Hayward himself. The tyro was so well-liked by the cast and crew that he was given a line and a brief sword-fighting scene as the Royal Messenger. Hayward and wife Ida Lupino befriended Cushing offscreen, giving him free room and board and introducing him to company as their "son." Their camaraderie enabled the struggling actor to land two more plumb assignments in Hollywood's most golden year: bit parts opposite Laurel & Hardy in A CHUMP AT OXFORD and Carole Lombard in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT (released 1940). Eighth-billed in the latter film, Cushing was soon accepting work in features and shorts that failed to bill him at all. Homesick, broke and concerned for his country's fate in the face of war, Cushing bade his Hollywood friends farewell and worked his way home—pausing in Canada to labor in a motion picture art department, painting swastikas for Michael Powell's THE 49th PARALLEL.
            Back in England, Cushing was declined for active wartime service and resumed acting in the Entertainment National Service Association, where he met Helen Beck, a willful blonde actress whom he married in 1943. Experience on the stage strengthened Cushing's acting skills, bringing him to the attention of Laurence Olivier, who cast him as Osric in his 1947 film production of HAMLET. Expecting this coup to result in an avalanche of film offers, Cushing was gravely disappointed: he didn't make another film until six years later, when he won a small role in John Huston's MOULIN ROUGE (1952). Even that opportunity did not arise until Helen, sensing a growing despair in her inactive husband, wrote letters to several British production companies to inform them that Peter Cushing was available for hire. Though unknown to the general public, Helen was correct in sensing that his work was familiar to industry insiders, and the ploy resulted in several serious offers.
NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, broadcast December 12, 1954
             Between 1951 and 1956, Peter Cushing was the centerpiece of 23 dramas broadcast live by the BBC on Saturday nights (with a Thursday night repeat performance—also live). He became Britain's first television star, winning the industry's "Best Actor" award for three consecutive years and, far dearer, the eponym "Mr. Television." He capped his reign with a legendary performance as Winston Smith in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1956), which survives on kinescope only in its Thursday night edition. Cushing once criticized this repeat performance as an exhausted, mechanical walk-through of the original Saturday broadcast, but, shown last year on BBC as part of a tribute to producer Rudolph Cartier, it remains the definitive dramatization of Orwell's dystopian novel—an achingly human, yet terrifying exploration of nostalgia in an age yet to come.
            During the early 1950s, Cushing distinguished himself in a number of small film roles—most notably, as Deborah Kerr's cuckolded husband in THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1954)—but he was beloved in England for appearing in remakes of foreign theatrical hits, customized to suit the British viewing public. Thus, when Hammer Film Productions decided to jump-start the comatose horror market with the first color remake of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Cushing was their first choice for the title role. Directed with surgical candor and fairy tale grace by Terence Fisher, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was greeted with flaring tempers by the same critics who later suggested that Powell's PEEPING TOM be swept down the nearest sewer. As time has shown, they were seeing neither film for what it was—but rather shrilly lamenting a presumed decline from the upper crust origins of Cushing and Powell.
            As played by Cushing, Baron Frankenstein was the genre's first authentic anti-hero. Meticulously developed over the course of a half-dozen films (all but one directed by Fisher)—THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964; directed by Freddie Francis), FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)—he is also its most fully-delineated character. The Baron, like many other Cushing characters, is a man whose mind is aflame with the vision of a better world. His determination has nothing to do with restoring life to the dead—he conquers that one easily enough—but as the films progress, he becomes quixotically concerned with rescuing from oblivion the values of humankind that are stolen from us every day by age, death and disease: talent, experience, genius. Toward the achievement of that end, the Baron is blindly dedicated, candidly misanthropic and ultimately ruthless. His unpredictability, progressive scientific intelligence, and unwillingness to suffer fools gladly make him a close cousin of Sherlock Holmes, another role that Cushing played with great success in films (1959's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and 1984's THE MASKS OF DEATH) and on British series television.
            After THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Cushing and co-star Christopher Lee were promptly cast in another, more exciting remake—HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)—which many fans still hold to be the definitive filming of Bram Stoker's perpetually filmed novel. Here, Cushing confronted Lee's Dracula in his other signature role of Dr. Van Helsing, wielding the cross without the condescension of Edward Van Sloan, or the bombast of countless other interpreters, but with a formidable religious conviction. When we consider the outstanding actors (including Olivier and Anthony Hopkins) who found no more to the character than a broad ethnic lampoon, Cushing's resolute, athletic, well-armed soldier of Christ becomes all the more remarkable. Van Helsing's greatest moment occurs at the film's finale—an idea suggested by Cushing himself—when, seemingly cornered by Dracula, he bounds onto a banquet table, races to a window and rips the curtains down, engulfing the vampire in a blast of morning sunlight. For once the genre had managed to create a hero as dashing and unpredictable as his adversary.
DRACULA A.D. 1972, 1973
            Cushing and Lee became the Karloff and Lugosi of the postwar era, making a score of scary films together, including Hammer's oneiric remake of THE MUMMY (1959), the gripping Freddie Francis film THE SKULL (1965) and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT (1972), the only film made under the banner of Lee's short-lived Charlemagne Productions. Their final collaboration was the joint narration of FLESH AND BLOOD: THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR, a video documentary about their old stomping grounds, which aired by the BBC on two consecutive Saturday nights—bookending the week that Cushing died of cancer—allowing the actor's career to end where his fame had begun.
            When Cushing's wife died of emphysema in 1971, his screen persona—always metaphysical—darkened and became inseparable from his mourning. No more heroes; he was drawn to playing widowers, antique dealers, men with dead children, old soldiers and booksellers, men with ancient codes of chivalry, amputees. He kept the pain close to the surface: as the pathetic widower Arthur Grimsdyke in TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), he speaks to a photograph he addresses as "Helen," and in THE GHOUL (1974), he used an actual photo of his late wife as a prop, reportedly suffering a breakdown while filming a tearful soliloquy about his (fictional) wife's suicide.
            After years of tragic self-indulgence, Cushing was enticed by George Lucas to play the empirically evil Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977). He would follow it with a dozen other movies, but Tarkin is the last top-flight Peter Cushing performance—every bit as cold and imperious as the Baron on a disagreeable day. For all its ALEXANDER NEVSKY Storm Troopers, the most purely Eisensteinian moment in STAR WARS is the final shot of Tarkin, just before the Death Star explodes: Cushing's pensive, avian features caught in arch, expressionistic profile as he listens for the Big Bang.
 STAR WARS, 1977
            After Peter Cushing, the elementary definitions of Good and Evil—which had dominated the fantastic cinema since its inception—were no longer acceptable. Working from a basic Christian belief that God made everyone, and that Satan tempts us through our weaknesses, he took the genre's sense of character on a quantum leap toward a new complexity, forcing the spiritual war that takes place within us all onto higher ground—namely, the silver screen.
            Perhaps for these reasons, while recently screening Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST, I found myself wondering what Cushing—in his prime—might have done with Liam Neeson's role. At first, I found the daydream perverse, but as Spielberg's masterpiece unfurled its deeply felt concerns with the issues of Good and Evil, and their respective mysteries, I understood that it was fully compatible with the prevailing concerns of Cushing's own oeuvre. Indeed, as Neeson displayed the facets of his memorable character—a cigarette, a fashtidious German accent, the romantic yet baleful gaze of a soul trapped in twilight—I realized that Cushing had indeed been that person onscreen many times before.
            As that film says in its own way, a man who makes a difference is never gone.

Text (c) 1994, 2013 by Tim Lucas

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