FROM CLOCKWORK DEMON TO LINCOLN CENTER ANGEL...MALCOLM
McDOWELL'S STILL HERE
By Guy Flatley
"I wondered if the people at Lincoln Center had gotten the results
of my annual check-up from my doctor before I did--I mean, was this
to be my swan song?" says Malcolm McDowell, recalling his stunned
reaction to being told that he will be paid tribute by The Film Society
of Lincoln Center, starting tonight (May 22) at the Walter Reade Theater,
with an eight-day retrospective called "Malcolm McDowell: Insolent
In truth, the 58-year-old McDowell--a transplanted Brit known in his
youth as a lusty carouser and, later, as a man who fit in fine at
the Betty Ford Clini--has never been in better shape. Fresh from an
early-morning jog, he talks about the sunny life he leads at his home
near Santa Barbara with Kelly McDowell, his third wife, and about
the pride he takes in Lily and Charlie, his children by second wife
Mary Steenburgen. On the career front, he's feeling high about his
roles in several new movie--including "I Spy," with Eddie Murphy and
Owen Wilson, and "Between Strangers," with Sophia Loren and Mira Sorvin--and,
especially, about the fuss at Lincoln Center, where he'll be on hand
to chat with audiences who've followed his roller-coaster career from
his sensational 1968 debut in "If...." through the landmark "A Clockwork
Orange" and the infamous "Caligula."
"My initial response to the Lincoln Center series was, what the hell
is this? Do I have to sit through those films again? That's a bit
daunting. Then I wondered, is there enough stuff to show that's any
good? But by the end of the day, after all those emotions went through
my mind, I thought, my God, I'm extremely lucky, and to think it's
going to be done in New York, which, to me, is the cultural center
of western civilization. That's a real honor."
One of the movies in the series sure to bring McDowell honor, albeit
of a dark kind, is Paul McGuigan's "Gangster No. 1," which begins
a theatrical run in New York on June 14. In terms of undiluted evil,
McDowell's portrait of a murderous middle-aged thug running wild in
decadent London ranks right up there with Alex, the beastly lad of
"A Clockwork Orange." The two could be father and son. "I never even
thought about that when I was playing Gangster," McDowell says. "I
don't think the two are at all alike, actually. Gangster is a real
nutto, but with Alex it's sort of borderline. You could make the case
that society and Alex's parents--the lack of love, blah, blah, blah--made
him what he is. As for Gangster, I would not want to meet this man
anywhere, because he's a total psychopath."
Considering Gangster's monstrous behavior--torturing innocent weaklings,
delivering his mentor into the hands of bloody assassin--one hopes
that McDowell found no real-life model for his performance. "No. In
a case like this, you know you're fortunate to be playing such a wonderful
part, and you just have to literally delve into the darkest recesses
of your own mind. But it was all in the script--the movie's based
on a play, you know, and every 'Um' and 'Er' and 'Fuck' is carefully
scripted. And the voice-over I do that reveals my inner-workings was
right from the play--it was like a whole other character."
There's more than one case of character fragmentation in the film.
Gangster is played by McDowell as a cool but inwardly seething denizen
of the nineties driven insane by the news that the man he framed into
prison thirty years earlier has been released, and--in lengthy flashbacks--Gangster
is also played by Paul Bettany as an angry young badman of London's
swinging sixties. Did McDowell and Bettany compare notes? "Basically,
Paul had to follow me. I was first up, and I think he was force-fed
my early movies. I know he saw 'Clockwork' about 10 times. He's a
smart kid, and although he's six inches taller than I am, he had just
the right quality. He only had like a dozen lines, but he's wonderful
in the movie. He's very charismatic on the screen, and he's going
to have a great career, no question."
One question must be asked: did the memory of James Cagney bellowing
"Top of the world, Ma," just before going down in flames in "White
Heat," pass through McDowell's mind during his climactic high-rise
scene in "Gangster No. 1"? "You know, you've just mentioned my favorite
actor of all time, and I think I did say, right after doing the bit
on the roof, 'There's my little homage to Jimmy.' But Jimmy would
never have said fuck in a film."
"Gangster No.1" is a powerful, disturbingly relevant drama, but many
will be revolted by its harsh take on urban life and its unblinking
depiction of violence. "The drug wars in London's East End are unspeakably
violent," McDowell says. "Beyond violence. So if you're going to do
it, you have to do it this way, I'm afraid. This is not a Guy Ritchie
film. It's not a farce, it's a real look at the dirty underside. And
anybody who's squeamish about it just shouldn't see it."
Not that McDowell means to badmouth Guy Ritchie. He's high on a list
of admired contemporary directors that includes Danny Boyle, Jonathan
Demme and Michael Winterbottom, who is currently seeking financing
for a film in which McDowell would play Lindsay Anderson, the man
who introduced the McDowell blend of defiant wit and sexy vulnerability
to moviegoers in "If...." and went on to direct his protege in "O
Lucky Man!" and "Britannia Hospital."
"Lindsay Anderson was the most extraordinary man I ever met or ever
will meet in my whole lifetime, I know it. It was very challenging
to be his friend. My God, nothing was easy. He challenged me on every
single step of the way in my life, and in my career. He was hilariously
funny, and he was my best friend. But he was also an irascible curmudgeon.
My relationship with Lindsay Anderson is the cornerstone of my career."
Stanley Kubrick, who directed McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange," also
made an impact. "You always have to mention Stanley Kubrick when you're
talking about the world's great directors. Stanley was right up there
with John Ford, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. He was certainly
a very different kind of talent, but nevertheless he was an extraordinarily
brilliant man with an insatiable intellect and thirst for knowledge.
He wasn't a friend like Lindsay Anderson was--as you can see in his
films, Stanley wasn't really a humanist. He wasn't so interested in
the human condition, but more given to sort of satirizing things.
But, looking back to the actual work with Stanley, I absolutely had
a ball with him and, honestly, I think you can see it on the screen--in
the performance--because I'm enjoying myself so much working with
Bizarrely enough, the pair enjoyed themselves most in "Clockwork's"
fiendishly impudent "Singin' in the Rain" sequence, the hard-to watch
but impossible-to-turn-away from scene wherein rapacious, tap-dancy
Alex and his band of punks break into a house and give a helpless,
well-heeled couple a grotesque night to remember. "We were very high
about a scene we'd just shot, the very end to the film, a scene that
wasn't really written. It was just one of those inspired moments,
and we were feeling great. So then we came to the scene where we break
into the house, a scene that was completely written, and it was turning
out to be an absolutely dead scene. So we sat around for a week. Stanley
changed the furniture. We lost a stunt man--he fell down three steps
and cracked his back. And of course Stanley just had to do the scene
again and again. It was endless, and it still wasn't working. Then
one day he walked over to me where I was sitting on the steps of that
house, and he said, 'Can you dance?' And I said, 'Can I dance? Of
course I can't dance,' and out of my mouth popped 'Singin' in the
Rain' and I started dancing and slapping around and I could see tears
rolling down Stanley's face because he was laughing so hard. Then
he put me in his car, we drove back from the location to his house,
he got on the phone and bought the rights to 'Singin' in the Rain,'
and that was that. We went back, I reconstructed the ad lib and it
took another week to shoot it. Stanley's instinct was incredible.
He knew the film needed something to carry it to another level at
that point, and this was it. The scene's shocking, but it's funny
The relationship between Kubrick and McDowell did not end on a fun
note. Not too long after "A Clockwork Orange," they had a run-in and
never made significant contact again. "I regret now that I didn't
pick up the phone and say, Stanley, how you doing, or something, you
know? I'm sorry I didn't resolve my conflict with him, because, basically,
I loved him. I couldn't have done that performance without going through
an extraordinary cycle with him. Of course I loved him."
What was the rift about? "It's not really important. Lindsay Anderson
and I had two or three rows a day when we were shooting, and yet he
was my best friend. It doesn't really mean anything. With great friends,
you speak your mind, so there is conflict. But that is usually resolved
and you move on, you learn something."
With Kubrick, there was to be no resolution. "I felt there had been
a betrayal, but Stanley's brother-in-law tells me that's not true.
So you know what? I put it behind me and I accept it, which makes
me seem rather petty. You know, I didn't expect Stanley to die like
that...I wish I had picked up the phone. There you are--pride is a
terrible thing. I am very guilty of that. But, of course, Stanley
didn't pick up the phone, either. He would never do that. He was Stanley
Much as McDowell loves directors, he has a special fondness for his
fellow actors, particularly the eccentrics. "John Gielgud was the
one that I just adored, and he had the sort of career that I always
wanted. I want to be working when I'm 75. But John went on until he
was 95. I heard a story that he called Duncan Heath, his agent in
London, when he was 95 and said, 'It's Johnny here, anything for me?'"
recalls McDowell in a wickedly precise duplication of the master's
"I did two films with John. The first was 'Aces High,' in which he
played the bit part of a schoolmaster who gives a speech--a typically
Johnny thing. I recall his saying to me, 'It's just a day, I think
they're paying me ten thou.' When we did 'Caligula,' he came to stay
with me, because, as he put it, 'I'm not getting very much per diem,
and you have a rather nice villa, would you mind awfully, would there
be a little room for me?' I said, 'John, my God, what a pleasure--please,
you've got to come.' 'Oh, thanks so much,' he said, and so I had John
and his stories for two weeks, and I've never been so entertained.
He even got on top of a piano and did Noel Coward songs one night,
with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. I remember looking at him
and thinking, I'll never forget this as long as I live.
"Oh, and he loved the film, of course."
"Yes. Long afterward, I saw him on Third Avenue in New York, and he
said to me, 'Oh, Malcolm, I've just seen 'Caligula' again, and this
time I paid!'"
Even more than seeing "Caligula," Sir John loved making it.
"I was on the way to the set one day, surrounded by make-up and costume
people, and I saw John at the end of the hallway. When he saw me,
he ran down to me and said, 'Oh, Malcolm, have you been onto the set?
It's absolutely wonderful. You won't believe it--I've never seen so
much cock in all my life!' And, of course, he was right. When I went
up to the set, everyone was bollock naked. The whole orchestra was
playing, and they were completely naked. John was fascinated. He loved
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