Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Heart of an Actor: Why I Love Boris Karloff

When we're younger we have less respect for hard work and dedication and more appreciation of the cliched and showy. We make grand pronouncements about what's great in this area, what's great in that and through it all hold fast that our youthful convictions are not only accurate and correct but always will be. As a parent to four children ranging in age from 8 to 20 I've seen the black and white certitude of youthful judgment firsthand from the other side as well. When we get older however we learn to, as the cliche states, appreciate the finer things, those things not necessarily thrown in front of our collective faces with lights flashing and bells ringing. Since childhood I have acted, played and composed music, drawn and painted and worked on short films. I love the arts and my view of the arts has changed as dramatically as my view of most other things in life.

I find myself now reacting with cringes and bristles to much of what I accepted without question in my youth. In youth I would have ranked Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist ever and probably did but as an adult who loves the guitar I can now see the foolishness of such a proclamation. Oh it's not that Hendrix wasn't great and didn't know his way around a six-string, it's that in his short time here he didn't leave enough of a record and never grew as I know he would have beyond the basic trappings and limitations of the blues and rock and roll form. I'd still rank him pretty high but now find myself much more impressed with the fretwork of Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt or Les Paul. Hell, if I had to rank the 25 greatest guitarists of all time probably no more than two or three rock and roll guitarists would even make the list. But rock and roll is showy and rock and roll critics never grow much older than seventeen intellectually so don't expect much of a shakeup next time you stumble across a "Best Guitarists of All Time" list. Expect Hendrix near the top. Again. Look for the incredibly rich, expansive and mature stylings of Wes, Les and Django much further down the list and don't bother looking for geniuses like Barney Kessel or Jim Hall at all. Most twenty-something rock critics don't even know who they are.

Same goes with most of the other arts and certainly acting is no exception. When I was a teen studying acting and learning my craft it's probably an easy guess who I spent a lot of time brooding over as the all-time great. Brando. Of course. And again, as with Hendrix, I'm certainly not here to tell you that Brando wasn't great. Like Hendrix, he was. But something happened to me with acting as I watched thousands and thousands of movies and became a figure of authority and responsibility to four children getting ready to face the world. I began to greatly appreciate hard work. Greatly. Let's face it, Brando phoned in more than his allotted share of performances throughout his career and while that amuses me most of the time there arrives a point when it irritates me as well. I love Marlon Brando in many ways but it also feels like he never quite matured as he should have. Willaim Redfield, known to most people, if at all, as the chain-smoking patient Dale Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was an actor working in theatre since the thirties and he had great hope for Brando. He felt Brando could bring to America the theatrical tradition that existed in Britain. But it was not to be. Redfield repeated in interviews later in life how disappointed he was in Brando's lack of dedication and his abandonment of the theatre. As a youth I might not have understood that but as an adult I feel Redfield's disappointment.

And all of this brings us around to a conversation I had with my wife just two days ago. We were talking about Peter Cushing and I remarked that when Cushing was making Star Wars, just one year after making At the Earth's Core, he had no idea of the magnitude of the success that Star Wars would have. Working on a soundstage in front of odd, futuristic looking sets he must have imagined this film would result in roughly the same level of technical quality as his previous Amicus production and probably around the same fate financially. And yet there he was turning in a goddamned performance, a real performance, despite it all. Peter Cushing did not phone it in. And neither did Boris Karloff, but more than that, Karloff was the one who set the standard.

Boris Karloff came to prominence in the most stepped on, beaten about and disrespected genre of filmmaking there is, horror. He played Frankenstein's monster and played it supremely well. So well that he became the standard bearer for the genre for most of the next two decades. He played the monsters, the mad scientists and even the dangerous butler and he played them all at the top of his form. Karloff must have known that despite his fame and popularity he was being sneered at by lesser known actors of the legitimate theater and he didn't care. He never stated it publicly, at least not to any direct degree, and never let it affect a performance. Hell, he even gave his all in this lighter commercial!

While other actors complained about being typecast Karloff revelled in it (as noted in the quote in the banner above - seen here for those using a reader view) and never let it affect his attitude. Whatever part he was given he would devote to it all of the skills and tools he had accumulated in learning the craft of acting. Karloff lent respect and credence to the growing success story of the horror genre in the thirties. The fact that such a fine actor happened to be where he was at the time Universal was casting Frankenstein, preventing the role from going to a lesser actor who may never have filled the role with the necessary pathos, is an act of supreme historical luck and a great gift to the genre and all fans of it.

And another stroke of incredible luck was that this actor of such awe-inspiring talent was also an actor of hark work and dedication. The genre not only needed someone with talent to lend it respect but someone willing to be a refined and well-spoken cheerleader inviting in the masses that might otherwise turn away.

As for myself, I came to realize all of this much later in life. As a youth I saw all the Universal classics and loved them through and through. I knew Karloff was a good actor but never thought of him as a great actor, so blind was I to the brilliantly mimed performance of Frankenstein. Then, years later, older and hopefully wiser in the ways of film, I saw The Body Snatcher. It was a revelation. I was immediately struck by the supreme artistry on display as I watched Karloff's murderous John Gray weave webs of cunning charm and sinister pseudo-sincerity all the while hypnotizing the viewer. It was a brilliant performance, sadly and unfairly ignored for consideration for an Oscar during the time of its release.

Not long after seeing The Body Snatcher Karloff began to elevate in my mind as an actor and soon, very soon, he was among my favorites. And his hard work and dedication to the genre that he helped achieve its greatest success inspired other actors of dedication to follow, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

I can offer up many accolades to Boris Karloff as an actor but for me, personally, it is his hard work in honing his skils to complete his craft that stands above all else and says something to me about him as a person. There are and will continue to be several great actors in the world of film and I like many of them but as I get older I love Boris more and more and it's only natural. Karloff goes better with age, or better put, age goes better with Karloff. Boris Karloff was and is an actor for grown-ups, and that's the highest praise I can offer.


This post has been a contribution to Pierre Fournier's Boris Karloff Blogathon taking place at Frankensteinia this week.