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This Lion Roared: A Tribute to George C. Scott

Posted: 10/18/2011 5:15 pm

George C. Scott, gone twelve years now, would have turned 84 today.

What an actor.

I was just old enough to go see Patton when it opened in 1970. In that indelible opening scene in front of the American flag where the general addresses his troops, I recall my jaw dropped open. Viewed on that enormous screen, never before had an actor seemed so big, imposing and powerful.

He made that part so much his own, it's hard to conceive of anyone else doing it (though Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger and Burt Lancaster all turned it down before Scott was tapped.)

I saw him on Broadway as well, first in Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox (1976) next in Inherit The Wind (1996) when his health was failing and he looked a full decade older than his seventy years. No surprise -- he was spellbinding both times. You could not take your eyes off him whenever he was on stage, to the point where you actually pitied the other players.

I don't think there was ever a more intense actor, someone so adept at channeling inner rage and torment into his performances.

And that rage was very real -- it had to be. Others may weigh in more authoritatively on its source, but certainly part of it was his reaction to fame. Though it would be hard to name a finer, more dedicated practitioner of his craft, he was extremely uncomfortable with all the adulation and hype that came with it.

Put another way, he hated that part of himself that unconsciously craved the attention and adoration of the public.

Perhaps his most revealing quote: "There is no question you get pumped up by recognition. Then a self-loathing sets in when you realize you're enjoying it."

This attitude led him to eschew the Oscars in particular: Scott became the first actor ever to refuse an Oscar, calling the ceremony a glorified "meat market." On the night he won the statuette for Patton he was reportedly at home, watching a hockey game.

Tall and powerfully built, with an intimidating countenance and powerful voice that could growl or roar like a lion, co-workers mostly kept their distance from this brooding, mercurial figure.

Cast opposite Scott in the stage version of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, actress Maureen Stapleton confided to director Mike Nichols that her co-star petrified her. He replied: " My dear, the whole world is frightened of George."

Born in Virginia in 1927, the young Scott originally wanted to become a writer. After four years in the Marine Corps (where his duty fostered an ongoing pattern of heavy drinking) he enrolled at the University of Missouri, intending to major in journalism. There, he got the acting bug, and quit after a year to pursue his newfound passion full-time.

He trained and paid his dues in the theater during the fifties, going through the first two of five marriages and siring four children. 1958 proved a pivotal year, as Scott won an Obie Award and started getting TV parts. The following year, feature films beckoned, and the actor would be Oscar-nominated for only his second outing in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder.

The turbulent sixties were a busy time for Scott, as he balanced film, theater and TV work. He also married actress Colleen Dewhurst, and they would have two sons together (including actor Campbell Scott). The combustible couple would divorce in 1965, re-marry in 1967 and split for good in 1972. (Later that year, he wed actress Trish Van Devere, and this union held until his death.)

It's regrettable that Scott's best movies were concentrated between the late fifties and early seventies. Really no film he made after that period was fully worthy of his talents, though his presence automatically elevated virtually anything he appeared in. (Like all the best actors, he was always fascinating to watch, even when the material was indifferent, or worse.)

It was as if Hollywood didn't know what to do with him, or decided he was too difficult. Or -- just perhaps, the industry was punishing him for his rejection of their all-important ceremony of self-congratulation. Who knows?

Actually, most aspects of George C. Scott's character, life and career contain an air of mystery, of something unrevealed. Perhaps that's the way he intended it.

Whether or not you were fortunate enough to see him in the theater, his best film work remains. Revisiting these six features -- and watching this enigmatic, brilliant actor perform -- is still a revelation.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) -- Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former prosecutor who's at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney's office, he's a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (Ben Gazzara) an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion's sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he's also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs. Otto Preminger's crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum.

The Hustler (1961) -- "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) is a charismatic California pool shark with a wide streak of arrogance to match his considerable skill. After he loses big to the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) Eddie hits the skids and falls for fellow lost soul Sarah (Piper Laurie). Trying to hustle his way back to the top of his game, he entrusts his future to oily promoter Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) who promises him riches and fame. But will Gordon deliver if Eddie does? A gritty, atmospheric picture about the tense world of high-stakes pool, Robert Rossen's Hustler features some of Newman's best work to-date. "Fast Eddie" may be a young virtuoso with a pool cue, but his maturity hasn't caught up with his moves, and he learns some hard lessons in pool and life from Minnesota Fats, played to cool perfection by the late, great Gleason. Scott also stands out as a callous backer, and Laurie does a sad, sensitive turn as a lonely woman on the fringes who falls under Eddie's spell.

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) -- In this satirical doomsday thriller, a U.S. bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) receives a signal to release its nuclear payload on Russia. When the unfortunate Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) seeks out Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to learn why he ordered the drop, and why he's placed his Air Force base on lockdown, it's quickly evident the general has lost his marbles. Meanwhile, President Muffley (Sellers again) meets with senior advisers, including a hawkish general (Scott) and the oddly sinister nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) to review their limited options to save the planet. The most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever and one of the screen's supreme black comedies, Stanley Kubrick's Strangelove confronted jittery audiences in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not long after the advent of the H bomb. With Kubrick's twisted genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and peerless performances by Sellers (in three roles) Scott, and the unhinged Hayden, the film is unbearably funny and extremely disturbing all at once. The blackest of pitch black comedies, this "Dr." really hasn't aged one bit.

Petulia (1968) -- Archie Bollen (Scott) is a middle-aged San Francisco physician in the midst of a divorce. After meeting Archie at a gala event, sexy, troubled socialite Petulia (Julie Christie) pursues him avidly, hoping to embark on a torrid affair, even though she is married to David (Richard Chamberlain) a handsome swinger with an abusive streak. But Petulia has another connection to Archie, too, a secret bond she never divulges, even as their lives become increasingly tangled. Set in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, Richard Lester's stylish, offbeat melodrama pays homage to the swinging sixties in more ways than one. Through jarring jump cuts, flashbacks and "flash forwards," and glimpses of the Grateful Dead performing for a crowd of gyrating hipsters, the director evokes the psychedelic ethos of the era as a way in to the turbulent lives of Archie and Petulia, each of whom is suffering a private torment: she is a victim of abuse, while he just wants to "feel something." Scott and Christie are exemplary in their roles, while Chamberlain gets to look pretty, sulk and act like a cad. Lensed by Nicholas Roeg, Petulia is a trippy tale of love and confusion that explores the humid underside of flower power.

Patton (1970) -- Director Franklin J. Schaffner's rich portrayal of the controversial, larger-than-life World War II general recreates all the excitement and drama of the European front, while exploring one career officer's outsize ambition to expand his own role in this historic conflict. We see how Patton's unusually aggressive style most always yielded the desired results on the battlefield, yet so rankled both superiors and subordinates that the top leadership position he craved -- and the adulation that went with it -- would inevitably elude him. Scott delivers a towering rendition of the profane, colorful general, by turns making us admire, revile, and pity this man, who was driven by a profound sense of pre-destination. Karl Malden provides stellar support as Patton's more measured but equally brilliant colleague General Omar Bradley, but this is Scott's show all the way, as evidenced by his winning the Best Actor Oscar, an award he turned down. The film garnered an additional six statuettes, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay (for Francis Ford Coppola). Patton endures today as an epic war film that tells a very human story.

The Hospital (1971) -- Herbert Bock (Scott) the harried chief of medicine at a big city hospital, is divorced, impotent, estranged from his children and thinking seriously about ending it all. When patients start dying mysteriously on his watch, he suspects foul play. Indeed, the whole hospital seems to be on life support. Complicating matters, the alluring but eccentric free spirit Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg) confronts Block, demanding to collect her ill father (Barnard Hughes) and take him away to heal in healthier environs. As the world around them careens out of control, this unlikely pair fall fast in love (or is it lust?) and the good doctor considers leaving medicine behind forever. The Hospital recalls that long-ago time in Hollywood when screenwriters could be clever, funny literates like Paddy Chayefsky, and actors gruff, imperfect specimens of complicated manhood like George C. Scott. Chayefsky deservedly won the Screenplay Oscar for his biting, satirical script and Scott also got nominated for his expert handling of an extremely demanding role. In particular, his character's mid-film monologue on the state of his life sears the screen. Don't miss this outstanding, jet-black satire on the malaise afflicting our modern, supposedly civilized society.


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