I have written before of my admiration for the late Michael Gough (1916-2011), a British actor who could move effortlessly from the serious classical theater of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Harold Pinter, and Berthold Brecht, to the florid melodramas of Jimmy Sangster and Herman Cohen. Which is another way of saying that – like Sirs Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, or John Gielgud – Michael Gough had an extraordinary talent for camp, a talent that he was more than happy to deploy under the appropriate circumstances. Most of Gough’s fans are familiar with his arch, scenery-chewing performance as the mad scientist in Herman Cohen’s Konga. Less familiar is his fey turn as “Master of the Moon,” the invading extraterrestrial-in-chief in Freddie Francis’s They Came From Beyond Space (1967).
Gough’s intentionally camp “Master of the Moon” was part of a long tradition of campy extraterrestrial leadership, a tradition that goes all the way back to Charles Middleton’s performance as “Ming the Merciless” in the 1930s Flash Gordon serials, if not earlier. (See also, Max von Sydow’s performance as Ming in the 1980 Flash.) To put matters in perspective, check out this clip of Dudley Manlove in his much-beloved performance as “Eros” in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxNCTjpLNwo]
Then compare it to Gough’s turn as “Master of the Moon.”[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mfzg5XrLRNA]
Pity poor Freddie Francis who had to direct this scenario, consisting entirely of recycled sci-fi cliches, with as much seriousness as he could muster. Then ask yourself what else could Gough do with this role, a role that required him to perform under an inch-thick patina of clown-white facial makeup while wearing an orange satin cape?
What Gough did was to make his performance as entertainingly flamboyant as possible. I particularly like the ease with which he shifts gears from a pose of superior benevolence to pure ruthlessness once his earthly opponent has been disarmed. For this, and countless other memorable performances, we are eternally grateful.
For more on the great Gough, check out these pieces by Erich Kuersten and Richard Harland Smith. David Del Valle’s interview with Gough (highly recommended) can be found here. David Hudson gathers additional links here.