Saturday, 14 December 2013


For many viewers, the names Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are inextricably linked.  They would become one of the screen’s great duos – not quite in the same way as Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, perhaps, but definitely akin to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the Technicolor generation.  Their styles would offer a strong contrast, both in acting technique and in public perception.  If Cushing was perceived as the heroic, kindly, avuncular type, then Lee was icy villainy embodied: cool (if not downright cold), detached and imposing.  Stories of Cushing’s generosity and warmth are many and varied; tales of Lee vary from the admiring to the damning.  You'll find hardly anybody who has a bad word to say about Cushing, either as a person or as an actor, but the same isn’t true of Lee: some critics have dismissed him as wooden and boring on screen, while some fans have found him arrogant and aloof in person.  Both actors would struggle before finally finding success – Cushing would find his initial acclaim on television, while Lee would rise to prominence essaying various monstrous and villainous character for Hammer Films.

Cushing would embrace his role as a genre icon, though he approached this with some reluctance and trepidation in the beginning; Lee would relish the opportunity to establish a name for himself, only to spend much of his later years trying to put some distance between himself and his initial successes.  Truth be told, it’s easy to appreciate the rationale behind both mentalities.  Cushing had established himself as actor of range and sensitivity, adept at the classics and in more contemporary subjects – to burden himself with the “baggage” of being a horror star would surely tarnish his reputation somewhat, but, as he rightly reasoned, it would provide stability and a cash flow which would enable him to support his ailing wife in the style he felt she deserved.

For Lee, finding success in this venue at a comparatively youthful age meant being eternally limited – it was easy enough to say “yes” to yet another Dracula picture, but as he rightly recognized, the part didn’t stretch his abilities and, worse still, would prevent him from achieving the types of roles in the types of films he openly craved.  Even so, the two men would cross paths at different points in their careers before finally becoming known as something of a “double act.”  Once they became linked, they would remain so for the remainder of their lives – fortunately, the two men were genuinely fond of each other and could make each other laugh in ways that would have seemed foreign to Karloff and Lugosi.

The first of their many collaborations would occur in 1948, courtesy of Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet.  Cushing had already impressed Olivier by a display of professional honesty: while undergoing a lean period of no work and grim prospects, Cushing had the chance to play a role in one of Olivier’s stage productions; sadly, the role required an actor capable of performing a convincing American accent.  Cushing told Olivier that he would let the play down rather badly on that front, and Olivier responded by telling the struggling actor that he would remember this display of honesty.  Cushing figured it was a nice way of saying “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” but lo and behold, Olivier remained true to his word.  In addition to giving Cushing a number of plum roles in his theatrical ventures, the actor-director also awarded Cushing with the supporting role of Osric in Hamlet.

The part would require Cushing to play it fey and broad and he responds with a larger than life performance; one can virtually smell the perfume emanating from the screen whenever he appears. Truth be told, this sort of broad comedy was never the actor’s strong suit and Hamlet is no exception. It’s interesting to see him in this context, but it’s not one of his more persuasive pieces of acting.

And what of Lee?  What, indeed… Lee, who was at the very start of his acting career, has long maintained that he snuck on set, donned a uniform for one of the heavily armored spear carriers and soaked in all he could of Olivier at work.  Mind you, this is the same Lee who also claims to have refused to speak the lines in Dracula Prince of Darkness (there never were any). That said, in a few long shots involving this characters lingering in the background, there is an admittedly tall extra in evidence.  Is it Lee or is it just wishful thinking?  Hard to say, but his contribution – if legitimate – would of course go unnoticed and unbilled.  The film itself would become a major box office hit, netting Olivier Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.  Cushing’s performance attracted some good notices and would help him in pursuing more theatrical and film work into the 1950s, before the burgeoning medium of television claimed him for its own – for a time.  For Lee, it was nothing more than anecdote to be told and retold, and he would spend the better part of a decade losing out on various acting jobs because he was “too tall” or “too foreign looking.”

In 1952, Cushing and Lee would find themselves in the same vehicle once again, when producer/director/all-around-maverick John Huston relocated to the UK to make Moulin Rouge.  This colorful and melodramatic account of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (played by José Ferrer, in an Oscar-nominated performance) would also find favor at the box office and with critics.  It marked a change of pace for the normally action-oriented Huston and demonstrated that his abilities could extend to costume fare, as well.  Cushing, by virtue of his rising star power, would claim billing in the finished film despite having a minor role that is rather indifferently covered by Huston – indifferently in the sense that it doesn’t even grant him a close up, not that the role really called for one, anyway.

Lee, still unknown at this stage, would go without billing – but he gets the better part, playing the painter Georges Seurat, discussing life and art with Lautrec in a Paris café.  Lee would be awestruck by Huston, while Cushing never made much mention of the experience.  For the former, it was a feather in the cap – a film for one of the great Hollywood filmmakers, allowing him to share screen time with an Oscar winning actor – while for the latter it was a minor paycheck gig at a time when he was getting more and more accustomed to playing larger leading roles.  Little did either man realize just how dramatically things would change in a mere five years…

Part Two: A Partnership In Deadly Deeds! Look out for updates!

A Talent To Terrify: is written by Troy Howarth
with images and artwork by Marcus Brooks

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