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Tag: john le carre

Million Dollar Movie


In the Times, John Le Carre remembers Phillip Seymour Hoffman:

There’s probably nobody more redundant in the film world than a writer of origin hanging around the set of his movie, as I’ve learned to my cost. Alec Guinness actually did me the favor of having me shown off the set of the BBC’s TV adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” All I was wanting to do was radiate my admiration, but Alec said my glare was too intense.

Come to think of it, Philip did the same favor for a woman friend of ours one afternoon on the shoot of “A Most Wanted Man” in Hamburg that winter of 2012. She was standing in a group 30-odd yards away from him, just watching and getting cold like everybody else. But something about her bothered him, and he had her removed. It was a little eerie, a little psychic, but he was bang on target because the woman in the case is a novelist, too, and she can do intensity with the best of us. Philip didn’t know that. He just sniffed it.

In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.

Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death. Like Chatterton, he went seven times round the moon to your one, and every time he set off, you were never sure he’d come back, which is what I believe somebody said about the German poet Hölderlin: Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.


Not Fade Away

Dwight Garner profiles John Le Carre in the Times:

Yet John le Carré’s greatest invention is easily John le Carré himself. Born in 1931 in Poole, a sprawling coastal town in Dorset, he is a product of a childhood both unusual and enviable — if you happen to be a writer. It made him suspicious of charm of any sort and gave him a limitless fascination with humans and their secrets.

Le Carré, as most of his fans know, is a son of a great, debonair English con man. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, born into mundane middle-class life, remade himself into a funny, gracious man who found that he could talk anyone out of anything, and did so. He was friendly with the Kray twins, the notorious and photogenic London gangsters. He was jailed for insurance fraud. He always, le Carré said, had a scam or two in the works.

“In his high days, he had a racehorse at Maisons-Lafitte outside Paris, and dancing girls, and he’d go whizzing off to Monte Carlo with the former lord mayor of London to stay in grand style at the Hotel de Paris,” le Carré said. “His social rise was extraordinary.” When things went badly, le Carré recalls, “not only were the police looking for him, but the boys were. We had to put the cars behind the house, keep the lights out and so on.”

Le Carré likes to cite a passage from the autobiography of Colin Clark, the son of the art collector Lord Clark, who wrote about what it was like to be taken in by le Carré’s father: “He was your favorite uncle, your family doctor, Bob Boothby and Father Christmas rolled into one.” He could, Clark wrote, “fix anything” and did. “Ronnie invited me to Royal Ascot and gave me a few good dinners. Then he showed me a piece of derelict property, which he did not own, promised to double my money in three months and took the lot.”


Million Dollar Movie

There is a good story by John Le Carre in this week’s New Yorker (subscription required). It’s about the making of his novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The piece centers on the tense relationship between the film’s director, Martin Ritt, a left-wing Jew who’d been blacklisted, and its star, Richard Burton, the larger-than-life Welshman.

Here’s my favorite part:

In one of the few conversations of substance that I had with Burton during our short spree together, he almost boasted of how much he despised the showman in himself; how he wished he had “done a Paul Scofield,” by which he meant eschew the big-screen heroics and the big-screen money and acept only acting parts of real artistic substance. And Ritt would have agree with him wholeheartedly.

But that didn’t let Burton off the hook. To the eye of the puritanical, committed, connubial leftist and activist, Burton came too close to everything Ritt instinctively condemned. In a 1986 interview, he has a line that says it all: “I don’t have a lot of respect for talent. Talent is genetic. It’s a gift. It’s what you do with the gift that counts.” It was bad enough to put profit before art, or sex before family, or flaunt your wealth and your woman, or ostentatiously soak yourself in liquor, or strut that world like a god while the masses cry out for justice. But to waste your talent was a sin against gods and men. And the greater the talent–and Burton’s talents were legion and extraordinary–the greater, in Ritt’s view, the sin.

Love Ritt’s take on talent. But Le Carre doesn’t think Burton was a wasted talent. He concludes the article:

Richard Burton was a literate, serious artist, a self-educated polymath with appetites and flaws that in one way or another we all share. If he was the prisoner of his own weaknesses, the dah of rectifying Welsh puritanism in him was not a hundred miles from Ritt’s. He was irreverent, mischievous, generous-hearted but necessarily manipulative. For the very celebrated, being manipulative goes with the territory. I never knew him in his quieter hours, but I wish I had. He was a superb Alex Leamas, and in a different year his performance might have earned him an Oscar, the prize that eluded him all his life. The film was grim and black-and-white. That wasn’t what we we wearing in 1965.

If either the director of his actor had been less, perhaps the film also would have been less. I suppose that, at the time, I felt more protective of the podgy, stalwart, and embittered Ritt than of the flamboyant and unpredictable Burton. A director carries the whole burden of the film on his back, and that includes the idiosyncrasies of his star. Sometimes I had the feeling that Burton was going out of his way to belittle Ritt, but in the end I guess they were pretty evenly matched. And Ritt surely had the last word. He was a brilliant and impassioned director whose righteous anger could never be stilled.

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