When people think of George Sanders, they generally remember his archetypal drama critic in All About Eve (1950), Addison DeWitt, who claims to be nobody’s fool. Addison is the apotheosis of Sanders’ public persona, The Cad, a serenely bitchy man of high standards who dresses superbly, flees from responsibility and puts women in their place. This same public persona was the one espoused in Sanders’ suicide note, which read, “Dear World. I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” Here was a man who was adroit even in self-annihilation, but many of his films show other sides of his complex character. In Sanders’ best work, the mask of The Cad would be dropped, or at least misplaced, and the real, sensitive, preemptively wounded boy underneath would reveal himself. When he won his Oscar for Addison, Sanders broke down in tears backstage; it’s hard to imagine Addison weeping about anything. In his highly emotional state, Sanders also forgot all about his wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and left the event without her. Cad-like behavior? Maybe. But if you were married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, wouldn’t you want to forget about it too?
Most people assumed Sanders was English, but he was actually born in St. Petersburg, Russia and led a secure, privileged childhood until he and his family were forced to flee to England after the revolution of 1917. Sanders was unhappy at school and unsure of what he wanted to do in life (“My own desire as a boy was to retire,” he claimed). For four years, he worked for a tobacco company in Argentina and often lived in primitive conditions, which he seems to have enjoyed. After fighting a duel over “a very charming widow,” Sanders was thrown out of South America and went back to England, where he briefly worked for an advertising company. While there, a secretary at the ad firm, Greer Garson, asked Sanders if he’d like to join her amateur theatrical company; thus, Mrs. Miniver set Sanders on the road of a long, rewarding and finally wearying career as an actor. In one of his first films, The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), Sanders briefly played a god named “Indifference” (offscreen, he soon bought a boat and christened it “Frustration”). Such signposts were richly indicative of what was to come, as Sanders made his first real impact on-screen in a costume snore, Lloyds of London (1936), where he put forward a delightfully smirking sangfroid while bullying Tyrone Power. Even at this fairly young age, Sanders walks across a room like a hobbled elderly man, as if he needs to conserve his energy.
There followed a fatiguing schedule as a contract player at Twentieth Century Fox, where Sanders played a lot of monocle-sporting Nazis and other sundry reprobates. As a rule, Sanders turns a bit silly when asked to be completely Evil; whenever he breaks into shouted German, he can’t resist camping it up. Asked to be a ferocious villain in Son of Fury (1942), he viciously whips Tyrone Power, then has a wide-eyed, comic reaction to his own sadism, as if he was horrified at such lurid overexertion. Much better were two B-picture series at RKO, where Sanders played detectives called The Saint and The Falcon, chilly, amusing men who were only out for themselves. In those films, Sanders’ drawling voice started to sound more playfully calculated; generally speaking, the more he emphasizes his vowels, the less interested he is in the movie.
Aptly enough, it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave Sanders his first classic roles on film. Midway through Rebecca (1940), we hear the Voice purring and sneering offscreen, then watch as Sanders’ black sheep Jack Favell hilariously tries to keep his aplomb while tripping through an open window. Jack is a rotter who resorts to blackmail at the end of the movie, caressing the words “foul pl-a-a-ay,” as he schemes to get enough money to retire (always Sanders’ ultimate goal). He almost steals Rebecca, and Hitch quickly gave him an even better part in Foreign Correspondent (1940), where he tosses off one of his best lines, “You know how women are with firearms, they have no sense of timing!” Sanders leaves no doubt as to the double meaning of this dangerous remark, but all is not fun and games here; toward the end, Hitch moves in his camera on Sanders as he watches an old man being tortured. We don’t see what’s happening, but we hear the torture, and we see it reflected on Sanders’ extremely expressive face; his sophisticated complacency is pricked, and beneath this pose is a scared, apprehensive child. When his mask of hauteur is down, Sanders’ face registers all kinds of emotions, sometimes against his will: he gives a look of sexual appraisal to Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent that can’t have been fully conscious.
Sometimes Sanders’ unique, two-faced sensibility was blunted by overwork; he made seven films in 1939, nine films in 1940, and another nine films in 1942. Other years would prove almost as busy, but in the midst of this hectic schedule, Sanders took his first really important role, the painter in Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942, right, with Doris Dudley), directed by Albert Lewin. We first see his Charles Strickland as a silent social clod, his mind elsewhere during a dull dinner party. He looks like he’s aching to burst loose, and he does, with a vengeance: the next time we see him, he’s drinking absinthe, growing a goatee, and insisting that he has to paint. At forty, Strickland knows that he has to be absolutely ruthless in order to get his work done before he dies, and he quietly ruins several lives in his quest to work in peace, but the alluring, Nietzschean hardness he conveys gradually softens and falls away as he finds a sort of paradise on a Tahitian island. In many films, Sanders is called an “unmitigated cad,” but this is never really correct. In truth, the more heartless he seems, the more Sanders is giving away his true vulnerability, a pained softness that comes to the fore in his fearful Nazi appeaser in Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine (1943). However conventionally effective and diverting Sanders was as the Cad or the villain, his best mode was that of a weak-willed man being confronted by his own weakness. Watch Sanders talk himself into being an informer in This Land Is Mine, and his “should I be ashamed of myself?” look afterwards. When he confesses his wrong, Sanders shows his Russian, Dostoyevsky-like origins by turning into a shapeless puddle of mush, an alarming image; he’s offering us a very raw piece of emotion here. Maybe he wanted to impress Renoir? Whatever the reason, these two films disclose the major actor lurking just beneath the surface of the treasured but often typecast character actor Cad.
Sanders returned to his Russian roots the next year in Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm (1944), an adaptation of a Chekhov short story. Sirk later spoke of Sanders’ “broken identity,” and his “haughtiness and blasé attitude hiding the rootlessness of the personality.” As a jaded aristocrat in Summer Storm, Sanders drains glass after glass of liqueur, then announces that “excesses can become desperately boring.” Ensnared by sexy Linda Darnell, his Cad mask drops, and Sirk lets us see Sanders’ bewilderment at his own lack of quality. In its precise, unshowy way, this is a harrowing performance: Sanders makes us see that this man knows enough to know better, but he can’t deny himself pleasure, and it is this extra-awareness that makes him so difficult to watch as the character falls further and further into moral disgrace. No other actor of the time would have dared to play this role as Sanders plays it, making you identify with this conscience-stricken worm and his cringing will-to-live, which makes him sit by while innocent lives are destroyed. At the end of Summer Storm, Sanders is a low rat caught in a trap, trying to get back a confession of murder from a postman. At this, his lowest point, Sanders still makes you feel for this degraded person and his urge to survive, no matter what the cost.
“George Sanders had a great capacity for understanding in-between values, being an in-between person himself,” said Sirk, who gave the actor another plum with A Scandal in Paris (1946), where Sanders plays the criminal and then policeman Vidocq. Even as Addison, Sanders never had better lines: “We always have the strength to endure the misfortunes of others,” his Vidocq purrs. Lewin made use of this ice-cold figure in his version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), where Sanders leaps on all the Wilde epigrams, chews them up, and spits them out at will, speeding up his usual languorous way of talking, which results in a technically dazzling performance. Sanders plays evil mentor to Hurd Hatfield’s Dorian, looking down at the floor in excitement and shame as he speaks of temptations and how we must yield to them. As the film goes on, it’s clear that Sanders’ Sir Henry is all talk and no action; the faster he speaks, the more we feel his frantic heartlessness, his “wit” signaling nothing but emptiness and contempt. Again, there was no other actor of the time who would have had the equipment and the anti-heroic quality for a part like this. Sanders’ mysterious and quintessentially Russian despair gave him the guts to play such men full out; paradoxically, it was also his oft-stated indifference to his craft as an actor that gave him untrammeled, unashamed access to the less seemly sides of human character.
This period of invention in the mid-forties came to a head in what is probably Sanders’ best performance in Robert Siodmak’s masterful, under-seen Uncle Harry (1945, right, with Geraldine Fitzgerald). As a gentle, come-down-in-the-world wage slave being smothered by his two sisters, Sanders gives an uncanny impression of a coddled fellow with watchful eyes, easily hurt, easily led, a boy who has never grown up. Romantic frustration leads him to consider murderous revenge: in a scene of great power, Sanders looks up at the stars and wonders why people try to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. Gradually, his Harry discovers a capacity for evil, and Sanders builds such a spiral of tension that when he turns on one of his sisters, his aggression feels like a shocking release of energy in the wrong direction. The ending of Uncle Harry is a bit questionable, but nothing can take away from Sanders’ revelatory portrait of a stifled, basically kind milquetoast turning into a calculating criminal.
The forties were Sanders’ premier decade on film, filled with byways and unexpected pleasures. He provided support for Laird Cregar in two fine John Brahm movies, The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945); never a particularly reassuring presence, Sanders seems almost trustworthy next to the fearsome Cregar. He found new levels of quiet disdain as Charles II in Otto Preminger’s version of Forever Amber (1947), seeming effortlessly powerful and kinglike but with an undercurrent of powerlessness beneath his indolence. Finally, his Cad persona reached a sort of climax with his Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, a knowing voyeur who is always writing his daily newspaper column in his head, his teeth ever sharp for combat. Watching Bette Davis’ insecure theater diva Margo Channing behaving badly at a party, his bleary eyes fill with admiration. “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity . . . you’re magnificent,” he murmurs, as if he can’t help composing a review of everything he sees. He tears Margo to pieces in his column, then toasts her at a restaurant, with all due respect for her talent, which he genuinely reveres. Addison only loses his cool once, when Anne Baxter’s conniving Eve Harrington laughs at him: he slaps her face, and Sanders gives us a brief glimpse of the bullied kid hidden underneath this man’s mastery of all he surveys. Eve is basically a shallow movie, especially in its “ironic” ending, but it’s endlessly re-watchable and suggestive, too. For Sanders, it was a capstone for his career and a kind of farewell, even though he made many more films. Unexpectedly, he made a singing leading man to Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1953), which he seemed to enjoy; he had a rich, trained baritone voice but never made much use of it on-screen.
As he endured a stream of commercial movie drudgery, playing cads, rogues, and worse, the artist in Sanders was caught one more time for Roberto Rossellini’s exploratory Voyage to Italy (1953). In that seminal film, Sanders plays Alex Joyce, a snide businessman who is slowly divested of all his defense mechanisms during a stay in Naples with his wife (Ingrid Bergman). There was no script: Rossellini basically improvised the whole movie, which stripped Sanders of his Cad persona mask as surely as Alex is stripped of all his false certainty. “One never knows what he’s thinking,” says the somewhat clueless Bergman, but Sanders can’t find his customary linguistic escape hatches anywhere, and his face becomes progressively more open and ravaged as the film draws to its conclusion, an explication of nothingness followed by a miracle that might last a few moments or a lifetime. Rossellini forces Sanders to stare unceasingly into the yawning chasm of his own ennui and loneliness, and the final result is tragic. When Bergman complains that “life is so short,” Sanders’ Alex replies, “That’s why one should make the best of it.” With that single, helpless line, Sanders reaches a level of pity and terror that has nothing to do with “acting” or the conscious effects of a performer. It’s a real admission of fear, so candid that it cannot be forgotten or smiled away, by Sanders or by us.
Obsessed with making money and quitting acting, the increasingly harried Sanders spent his last years churning out many bad films while plunging into a series of foolish, even criminal business ventures that left him broke and demoralized. In Sidney Lumet’s That Kind of Woman (1959), Sanders seems like a dead man; he doesn’t even have the energy to be scathing anymore. Though he’s clearly distressed, he won’t use it for the role; what we have here is the private distress of a man who has come to find the self-exposure in acting arduous and distasteful. John Huston cruelly put the elderly Sanders in drag for The Kremlin Letter (1970), where he wears a blond wig and heavy false eyelashes, plays “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” on the piano in a gay bar, then removes the wig backstage so that we see his extreme age. It was a strange image to end a career on, but Sanders was far past caring. Shortly after that, ill health prevented him from working, and Zsa Zsa even managed to marry him off to her sister Magda for a brief period. Old, sick, and very tired, Sanders traveled to Barcelona in 1972, took a hotel room, and wrote his famous suicide note before overdosing on pills. This note was gleefully reported after his death, and certainly it remains one of the best of its kind. What is less known is that Sanders wrote a second suicide note, addressed not to the press but to his sister Margaret, the only person who connected him to his Russian childhood and everything he had lost: “Dearest Margoolinka. Don’t be sad. I have only anticipated the inevitable by a few years.” In the end, the entertaining Cad had his say, only to make way for the tender Russian boy behind the mask, just as Addison will always be sniping from our television screens while the melancholy, soft-willed men Sanders played for Renoir, Sirk, Siodmak, and Rossellini remain as the artistic achievement of a man who only pretended superiority to try to shelter his naïve, blundering, exile’s heart.