Monday, October 16, 2023

“The Great Gambon”: A Tribute to Michael Gambon

 Michael Gambon as the ailing writer in The Singing Detective (1986).

Michael Gambon, the towering English actor who died on September 27 at the age of eighty-two, had such a distinctive, jowly appearance that if he’d been born American and looked for work in Hollywood he certainly would have been typecast in gangster roles. He was lumpy and broad-shouldered and he had the long, rectangular face of a weary pugilist, with tiny eyes peeking out from beneath heavy, outsize lids and from above cheeks like thick pillows. Yet he had universes in him. He was born in Ireland but his family moved to London and then to Kent, where he apprenticed as a toolmaker. He caught the acting bug when, laboring on set crew for an amateur dramatic society, he was asked to play some small roles. Eventually he joined the Gate Theatre in Dublin under Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards and the Royal National Theater under Laurence Olivier, who was his role model – Olivier, whose physical and vocal transformations were legend, who could bury himself in a character. No one who looked like Gambon could help being recognized in part after part, yet his range was as staggering as that of any British performer of his astonishing generation, and his metamorphoses could be so miraculous that they seemed to trick the eye. In the role with which most moviegoers identify him, the Hogwarts schoolmaster Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, which he took over in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 following the death of Richard Harris, he has the paradoxical look of a giant elf. Harris’s Dumbledore is other-worldly and wrapped in wonder; Gambon’s is Zen and self-amused – Yoda reborn as a lordly English eccentric whose white hair and beard complete him.

It was Ralph Richardson, one of the luminaries of Olivier’s generation, who gave him the soubriquet “The Great Gambon” after he starred in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo in 1980 under John Dexter’s direction. It was his breakthrough performance. I discovered him, as many north Americans did, when PBS imported Dennis Potter’s six-part, seven-hour Brechtian musical The Singing Detective in 1988. It was and is the damnedest series, still, perhaps, the most extraordinary thing ever shown on television. Potter was a Brechtian of the oddest stripe: whereas Brecht employed distancing devices to prevent his audience from getting caught up emotionally with his characters, Potter uses them to comment on the repressed feelings of his. The Singing Detective is his most personal work: Gambon’s protagonist, Philip Marlow, is a writer whose acutely painful bout of psoriatic arthritis, which Potter himself suffered from, has landed him in the hospital. That’s Marlow without the final “e,” which would have given him exactly the same name as Raymond Chandler’s famous hard-boiled shamus, an icon of 1940s pop culture both on the page and on the screen, where Humphrey Bogart played him most famously in The Big Sleep. Potter’s Marlow thinks it was his fate to write detective novels, and under the influence of the fever that accompanies his disease he’s rewriting his best one, The Singing Detective, where the hero is a private eye who moonlights as a Big Band singer. We get to see the mystery played out as Marlow reimagines it. Gambon plays not only the ailing writer, whose skin is horribly disfigured by peeling sores and who can’t move his body without help or loosen his knotted fists, but also the narrator-hero of his book, who wears a white dinner jacket or a pinstripe suit and a boater, carries a cane under his arm and sports a pencil-thin mustache. But the real mystery is the one the hospital shrink, Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), prods the reluctant Marlow to unearth, through a series of agonizing childhood memories he’s buried deep in his psyche that explain his untrammeled rage at his estranged wife Nicola (Janet Suzman), whom he left after she cheated on him, and his complicated responses to sex. As he gets closer to the source, the reconstructed novel in his head incorporates Nicola, his long-dead mother (Alison Steadman), and a shadowy figure alternately called Binney and Finney and Raymond (Patrick Malahide) whose original identity we only learn after we’ve spent considerable time in flashbacks to Philip’s childhood among the coal fields of the Forest of Dean.

Brecht would certainly have hated the idea of applying the style he made famous to illuminate Freudian material. But The Singing Detective is as great as anything Brecht wrote, and Gambon is formidable. Under the anguish of his disease, Marlow is so bitter that it’s as if the poison oozing out of his skin has lacerated his soul. He’s insulting and sarcastic, leveling a withering wit on anyone he considers his intellectual inferior, like the doctors and nurses who he feels treat him with callous indifference, lecture condescendingly to him and exacerbate the indignities that his physical helplessness already imposes on him. Only one nurse (Joanne Whalley), who is kind and patient, escapes his venom (most of the time). Most of the representatives of the medical profession who cross paths with him deserve his ire, and Potter renders them satirically, with a razor sharpness. Of course, in the Brechtian fantasy numbers we’re seeing these figures through Marlow’s curdled point of view. When we’re not, we perceive that some, at least, are struggling to find ways to help him, like the Registrar (Thomas Wheatley), who has to fight through Philip’s biting superciliousness to press the suggestion that he talk to Gibbon. Unlike the Registrar or anyone else on the ward, Gibbon is at least as smart as Philip is, as articulate and as fond of verbal games, and Philip can’t outwit him. Gibbon isn’t sentimental; his compassion is expressed entirely in therapeutic action. It’s clear that no one else can save him from himself – by leading him into himself. The tête-à-têtes between Gambon’s Marlow and Paterson’s Gibbon are sensational, especially a word-association exercise where Marlow, who insists on viewing it as a competition, races to keep (he thinks) ahead of his therapist and prove that the game has no diagnostic value, while his answers show precisely the opposite. “I mean, it’s words, just words,” Marlow concludes, but then he adds quietly, “I don’t think I’ll come here again” – and we know Gibbon has pierced his armor. And Marlow does come back.

Michael Gambon as Sir William McCordle in Gosford Park (2001).

Gambon is a man of a thousand voices here: ferociously deprecatory (he sometimes appears to channel Richard Burton in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) and masochistically self-deprecating, self-pitying and authentically agonized, terrorizing and terrified, the mocking jester and the walking wounded. His performance is a sort of vaudeville in which he skates – flamboyantly or furiously – from mood to mood, tone to tone, layer to layer. In one unforgettable scene, Potter and the director, Jon Amiel, place his adult self with his moulting face and shapeless mound of hair and sickbed pajamas, in a nightmare version of one of his own memories, sitting at the back of a pub watching his woebegone father (Jim Carter) sing to the crowd. Then Gambon opens his mouth and what comes out isn’t the posh accent he learned after his mother left his dad and took him to live with her parents in London but the Gloucestershire brogue of his childhood.

I saw Gambon on stage only once, in David Hare’s Skylight in 1996, in a magnificent portrait of a widowed restauranteur who tries to reconcile with the younger woman (Lia Williams) with whom he once had a potent love affair. (Bill Nighy was very good in a 2014 revival, but Gambon was heartbreaking.) How I wish I’d been able to see him as Falstaff or Volpone or in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. He stopped acting on the stage in 2013 because he was experiencing panic attacks. But his work on the large and small screens was phenomenal, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen him give even a mediocre performance in either a starring role or a supporting one. He played more than one memorable tyrant. He’s mean-minded Sir William McCordle in Robert Altman’s Agatha Christie-meets-Jean Renoir mystery/high comedy Gosford Park (2001) – the self-indulgent, unfiltered, tantrum-throwing host who approaches his guests as if they were manikins in a Whack a Mole game. Sir William is the object of hatred of almost everyone gathered on his country estate for a shooting weekend, so naturally he gets murdered halfway through the movie – and lively and star-studded as it is, you can’t help missing his entertaining boorishness. In The King’s Speech (2010) he’s King George V, who intimidates his stuttering younger son Bertie (Colin Firth) when he tries to coach him in speech-making. First we hear him muting his impressive presence and vocal prowess during a recording of his own speech; his notion of teaching by example is actually a display of his own unmatchable style and self-possession. When he’s done, he comments to Bertie, “It’s easy if you know how,” and demands that he face the microphone square in the eye “like any decent Englishman,” implying that Bertie’s failure to do so would be an act of cowardice, even disloyalty. He speaks of the machine as if it were an enemy to be subdued; Gambon’s reading tells us that the king feels he’s done just that without breaking a sweat, in the genteel definitive manner that bespeaks British finesse and unquestionable domination. Bertie is defeated before he’s begun. In Churchill’s Secret (2016), which begins with the 1953 stroke that almost killed the great man and then nearly finished his political career, he gets at both the Prime Minister’s blustery willfulness and his sudden physical vulnerability, occasionally at the same moment, as when, stammering as he lies on his back on his sickbed, even when he has to push a word out he manages to give it a certain hauteur, a magisterial curl. He’s one of the great modern Churchills, alongside John Lithgow on The Crown and Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

His sampling of the classics came mostly during his stage career, but he did get to play Hamm (opposite David Thewlis as Clov) in a film, directed by Conor McPherson, of Endgame, part of the noble project around the millennium that filmed all of Samuel Beckett’s plays. Gambon’s superb, and his vocal choice is fascinating: he sounds like a cross between an old-school Irish campaigner and a wasted aristocrat, using his Irish burr to convey both the grittiness of a barfly and the pretentiousness of a peasant pretending he’s a lord. He suggests both Captain Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock in one of his high-and-mighty fits and Con Melody, the barkeep who carries on like a nobleman in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. He’s the undisputed high-water mark in a 1978 BBC production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, where he discovers ways to dramatize Trigorin’s sexual charisma and elegantly disguised self-involvement that I’ve never seen anyone else attempt. (You can find this performance in the BBC Chekhov box set.) And his impersonation, in the marvelous 2009 miniseries based on Jane Austen’s Emma, of Mr. Woodhouse as a befuddled, narcissistic worry-wart whose face falls apart like a disturbed jigsaw puzzle when he feels any threat to his comfort and custom is a grand comic accomplishment. He also got to play a classic detective, Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, for two seasons in the early nineties. I think he’s more interesting than Jean Gabin in the Maigret movies – more intellectual, more emotionally stirred.

But if you want to salute the great Gambon by watching one performance, let it be The Singing Detective. It’s masterful and it’s sui generis.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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