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.

Friday, 18 March 2011

People We Like: Stephen Boyd

I had been meaning to do a piece on Stephen Boyd, so the day after St Patrick's Day seems the time. Stephen Boyd is a fascinating example of the maxim that every good looking actor/leading man gets 10 good years, if lucky, and one could say Boyd was luckier than most as his was from mid-'50s to mid-'60s, when he was in several major movies and co-starring with main leading ladies like Loren, Bardot, Lollobrigida, Susan Hayward and Doris Day.

All we know about Boyd is what is on his IMDB page and its rather revealing. Born in Northern Ireland in 1931 by the early 50s he was working in London including as a doorman at the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, where legend has it he was picked up [or was noticed by] by Sir Michael Redgrave who provided some introductions which got Boyd into acting and then movies [as per "Films & Filming"'s 1956 'Person of Promise' entry, below, click twice to enlarge].

His first appearance is in 1954 in swimming trunks lounging by the pool and having some lines with Errol Flynn in LILACS IN THE SPRING, a below par English “musical” teaming an ageing Flynn with Anna Neagle. He is the essence of 50s beefcake in the 1955 Rank Organisation comedy AN ALLIGATOR NAMED DAISY teamed with Diana Dors – both of them going places. (This was a childhood favourite of mine and I bought the Donald Sinden box set purely for this still enjoyable comedy..)
20th Century Fox took an interest and signed him to a 7 year contract after his role in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS in 1956, an efficient war tale with Clifton Webb and Gloria Graham.

Two more good English dramas followed: SEVEN THUNDERS set in wartime Marseilles where Boyd was one of 2 British soldiers on the run from the Nazis. SEVEN WAVES AWAY (or ABANDON SHIP) in 1957 was a tense shipwreck survival drama played out in the Shepperton tank, with Tyrone Power terrific in one of his last roles, with Mai Zetterling, Moira Lister, Boyd and others fighting for survival in the lifeboat.

ISLAND IN THE SUN was a Fox hit in 1957, from the best-selling book and there was that hit song by Belafonte – Boyd with Joan Collins is part of the interesting cast including Belafonte, Fontaine, Dandridge and Mason, directed by Robert Rossen. THE BRAVADOS is a tense western from 1958 with Boyd leading the heavies as Gregory Peck tracks down the killers of his wife as Joan Collins watches from the sidelines.

Then came the steamy Vadim film HEAVEN FELL THAT NIGHT with Brigitte Bardot – following on from Vadim’s sensation AND GOD CREATED WOMAN. Boyd and BB are both in their first prime here and both are terrific, also with Alida Valli (as per my lengthy review of it at French label).

Then of course came the big one: Wyler’s BEN HUR. What can one add to this – Boyd should surely have been nominated and won best supporting actor as his Messala is the black heart of the film – Hugh Griffith’s sheik, which did win, is really a comic turn with just a few scenes. There are the of course the Gore Vidal tales of spicing up the script for Wyler to provide motivation for the hatred between Ben and Massala without them telling Heston, and Boyd certainly plays it like a scorned lover. Interestingly, Massala has no female love interest but is always seen with actor Terence Longdon (above) who could be playing any role one imagines: confidant, helper or lover. For me the real gay frisson comes from Jack Hawkins whose Quintus Arrius is very taken with the hunky oarsman whom he later adopts, with Ben looking like his attractive boyfriend when they arrive in glory back in Rome. Whatever – the film still works a treat and is a great panorama of the ancient world and it remains an enduring pleasure with Wyler’s great direction and Rosza’s marvellous score, and its Boyd’s best known role; the chariot race is an enduring great cinema moment with Heston and Boyd (aged 28 here) going the distance. How many modern actors could do something like this without it all being CGI (as in GLADIATOR or TROY ?) As the wag said: “loved Ben, hated Hur”. Boyd must certainly have trained as hard as Heston for the chariot race, he should have been nominated and won too. 

Back at Fox, came WOMAN OBSESSED in 1959 – she being Susan Hayward tying to keep her farm going in the backwoods and taking on hired hand Boyd to be her husband who clashes with her son. Its ably put together by Henry Hathaway coasting and gives Susan more to emote with after her Oscar win the previous year.
Then one we like a lot – Jean Negulesco’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, from the hit Rona Jaffe novel and another of those Fox 3-girls-sharing-an-apartment-looking-for-love movies. The three are Hope Lange, Diane Baker and model Suzy Parker; it should have been 4 as in the book but Martha Hyer’s role was practically snipped out in the editing to reduce it to 3, with of course Joan Crawford billed “as Amanda Farrow” – the terror of the typing pool. It’s a fascinating look now at office life in the 50s and has great views of Manhattan back then, and of course that great theme tune. Boyd is Lange’s romantic interest and there are some nice moments of them walking along. The drama comes from Lange aspiring to Crawford’s role, Baker getting pregnant and Parker falling for a a theatre director and not being able to handle rejection. It all plays out perfectly and is one of the great soaps of the year along with IMITATION OF LIFE and A SUMMER PLACE.

THE BIG GAMBLE in 1961 is an African adventure I did not see, but seems another of Daryl Zanuck’s attempts to make a movie star of Juliette Greco. THE INSPECTOR (or LISA) another Fox film from 1962, teamed him with Dolores Hart (probably her last, before becoming a nun) about displaced refugees in post-war Europe, from a Jan De Hartog novel. I vaguely remember seeing this as a child and its one that needs re-discovery.

Then for a change of pace a musical with Doris Day: BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO – but at a time of popular musicals like GYPSY, WEST SIDE STORY, THE MUSIC MAN, and FLOWER DRUM SONG, JUMBO got rather overlooked and released with a lot of its footage and numbers cut, it was interesting catching the full version finally recently on dvd. Boyd acquits himself well with Doris and its all rather charmingly quaint.

Another low key movie was a rather forgettable thriller THE THIRD SECRET with an interesting English cast.

Then came two with Gina and Sophia: with Lollobrigida in IMPERIAL VENUS in 1963, a slight trifle about Napoleon’s sister that wasted both stars.
Much more impressive was Anthony Mann’s THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in 1964 with Loren and Boyd heading the terrific cast in this major Samuel Bronston production, perhaps the last of the great epics. The early sequences in the German forests are marvellous (and served as template for the later GLADIATOR) with Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius, ably supported by James Mason. It later turns into the usual epic clichés once mad Christopher Plummer takes over as emperor with Boyd saving Sophia from the burning flames as Rome descends into anarchy. But certainly a great visual treat.

One could not say the same for Boyd’s next epic – the rather tatty GENGHIS KHAN coming at the end of the great epic cycle in 1965 where Boyd is the villain Jamuga to Omar Sharif’s mongol chief. One thing about Boyd, when playing evil he attacks it head-on with relish! Francoise Dorleac is the very 60s love interest and hilarity is provided by James Mason and Robert Morley as Chinese warlords! Its certainly an epic to savour for all the wrong reasons, as the likes of Yvonne Mitchell, Telly Savalas and Eli Wallach pop up now and then. 
An interesting what might have been is that Boyd had been originally cast as Mark Anthony opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the epic of all epics CLEOPATRA, with Peter Finch as Caesar. But of course the bad weather and Taylor’s illnesses caused the production to move to Rome and be recast with Burton and Harrison. Footage remains in the ‘making of’ documentary on the triple dvd release of Boyd and Finch at work here.

Then came the lulu that is THE OSCAR in 1966 – enough to sink anyone’s career. One likes a camp movie as much as anyone else, but this one is just insultingly bad on every level with the likes of Tony Bennett, Jill St John, Elke Sommer etc I finally caught it recently and it was not even amusing. Boyd must have gritted his teeth playing the anti-hero heel who will do anything to win that award.

John Huston’s THE BIBLE also in 1966 was another curio, with Boyd as Nimrod among the all-star cast. This was not quite the success it was meant to be, and is another one to see again.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE though followed in 1967 and was rather Boyd’s last hit and is a terrific science fiction.

SHALAKO in 1968 is really a low point for all concerned. I didn’t bother with this Spanish western at the time but caught it in the Sunday afternoon family slot on television recently – whose idea was it to present this as family entertainment? This brutal western was of course heavily edited (so much so that Honor Blackman’s demise was edited out!) but what remained showed Boyd and Bardot past their iconic prime 10 years earlier in the Vadim film. Edward Dmytryk directed with Connery heading. A bored-looking Bardot with her 60s makeup and hair was all wrong for 1880s mexico and the whole thing was just instantly forgettable.

SLAVES in 1969 is one I would like to see, co-starring Dionne Warwick, and is presumably about the evils of slavery with Boyd as the “evil overseer”.

From 1970 onwards Boyd was now making movies in Europe – most of which never surfaced here in the UK and most seem rather inconsequential. Of these I have only seen is THE DEVIL HAS 7 FACES with Carroll Baker, where an older Boyd has a featured role. Romain Gary’s KILL with Jean Seberg and James Mason should be worth a look, from 1971. 1977's THE SQUEEZE was an interesting discovery recently, a brutal thriller with a good role for Boyd. At least he kept working until that fatal heart attack playing golf in July 1977.

All we know of Boyd’s private life is that there were 2 brief marriages, the first during the making of BEN HUR and then 10 months before his death to his long-term PA and assistant, as detailed in his imdb profile.

All careers have peaks and troughs, with Boyd no exception. Overall it’s an interesting journey of ups and downs with some major hits – not bad for the young actor from Northern Ireland who became a colourful leading man. He would surely have had a career revival as (like Stanley Baker and Laurence Harvey) dying in one’s 40s is far too young, but BEN HUR will always keep him a star.

There is now finally a book on Boyd: "Stephen  Boyd: From Belfast to Hollywood" by Joe Cushman, published in 2013, a slim volume but it covers all the salient points about Boyd and his career. 

10 comments:

  1. I could swear I read once that Stephen Boyd did the first male full-frontal nude scene in "Imperial Venus", but I couldn't find any confirmation of this online, so perhaps I was hallucinating. At any rate, even if he had been so brave at that early date, it would surely have been cut, probably even from the racier European versions of the film.

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  2. I think I read that too, the version I saw a while back was rather tame though. He and Bardot are terrific in HEAVEN FELL THAT NIGHT or THE NIGHT HEAVEN FELL in '58.

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  4. The stars of Shalako (Connery & Bardot) were the first choices of the producers for the leads in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Apparently the actors (or their reps.) decided on a lame ass western instead. Didn't realize Pussy Galore was involved as well! Boyd would have made a great Bond.

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  5. The stars of Shalako (Connery & Bardot) were the first choices of the producers for the leads in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Apparently the actors (or their reps.) decided on a lame ass western instead. Didn't realize Pussy Galore was involved as well! Boyd would have made a great Bond.

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  6. Stephen, always a favorite of mine, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Ben Hur but unfortunately Hugh Griffith, also of Ben Hur, won the award
    I also think he would have made a great James Bond. His appearance as Marc Antony, in Cleopatra, might have brought him more accolades than he wound up achieving.

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  7. Love your Stephen article--my all time favorite actor! I would love to see your NIGHT HEAVEN FELL review---where can I locate that? That movie is also one of my fav's. Glad to know Stephen is well remembered by some select movie fans-- he was charismatic, enigmatic, sexy, charming, and a very interesting screen presence!

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  8. Well click on the Stephen Boyd label, and it will bring up all my items on him.
    Cheers
    M

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  9. Stephen is one of my favorites. Wish he had lived longer; he would have agedvery handsomely I think, and gone on to interesting character roles. You are right about Ben Hur; he deserved the Oscar. Not even sure why Hugh Griffith was even nominated as I never found him funny in that movie. Alas. One thing is certain, though: Stephen got the best line in the entire opus, when on his death bed, Massala tells Ben Hur where to find his mother and sister in the valley of the lepers. Then he adds evilly, "If you can still recognize them.". Cut, print, perfect!

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  10. Stephen is one of my favorites. Wish he had lived longer; he would have agedvery handsomely I think, and gone on to interesting character roles. You are right about Ben Hur; he deserved the Oscar. Not even sure why Hugh Griffith was even nominated as I never found him funny in that movie. Alas. One thing is certain, though: Stephen got the best line in the entire opus, when on his death bed, Massala tells Ben Hur where to find his mother and sister in the valley of the lepers. Then he adds evilly, "If you can still recognize them.". Cut, print, perfect!

    ReplyDelete