Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 14 June 2010

People We Like: James Mason

Greg Peck tells a nice story (on the dvd extras on the MOCKINGBIRD disk) about James Mason on location in Dublin (perhaps during THE BLUE MAX) and out walking late at night, when he notices an old lady watching and following him. They walk along looking in shop windows until she picks up enough courage to approach him, tugs his sleeve and says [cue Irish accent] "Excuse me Sirr, but would you be James Mason in his later years?". It always gets a laugh - and I have a pleasant memory of James in his later years giving a splendid Question & Answer appearance at London's National Film Theatre in 1970 (left) - I was sitting in the front row and had a clear view of his yellow socks and brown brogues, as he told some fascinating stories in that voice...

I would have handed James the gold statuette for best actor of 1954 for his wonderfully multi-facteted Norman Maine in A STAR IS BORN one of the best male leading performances ever, despite it being Brando's year for his stupendous turn in ON THE WATERFRONT. James sitting up in bed remembering Esther singing ... and tracking them down to that late night cafe; how tenderly he prepares her for her audition, his horrified realisation when he overhears them talking about him, and the final walk into the ocean... and of course that slap at the award ceremony! It seems it was a role others had turned down but now one cannot imagine anyone else playing it. In '54 he also played Captain Nemo and that villain in the deadly PRINCE VALIANT!
'56 saw him as the guardian angel in the Lucille Ball vehicle FOREVER DARLING and stunning in his production of BIGGER THAN LIFE as directed by Nick Ray. Nice to see it finally rediscovered and looking terrific on dvd, as a key '50s work.

Mason, along with Trevor Howard and Dirk Bogarde, must be one of the best British actors, in films since the late '30s. He is good in that small part with Michael Redgrave in THUNDER ROCK in '42, and then of course those hits like THE MAN IN GREY, THE WICKED LADY and THE SEVENTH VEIL making him a household name. Carol Reed's ODD MAN OUT is an enduring classic, and it was marvellous to finally see those Ophuls films recently CAUGHT and THE RECKLESS MOMENT, after Mason moved to Hollywood in the late '40s.

PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN in '51 for Albert Lewin and as photographed by Jack Cardiff is a recent pleasure of mine, as was Mankiewicz's FIVE FINGERS, and THE DESERT FOX. For Mankiewicz he also did Brutus in JULIUS CAESAR (and as good as Brando and Gielgud) and he did a great swashbuckling turn as Rupert of Hentzau re-teamed with Stewart Granger in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. He is also terrific and touching in the 1953 Carol Reed THE MAN BETWEEN, with Claire Bloom. After more films like ISLAND IN THE SUN he plays that very suave Hitchcock villain Phillip Van Damm in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, perfectly sparring with Cary Grant.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, A TOUCH OF LARCENY, TIARA TAHITI were other films as he began a very interesting run of supporting roles throughout the '60s: in THE PUMPKIN EATER, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, LORD JIM, hiliariously oriental in GENGHIS KHAN, marvellous in GEORGY GIRL, and that other terrific leading role for Kubrick as Humbert in LOLITA. There was also that malevolent Sir Edward Carson in the Peter Finch TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE in 1960. He also did two interesting Lumet films, THE DEADLY AFFAIR with Signoret in '67 and Trigorin in THE SEAGULL in '68, as well as re-united (briefly) with Ava Gardner in the dull MAYERLING as Emperor Franz Josef. DUFFY was an interesting '60s caper with those other Jameses: Coburn and Fox.

The 70s brought a variety of movies, some good and others indifferent [as detailed on his IMDB resume], like THE LAST OF SHEILA, MANDINGO, THE VERDICT, Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON and Ivory's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS. JESUS OF NAZARETH and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL were highlights, as were that enjoyable all-star Christie EVIL UNDER THE SUN, and THE SHOOTING PARTY, a perfect signing-off for him in the cinema.

The dvd release of ODD MAN OUT includes a fascinating television documentary on his return to Yorkshire in 1972. Never a conventional actor and a fascinating performer to watch, even in the dullest film, and his memoir "While I Remember" is fascinatingly detailed on his early days in acting and on his later career. He died in 1984. Again, it is always a pleasure to see James - even in BLOODLINE! but ODD MAN OUT, THE RECKLESS MOMENT, THE MAN BETWEEN, A STAR IS BORN, BIGGER THAN LIFE and LOLITA are imperishable... pity that '49 proposed picture with Garbo never came off... few actors though have had a better or more varied career.


  1. I'm in the midst of reading a bio on James Mason (written by Robert Morley's son.) He was a more complex man offscreen than I anticipated. The story Gregory Peck told is HYSTERICAL!

  2. What a nice tribute to Mr. Mason - what fun that you actually got to see the man in person!! He was really quite versatile in the kind of movies he did and roles he played. And the filmmakers he worked with - all before they were considered "auteurs" - Ophuls, Reed, Ray, Kubrick - an impressive list!

    I wouldn't take that autobiography by Sheridan Morley on Mason at face value -the quotes from Mason's colleagues are insightful but I think that book puts too negative a spin on Mason and his career. A book that gives a better sense of Mason is the one written by his sister in law - Diane de Rosso. She knew him before he became a star and stayed close to him up to when he and his first wife split up. She has some amusing anecdotes not just about Mason but about Hollywood in the 50's as well.

  3. There were lots of stories when I was growing up about the Masons in hollywood - their daughter Portland was the Lindsay Lohan of the day, drinking with them in nightclubs etc when a child. Mason's own book covers it all in a lot of detail - I found a used copy cheap on Amazon. But yet its an impressive list of directors he worked with and he certainly went the distance for Judy (even reading the memorial at her funeral), lots of others like Cary Grant turned down that role and several must have shied away from Humbert Humbert too...