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MALCOLM McDOWELL--CINEMA'S NUMBER 1 INSOLENT ANGEL

I've admired Malcolm McDowell since he first bowled me over with his portrait of a rebellious student in "If...," Lindsay Anderson's 1968 powerhouse of a movie, and then totally astonished me as a lascivious bully in Stanley Kubrick's incomparable "Clockwork Orange." So I was of course delighted when he agreed to a Moviecrazed interview in 2002 at the time of the tribute being paid him by New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center. Malcolm, I'm pleased to add, did not hold back. --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 Angel."

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 Clinic--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 movies--including "I Spy," with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, and "Between Strangers," with Sophia Loren and Mira Sorvino--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...." (photo at right) 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," 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 a 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 [shown at right] 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 him."

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 too."

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 Kubrick!"

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 voice.

"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."

"Caligula"?

"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 it!"