James Mason, who died July 27, 1984 at age 75, would be 109 on May 15 if he were still alive. Fortunately for us, he left behind a great body of work in iconic performances from the sadistic “man in grey” in the melodrama of that title, to the doomed IRA member in Odd Man Out, to sophisticated perv Humbert Humbert in Lolita. We honor Mason by reposting Christopher Sandford’s vivid 2009 profile of the man who, as the author says, “was equally at home playing small, brooding anti-heroes, camping it up in a toga, or doing a nice line in late career self-parody.”
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I remember that great twentieth-century thinker Vincent Price telling me, “When a man’s mug is ten feet across in close-up he has to have . . . something.” The star of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and 102 lesser films was explaining the difference between actors and movie stars, in between lengthy descants on such topics as art history and the correct way to cook a trout. Price, who had something to say on most things, had plenty to say on his similarly eclectic contemporary with the matching tendency to take more or less any work that came his way over the years. James Mason, he said, was “the golden boy of my generation,” equally at home playing small, brooding anti-heroes, camping it up in a toga, or doing a nice line in late career self-parody. (Which, more or less, is the story of Price himself.) Add the fact that Mason was a sort of human equivalent to Big Ben (and just as sonorous) fifty years before anyone in the U.S. had heard of Hugh Grant, was up there with Rex Harrison when it came to playing the type of fatally attractive cad who brutalizes his women and has them begging for more, and in general exuded the kind of insinuatingly creepy charm only a British boarding school graduate can ever truly aspire to, and you’ve got the all-time renaissance man of film.
James Neville Mason was born a century ago, on May 15 1909, in Huddersfield, a northern English mill town not famous for its patronage of the arts. Without descending too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, it seems fair to say that the place had a powerful motivating effect on him. Mason got out the first chance he had and wound up studying architecture, with a Ph.D. in Neo-classicism, at Cambridge University. Taking the pragmatic view that no one was going to be commissioning any mock-Roman temples in the depths of the Great Depression, he joined the Old Vic theater in London as a scenery shifter-cum-stand in, eventually catching the eye of legendary producer Alexander Korda, who thought the young Mason “a smooth bugger” with “just a touch of the leather-coated Nazi” about him for the all-important crossover appeal. The result was the lead turn in the 1935 British-quota quickie Late Extra, a crime melodrama shot for the sort of money Tom Cruise spends on lunch. A hundred and twenty-two more screen roles would follow over the next 49 years. They covered the waterfront from the neurotic husband who takes a riding crop to Margaret Lockwood in The Man in Grey (1943), to the sadist who crushes Ann Todd’s piano-playing fingers in The Seventh Veil (1945), to the over-the-hill ham mugging opposite Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954). Any lingering doubts about whether the perennially glowering Mason could really act were finally settled in his favor by the extraordinary Odd Man Out (1947). Basically, it’s the story of an Irish gang leader being hunted in the streets of Belfast after a robbery. If not exactly a sensational script, the pacing is spot-on; and Mason himself is seriously good, for once ditching the protective irony and reserve that can sometimes stand between you and whatever character he’s playing. Here, his performance is passionate, subtle, and right on the edge: his recurrent look not just of rage but of self-loathing is a master class in itself. Odd Man Out is one of the true epic turns of twentieth century cinema, and duly caught the eye of everyone from Laurence Olivier, who raved about it at regular intervals for the rest of his life, down the ranks to a 13-year-old Polish war refugee then calling himself Romek Wilk, better known to the world as Roman Polanski, who saw the film forty-two times.
It’s a curious thing to watch Mason in Odd Man Out, having since seen him in all those subsequent faux-John Gielgud turns like God’s representative on earth in Heaven Can Wait (1978), or the for once intriguingly sharp-witted Watson to Christopher Plummer’s Holmes in 1979’s Murder by Decree. In the early films he seems untouchable, cold, frightening, and if not amoral (Lord Manderstoke in Fanny by Gaslight), then certainly a little bit weird (The Night Has Eyes). We suspect demons in his past (Troubled Waters). He’s intense, barbed, and doesn’t seem to care whether or not he’s liked — in fact, Mason spent fifteen years playing a relentless succession of tortured loners, emotional misfits and out-and-out psychopaths, among them some of the most compelling minimal-budget performances ever committed to celluloid, at which point Hollywood discovered him.
In a way, it’s a familiar tale: the classically trained British toff shamelessly prostituting himself for a buck, almost a cliché at a time when the likes of Olivier, Harrison, and David Niven, among many lesser mortals, all forced themselves to make a similar accommodation. The archetype of the slumming limey thespian is an enduring one. It wasn’t Mason’s fault that most of the scripts he signed on to were, at best, labored melodramas or comedies that reminded one of the worst kind of exhibitionistic lyric writing — I once sat through an interminable Police recording session with a build-up that somehow allowed Sting to rhyme “brontosaurus” with “lesson for us.” One shouldn’t be aware of the contrivance, and in Mason films like Cry Terror! or The Decks Ran Red (both 1958) one almost always is. Then there were the costume epics, like the woeful remake of 1936’s Mayerling, the one about the Austrian prince who dares to fall in love with a commoner, where a combination of MGM and an offshore consortium called the Associated Picture Corporation gleefully limbo under the bar of their own low standards. Taken as a whole, these were not exactly a career high for the man Life magazine dubbed “the most resourceful screen actor of the century.”
Still, class will out, even in Tinseltown. For roughly every three bombs Mason made there was a genuine classic. That superbly taut, emotionally buttoned-up technique came wonderfully good in Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), where Mason does the stolid professor with kinky undertones to perfection. He has a quiet and emphatic presence here, made all the more compelling by Peter Sellers’ characteristically over-the-top turn as Quilty: it’s like watching Calvin Coolidge interact with Jim Carrey, if such a billing could ever be brought off. I know at least one elderly Englishwoman of irreproachable probity who would literally sag at the knees at the sound of Mason’s voice, that rich, full-bodied instrument that always gave one the impression that he took it out and let it marinate in a cask of port in between films. Pulling off this kind of eye-of-the-storm performance isn’t as easy as it sounds. The obvious trap would be to make Mason’s character in Lolita a sort of winking, in-on-the-joke letch like Michael Caine’s Alfie. Instead, we get someone who’s as much a victim as, in her own way, the 12-year-old jailbait is. You feel for him as much as you do for her: more so, quite possibly, toward the end. The scenes between Mason and Sue Lyon, 37 years his junior, are warm and skillful — offhand, I can’t think of another actor, not excluding Jeremy Irons in the remake, who could have pulled it off.
Then there’s Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, by a distance the best of the yarns about a normal life turned upside down (see also The Man Who Knew Too Much and Polanski’s Frantic, among countless others), where a bewildered American businessman is caught up in a world of international intrigue and violence. Mason doesn’t just play the part of the engagingly suave villain; he embodies it. The scene where he casually arranges for Cary Grant to be liquored up and then turned loose in his car; the one where he verbally spars with his quarry in the auction house; the final, Pinteresque standoff with Eva Marie Saint and a sexually ambiguous Martin Landau in the gangsters’ futuristic hideaway, craning out over Mt Rushmore like a post-modernist Berghof — all, simultaneously, utterly fantastic and yet totally believable.
In one of his fits of introspection, Mason once said that the only reason he took movie jobs was to buy the time to look after his menagerie of cats — an obsession which put him up there in the Grey Gardens league, and on which he eventually co-wrote a book. It was almost true, but not quite. He also quietly gave away a few million to various pacifist causes (Mason was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a bolder career choice than it might be now), bought himself a lakeside Swiss mansion next to Charlie Chaplin’s, and, more to the point, cheerfully admitted to taking any job offered him in order to pay a “castratingly large” alimony to his first wife, Pamela — which led to appearances in films such as The Left Hand of the Law, Voyage of the Damned, and The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go. In 1971, Mason married the Australian semi-actress Clarissa Kaye, 22 years his junior. Excessive marital fidelity rarely seems to be a problem for movie stars, but Mason was loyal truly to a fault: some years later, it emerged that he had regularly worked contractual clauses into his work on latter-day TV fare like Frankenstein: The True Story and Salem’s Lot, guaranteeing Kaye speaking parts. The proverbially well-placed source also assured me that “Jim wasn’t especially bothered by his marriage vows” around his thirties and early forties, at about the time he was making a name for himself in Hollywood. There had once been an attempt to blackmail him over his alleged penchant for a certain, unusually robust sex act. Nor had Mason, for all his charitable largesse, been that forthcoming with his wallet. In Switzerland, if a local reporter asked him for an interview, he tended to ask how much he would be paid for it. If you went out to lunch, as my source once did, with Mason and Chaplin, “you could literally die” waiting for either of them to pick up the bill.
It’s a tribute to our fallen natures that we always want to know what the great are “really like,” particularly when they aren’t as they seem. The fact remains that Mason was a superbly accomplished, versatile screen actor, whose mannered precision always gave the impression that he was inwardly seething with furious, invisible activity, and who touched genius in a dozen or so of his 123 roles. What’s more, he’s consistently good in even the smallest projects, films that to a sordidly commercial eye wouldn’t even be deemed worthy of release. Mason gloriously transcends the script of 1975’s Autobiography of a Princess, a slight tale about an Englishman and an Indian woman who come together once a year to sip tea; and in his last proper job, 1984’s The Shooting Party, a low-key slice of the British class system, his performance lifts the whole thing to a level of honesty you rarely see on the screen. It’s a fitting epitaph, the sort of wry, understated turn that used to give England a good name.
James Mason died on July 27 1984, aged 75. His ashes are buried in a lot in Vevey, Switzerland, next to his friend Chaplin. Both his wives and his daughter are dead; a son, Morgan, was a Special Assistant for Political Affairs to President Reagan, and later married Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s — that’s him she’s trilling about in “Heaven is a place on Earth.” Apart from the ones mentioned, Mason gave us films like The Desert Rats, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Pumpkin Eater, Lord Jim, Georgy Girl, and The Verdict. Thrice nominated, he never won an Oscar. Someone at the Academy seriously erred in not honoring him in his centenary year