Thursday, 21 August 2008

Richard Widmark - The Cowboy who Never liked Guns

Richard Widmark died earlier this year. Here's his obituary in the London Times. He was one of the great survivors from the Golden Years of Hollywood, and first appeared on Broadway in 1943. He's also one of the few actors to have an airport named after him. I met him in 2002, when he had arrived in London prior to a season of his films at BFI Southbank.

For a man who doesn’t like to drink and absolutely hates handguns, 86 year-old Hollywood legend and tough-guy Richard Widmark has done an awful lot of onscreen carousing and killing over the years. In his earliest roles he played killers and losers in a slew of classic late noir movies, leading one breathless expert in the genre (Eddie Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) to proclaim him ‘one of the true noir artists’. That insane giggle as he pushed a woman in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death (47) has passed into cinema legend, his mere fifteen minutes of screen-time completely eclipsing its actual star Victor Mature and earning him an Oscar-nomination to boot. ‘Imagine me in here,’ his psychotically breezy character Tommy Udo chuckles to a sullen Mature in the police cell they share. ‘Big man like me getting picked up, just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head! Traffic ticket stuff’.

Still, that traffic ticket stuff did serve him well in the early days. Widmark has worked for well over half a century since blithe and chilling Tommy Udo first skittered cross the silver screen with his flop of blonde hair and petulant snarl (incidentally spawning a dozen Tommy Udo fan-clubs amongst antisocial teen boys, with even real-life Brooklyn gangsters imitating him). Over the years the famous roles have included top spots opposite icons like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe (‘It surprised me she became this icon – she was always frightened, you couldn’t calm her down’). He’s been directed by Elia Kazan, John Ford, John Sturges, Samuel Fuller, Vincente Minelli and Otto Preminger. Indeed, he’s just about the last big star left over from the era of Hollywood when the old-fashioned studio system of the Golden Years still ruled the roost. People are sincerely awestruck to meet him. It’s not really surprising he received a standing ovation, simply for walking onstage for an interview, at the National Film Theatre last Sunday afternoon.

I’d met Widmark some days earlier in his London hotel, the one off Grosvenor Square he’s been using for the last thirty years whenever he comes to the UK. For all his kudos as a noir god, I don’t think he was ever entirely comfortable in its exaggerated style. He quickly left his noir roots behind him in the fifties and always looked comfortable in dusty buckskin and cavalry garb, as in Cheyenne Autumn, or crisp military uniforms, as in Panic in the Streets. He even made a good senator in his last movie Primary Colors. ‘The seedy underworld has never appealed to me,’ he confided as we began to talk. ‘I always wanted to be Douglas Fairbanks Jr – I fancied myself as a gay blade!’ He laughs with gusto. He’s as sharp as ever. No wonder he never quite bonded with John Wayne, or John Ford, or Santa Barbara neighbour Robert Mitchum (who would only ever come round for the yearly Easter Egg hunt with the kids): he wasn’t too keen on the sauce. ‘I never caroused with me boys,’ Widmark tells me with a wink, talking in that immaculate Midwestern drawl that reminds me of Wayne himself. ‘I didn’t like the taste of booze’.

It’s pretty darn clear he’s really just an old-fashioned Connecticut gentleman underneath, with an education in politics and law, certainly nothing like other hungry noir legends of the same vintage (genuine street-savvy hustlers like Mitchum and Robert Ryan). I already knew he was a committed Anglophile (George Cole – in the audience at the NFT – is one of his unlikely oldest friends) and so asked him about the first English-based movie he ever starred in, the crime melodrama set in bombed-out post-war London, Night in the City (1949). He plays a two-bit yankee wideboy with a line in big suits called Harry Fabian; he’s got a scheme to remove lucrative all-in-wrestling shows from the hands of the Greek Mafiosi. ‘I was always running, the whole sixty days of the shoot; I musta lost twenty pounds’, he told the NFT audience. Earlier he’d told me another reason for the weight loss. ‘There was rationing, you couldn’t get an egg. I had food-parcels sent over from America. At the end of the shoot we went to Paris and had a steak. Man, we were hungry!’

Was that the first time he’d been in London, after the Blitz and during the austere postwar years? ‘No, I was passing through in 1937 on my way to Germany with a friend. I had a professor who was very interested in the German situation and got me all fired up about it. We got permission to film the Hitler Youth camps for ten days. There were these little kids from about five years old in uniform and they’d spend all day saluting’. Was it kind of creepy? ‘No it was just like a boy scout camp.’ With your Aryan schoolboy looks, did they try and convince you to join up? ‘We knew it was all baloney and they didn’t try and convince us, but they did put on special events for us to film’. Were you surprised by what you found? ‘We travelled round Germany and saw soldiers on the train and the factories in the Ruhr were belching smoke night and day. Everything was in movement. It was pretty much what we had expected’.

I was interested in the subject of Widmark’s politics. I don’t believe he’s ever discussed them in interviews. After all, he’d played an enthusiastic leading role as a nazi prosecutor in Judgement at Nuremburg (61). He’d been famously mortified having to play a racist opposite Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (50), and kept rushing over to apologise between takes. They went on to become friends. I’d heard he’d also not shared John Waynes view of the world, though he insists he respected him professionally. It can be no particular coincidence that he’s friendly with arch-liberal Tim Robbins, who offered him the post-retirement role of Randolph Hearst in his movie Cradle will Rock. He won’t be much drawn on politics. But then his suddenly says something very interesting. ‘I contribute to an organisation to get rid of handguns,’ he tells me, just like that. Really? ‘I think our second amendment is ridiculous and in my opinion it should have been repealed years ago.’

I’m fascinated. He begins to quote the second amendment of the US constitution. ‘A strong militia being necessary for a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be abridged’.. He finishes the quote, with a kind of Vidalian patrician-liberal flourish. ‘Now to my mind that means in a militia, not as individuals. And that has usually been the interpretation of the Supreme Court. But this current administration has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court that the individual is supported. That’s the Bush administration! You know, it’s ridiculous’. So you don’t agree with Charlton Heston? ‘Oh god, I think he’s an idiot!’

Suddenly it all makes sense. Now we know why he pointedly stopped eccentric director Sam Fuller from firing a handgun to signify ‘action’ on the set of Pickup on South Street (53) and how truly ironic his take on Madigan (68) was. Don Siegel’s remake of the Akira Kurosawa film Stray Dog was virtually made-to-measure for Widmark’s sensibilities: a cop embarks on a 72 hour odyssey to retrieve his stolen gun from the hands of a murderer. Yes, it all makes sense. Widmark’s real life has been quite different from his screen roles: a marriage that lasted sixty years, a private life of gentleman farming on a Californian ranch, always a consummate professional with a clandestine liberal slant, a life in fact given over to gentle nurturing, reading and mild athletic enthusiasms. How about movies, does he still watch movies I ask him before we end the interview?

‘They don’t interest me,’ the legend of the silver screen says of his own industry, his mind perhaps still fixed in the notion big machines happily grinding up handguns. Movies don’t interest you, I ask weakly? ‘I think I made too many,’ he says with a solemn smile. ‘So they kind of bore me’. Traffic Ticket stuff, I can almost hear him say.

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