Note: This is a fuller version of the wonderful interview I had with screen legend Malcolm McDowell. The other version exists, and will no doubt be read by more people, but this captures more of the spirit of our conversation. Plus, he says some nice things about Videoport…
I do a terrible Malcolm McDowell impression.
I know that since I’ve spent the last week recounting, to my more patient friends and family, my phone conversation with the legendary McDowell, recipient of this year’s “Midlife Achievement Award” at the 14th annual Maine International Film Festival (July 15-24th.) Slightly gravelly with age (he’s 68), his Northern English accent bristling with intelligence, humor, and maybe just a hint of the charismatic menace famous from the likes of “A Clockwork Orange,” “If…,” and the notorious “Caligula” among literally a hundred more films, McDowell’s voice, reminiscing about his career, his favorite directors, and upcoming trip to Maine is warm and enthusiastic.
“It’s nice of them to put it that way,” jokes McDowell about the “mid life” part of the award he’ll receive at a screening of his 1973 film “O Lucky Man!” at Colby College on Saturday. “It’s a great honor, and that’s why I wanted to come and say thank you.” McDowell’s been to Maine before, visiting that film’s director, his longtime friend the late Lindsay Anderson when Anderson was shooting “The Whales of August” (1987) on Cliff Island and here in Portland. “Unfortunately, I can only stay for four days, which is a great shame. I’d love to have brought the family. Maine’s such a beautiful place; an incredible coastline, lobsters and seafood.” He then goes on to tell a few funny stories about the then-aged Bette Davis’ antics on-set, setting the tone for our conversation; Malcolm McDowell still clearly loves the movies, and loves to talk about them.
He’s especially proud that the MIFF is showing “Never Apologize,” the utterly winning, funny, and heartwarming film of the one-man show McDowell performed about Anderson. “Lindsay was an extraordinary talent, and man,” says McDowell warmly, “I had the feeling that people were beginning to forget Lindsay and I was very dismayed. When you look at his films (“If….,” “O Lucky Man,” “This Sporting Life” with Richard Harris), he’s as important a director as Stanley Kubrick, if not more so.” The film concludes with McDowell re-enacting a deathbed conversation between Anderson and the legendary filmmaker and Portland native John Ford, about whom McDowell stresses, “there are many great directors, but very few poets. John Ford was both. So was Lindsay.”
Of course, no celebration of Malcolm McDowell’s work would be complete without “A Clockwork Orange,” his most famous film, and one which McDowell states “can take care of itself.” Asked about the enduring popularity of “Clockwork” with successive generations, McDowell posits that the film remains “a rite of passage for young people. In retrospect, the political element of government being big brother, taking over our lives- young people can totally still get that. But the real poignant bit is the freedom of choice; that’s why is hasn’t dated.”
As with “Never Apologize,” McDowell is excited for festival-goers to see another little-known film, 1991’s “Assassin of the Tsar,” which he recommended to the MIFF directors. About the Russian-made film, in which he plays a modern day mental institution inmate who believes himself to be the man who killed Tsars Alexander and Nicholas II, McDowell enthuses, “It’s amazing! The history is amazing, too; it was made right after the wall came down. The director’s father had access to KGB records, knew the real story. Its a brilliant film that no one’s seen- you cant get it, it’s not on DVD. It has fans, but hasn’t been seen, so I thought this would be an opportunity to share it.”
I hesitated slightly before bringing up the last of his films showing at MIFF, the campy sci fi comedy “Tank Girl” where he plays a post-apocalyptic villain versus Lori Petty’s titular punk heroine (and her mutant kangaroo army.) And while McDowell seemed momentarily surprised at its inclusion, he agreed that screening it at the Skowhegan Drive-In was just right. “It’s meant to be seen at a drive-in- that’s a very good way to put that,” he states. “It’s fun to play parts like that occasionally. The secret to playing a villain is not to play them as bad- that’s too one-dimensional, and boring. If you can play them with a certain amount of charm, it’s better. A film’s only as good as the heavy. I used to joke- I get six scenes to make the whole world hate me. If I had a choice, I would choose the heavy every time- you don’t have to be there until dawn, there are usually some good scenes, and a great death.”
Even though it’s not showing at MIFF, I couldn’t resist asking McDowell about working with my personal hero Robert Altman on his film “The Company,” where McDowell plays the head of the Joffrey Ballet, a role very similar to Altman himself. “When all is said and done people will look back and ask, what was America like, and all they have to do is look at every Altman film. He was a maverick. It was hit or miss of course, because he was pushing boundaries. We were friends since 1970. He was an amazing guy,” adding, with a chuckle, “he didn’t really pay, but…”
At the end of this conversation, after McDowell expressed his excitement for his new TV series “Franklin and Bash”, and knowing that I already had more than I could possibly use for my article and that he’d been absurdly generous with his time, I reluctantly let McDowell go. Adding that I was off to my “real job” at Videoport (the Portland independent video store), McDowell broke out with an enthusiastic “That’s wonderful!” After ascertaining that Videoport indeed carried several of his smaller films (“Evilenko,” “My Life So Far”) of which he’s especially fond, and urging me to plug “Never Apologize” (consider it done, sir), he praised me as “a true cinephile” and Videoport as “one of the last bastions of our art.” I hung up the phone and hurried out the door, already practicing that terrible Malcolm McDowell impression.