Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meet James Mason: Belinda Carlisle's Father-In-Law

Yes, meet James Mason - although Belinda herself never did: he died only a few months before Belinda and his son Morgan's paths ever crossed. Ah, but the boundaries of connection often have a way of extending far beyond this mortal coil, and so, despite the esteemed British actors' (most likely) complete ignorance of a certain '80s all-girl New Wave band, he and that band's lead singer will be forever linked in the celebrity family tree.

In an era when major Hollywood leading men (like Paul Newman, William Holden, or Burt Lancaster) were relatively straightforward and conventionally masculine, James Mason was a bit of, shall we say, an "Odd Man Out." I'm sure at various times he must have played more conventional heroes, but if so, those aren't the roles for which he's remembered. No, Mason was the inscrutable English gentleman, part ambivalent anti-hero, part seething everyman. He spoke with an immediately recognizable and often imitated wheezy refinement, as if he'd turned his natural lung power down from a 10 to about an 8. Even when he was professing his undying love for someone, he always seemed like he was about five seconds away from sending in the pit bulls to tear her limbs apart. Underneath the surface, his characters might have been pathetic victims or evil geniuses, but you usually needed about twenty minutes to figure out which one it was going to be.

His wishy-washy intellectualism was perfect for the role of Brutus in 1953's Julius Caesar, a Shakespeare adaptation that everyone in Hollywood thought was going to be a prestigious flop, but turned out to be a surprise hit. Or rather, everyone thought that the casting of Marlon Brando ("that no good, mumbling, Method acting punk from A Streetcar Named Desire, who didn't even seem like he could stand up straight to save his life!") as Marc Anthony was the worst casting decision in the history of cinema. But about halfway through the film, Brando not only demonstrated that he could learn his lines, he could deliver them better than the creme de la creme of British theatre legends surrounding him. Dude could set that iambic pentameter on fire. Although it was Brando who received top billing (and stole the buzz), in terms of total screen time, Mason was essentially the lead. Sure, he didn't bring the raw sex appeal, but he brought the tortured British grativas. Brutus is that special, unique politician who carefully thinks all his actions through, has all the right motives, even has the genuine long-term interests of the public at heart, and yet still does the wrong thing (you know, murder somebody). Nobody could do "guilt-ridden philosopher-statesman" like my boy James.

Just a year later, Mason again ended up being overshadowed by another co-star, and another legendarily volatile Hollywood icon, Judy Garland, in 1954's A Star Is Born. Ironically, it was the more stable Mason who played the declining film actor Norman Maine, while the doomed Garland played the young starlet Esther Blodgett, whose fame quickly surpasses that of her mentor/lover. I remember Garland doing a lot of singing, but unfortunately I don't recall Mason giving the ol' razzle dazzle a try. Mostly he just slowly, agonizingly self-destructs. There are about an hour's worth of scenes in which Norman somehow embarrasses Esther in public, whines about how terrible he feels about it, claims that she'd be better off without him, and then does something embarrassing again. You want the dark side of the Hollywood dream? Mason is your man.

The award for "Best Cortisone Addiction Movie" has to go to 1956's Bigger Than Life - which Mason also produced and co-wrote - in which Mason plays yer all-American dad (with an incongruous English accent) who slowly loses his marbles after becoming addicted to the experimental new prescription drug. Although the film was ostensibly a searing family drama, I think director Nicholas Ray secretly played certain scenes for laughs, such as the infamous climax in which Mason goes so far off his rocker that he threatens to sacrifice his own son to God with a pair of scissors. Yep, this one was out there.

More nakedly out there, but no less controversial for it, was Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Lolita, in which Mason plays the one and only Humbert Humbert. I remember reading Lolita and thinking, "Well, even though I already know that James Mason plays Humbert Humbert in the movie, honestly, if I could have cast anyone as Humbert Humbert ... I think I would have gone with James Mason!" He has just the right mixture of erudition, class, caution, and buried perversity. For two-and-a-half hours, Humbert's ambitions are continuously thwarted, as he attempts to outwit Lolita's mother, the mysterious rival Clare Quilty, and Lolita's own faltering interest. You'll never root so hard for a pedophile in your life.

And that's just the tip of the James Mason iceberg. We've got North By Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Georgy Girl, The Verdict - look, I haven't even seen most of these. Apparently the man was not picky with his roles; that's how his filmography includes such titles as Escape From Zahrain, The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!, The Flower in His Mouth, Evil Under the Sun, and Hot Stuff. Certain British thespians who made the transition to Hollywood (such as Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness) might have expressed some concern at the effect their roles would end up having on their acting reputation; James Mason was not one of those people. He was like the Nicolas Cage of his day: send him a script, and it was as good as a "Yes."

But sadly, or perhaps mercifully, the role of father-in-law to the Queen of Yuppie Rock is the one role he never got the chance to play. I'm inclined to believe that if he'd lived to see it, the story of his son and new bride would have struck him as one even more implausible than the most far-fetched plots in his tawdriest of film scripts.

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