Tribute By Monica Sullivan
We all know what statistics tell us about middle age: it's that fifteen year stretch between the ages of 35 and 50. But statistics exist in real life as often as 1.2 children, which is to say NEVER! For Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 120 with vivid memories of Vincent Van Gogh as a literal stinker, middle age didn't begin until she was sixty. For more than one big screen heartthrob who died in a stupor from a drug overdose, a fast car or a firearm, middle age might begin somewhere between 11 1/2 & 13 years old. For the romance novelist whose goal was to live as long as her mother (98) middle age was never officially acknowledged, but probably began late in what she called her fabulous forties. For the wonderful cult director Paul Bartel, who resisted attempts to pigeonhole his work for most of his career, his official middle age began way too young, in his early thirties. Like most of us, he didn't recognize it. Bartel was way too busy living & creating as if he had a century to play with, instead of the 61 years he got. For John Gielgud, whose brother Val died at 82 & whose great aunt Ellen Terry lived to be 80, middle age began around the time HRH The Princess Elizabeth became Her Majesty the Queen of England in 1952.
At twenty, Gielgud appeared as Daniel in a silent movie called "Who Is the Man?" It was a drama, set in Paris, about an addicted artist who took the blame for his married sister's lover. He didn't make another silent picture for five years until he played Rex Trasmere in Edgar Wallace's "The Clue of the New Pin," about a rich recluse who was killed by a nephew who'd tried to burn a reporter. He made his debut in a sound film as Henri Dubois in 1932's "Insult" about a legionnaire in Africa who died to save the Governor, the son of a Major who hated him. Then came the role of Inigo Jolifant in 1933's "The Good Companions", based on J.B. Priestley's play. This was the first John Gielgud movie I ever saw in a revival theatre &, although I loved the film, I couldn't see what co-star Jessie Matthews as Susie Dean saw in him. At 29, Gielgud was decidedly a late bloomer as a film actor. He still had to grow into his face & he delivered his lines with no real feeling except that he was the only one worth listening to when he wasn't. How could down-to-earth Susie Dean possibly fall for stuck-up Inigo Jolifant? In Somerset Maugham's "The Secret Agent," directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1936, Gielgud as Edgar Brodie was out-acted by everyone else in the cast: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, Robert Young & Lilli Palmer. If anyone had predicted that John Gielgud at 32 would go on to win an Oscar for "Arthur" in 1981 & have one of the most prolific movie careers of all time AND look better in his nineties than he ever did in his thirties, it must have been an international secret shared only with the audiences who actually saw the young Gielgud onstage.
For much of his career, John Gielgud was admired rather than loved, but he had the inner humility to realize he always had something to learn as an actor. How many actors in their seventies can you recall who would be raring to play a nude scene as John Gielgud did in "Caligula?" How many actors in their nineties could persuasively play gainfully employed workers with an intelligent sparkle as John Gielgud did in "Shine?" John Gielgud worked so hard and so often in recent years that there used to be a joke that he HAD to be in every releaseable movie. He outlived Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Richard Burton, John Osborne, Anthony Perkins & countless other much younger co-stars, directors and playwrights of the "future." John Gielgud seemed to do it backwards: the charisma of his "old" age made him shine brighter than the passing parade of every youthful supernova in Hollywood.
© 2000 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 5/31/00
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