[26 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Richard Attenborough was born in 1923 to a founding member of Britain’s Marriage Guidance Council (a charity centering on advice for couples) and a scholar who wrote the standard text on Anglo-Saxon law. In World War II, he served with the British Royal Air Force’s (RAF) film unit (where he recorded the outcome of Bomb Commander sorties) before taking to the stage. He would soon become one of Britain’s biggest box office draws.
He costarred in the original production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, taking a ten percent profit-participation in the production. It would go on to set a world record as the longest running stage play in history (over 25,000 performances and still going strong) and during the ‘60s, he recorded triumphs in both hero and villain roles. He even earned back to back Golden Globes (for The Sand Pebbles and Doctor Doolittle), becoming one of his homeland’s most celebrated stars in the process.
Then, in 1969, he was asked to bring the celebrated antiwar musical Oh! What a Lovely War to the big screen, and from that moment on, Attenborough (who died last week at the age of 90) became as celebrated for his work behind the lens as his performances in front of it. During the ‘70s, he tackled subjects as divergent as WWII (A Bridge Too Far) and macabre mental illness (Magic). In 1982, he won an Oscar for helming Gandhi, was raked over the coals for his less than faithful take on the Broadway smash A Chorus Line, and celebrated the lives of Steven Biko and Charlie Chaplin with Oscar bait efforts about same.
Still, for all his pros and cons, his work both worthy and wasted, Attenborough remained decidedly and dedicatedly British. In celebration of his career, here are ten examples of his best work. Each one, no matter the final critical consensus, proves the man’s talent and track record.
He’s only in the movie for a tiny fraction of its elephantine running time and his role is really nothing more than an extended cameo, but Attenborough the campy cad truly shines as the flash and flamboyant circus owner stunned by the title character’s arrival in his camp, and the two-headed llama (known as a “pushmi-pullyu”) he’s brought along. He was actually hired by the production team after demonstrating the high kicking dance step (mimicking another famed entertainer) which would become instrumental to the success of the song “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It”. A perfect award winning embodiment of old school British music hall pluck.
More smug than satiric and practically sledgehammering you over the head with how clever and smart it is, Attenborough’s adaptation of the 1961 stage hit is frequently mentioned among the best anti-war films ever. Translating the socio-economic and political subtexts behind WWI into a rousing musical hall free for all, the melodious deconstruction of global armed combat has its moments. It’s also lost in a one note know-it-all-ism which doesn’t translate to today’s more sophisticated viewer. Still, the directorial flare on display and the overall stylish production design proved that Attenborough, helming his first feature, was an able artist to watch.
It won several Oscars and is considered by many to be one of the best films in Attenborough’s oeuvre, but one has to wonder if this biopic of the famed non-violent activist would even be made today. No, not because Gandhi’s story isn’t important. It’s crucial to contemporary civilization. But when you consider that it starred a half-Indian Brit, the country’s previous colonialism and its connection to the movie could make it a tough sell in these times. Still, Attenborough delivered the kind of Oscar bait the Academy loves, turning 1982 into a year of awards and accolades. Ghandi remains a powerful, if slightly old school, history lesson.
He’s the benevolent and exceedingly wealthy grandpa we wish we all had, a benefactor who thinks big and isn’t afraid to risk failure. Of course, he’s also a bit of a madman, determined to bring dinosaurs back from extinction in a modern, amusement park, setting. As John Hammond, Attenborough proved his acting past wasn’t completely behind him. Instead, he brought a gravitas and dignity to what is mostly a throwaway role. The moment he asks for help rescuing his grandchildren from the high tech hell he’s unleashed stands as a stellar emotional moment in a movie filled with eye-popping CGI spectacle.
It was his first shot at Hollywood “stardom” after making more than his mark in the British film biz, and Attenborough made the most of it. Granted, when you costar alongside the legendary Steve McQueen and formidable talents such as James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and David McCallum, you’ve got to bring your A-game. As Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett, the “Big X”, Attenborough is the mastermind behind the escape. Quick witted and courageous, his bravery is only matched by the tragedy of his unexpected end. When you consider the company he keeps, Attenborough still manages to make much of this movie his own.
For his second feature film as a director, Attenborough entered the realm of the biopic, a place where he would find much of his future filmmaking success. In this case, however, he decided not to deal with the iconic aspects of Churchill’s legacy, but the beginning, when he was an angry young man and hotheaded soldier. Robert Shaw, as his father, casts a long shadow while (then) newcomer Simon Ward shines as the soon to be mythic UK politician. Covering subjects like Churchill’s service in India and his capture during the Second Boer War, Attenborough proved he was just as comfortable with action as he was actors.
Before the drug busts, before the tabloid infamy, the court dates, the stints in rehab and the eventual metamorphosis into Marvel’s main man, Robert Downey Jr. earned across the board kudos for playing the celebrated silent comedy star in this brassy biopic. Attenborough based the story on Chaplin’s own autobiography, though having the 27 year old actor play 80 (via some rather unconvincing age make-up) was a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, Downey was downright brilliant in the recreations of Chaplin’s famed film routines. Critics complained that this was nothing more than a whitewashing of a far more complex creative life. It’s still terrific.
Believe it or not, Attenborough got his start playing cherub faced baddies. The second selection of this list became one of his earliest and most celebrated signature roles. So did this one, tackling the true life serial killer known as John Christie. John Hurt and Judy Gleeson are the Evans, a young couple who rent a room at the title locale, a place where our featured fiend rapes and kills with abandon. Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of miscarried post-war justice in British history (resulting in the Crown pardoning Hurt’s character, posthumously), Attenborough is electrifying as the meek little man with murder on his mind.
Three years before this film version was released, Attenborough was drawing major critical and audience attention in the West End for his performance as Pinkie Brown, a teenage hoodlum who, along with his gang, hopes to control crime at a racecourse near the title locale. When a reporter uncovers what’s going on, Pinkie kills him. When attempts to cover his tracks fail, our unhinged rogue murders even more people. Then a war breaks out with some rivals. All the while, Attenborough uses his boyish good looks and devilish grin to suggest Pinkie’s antisocial psychosis. A groundbreaking performance in one of the best British noirs of the ‘40s.
Of all of Attenborough’s “evil” portraits, this one is the most unassuming, and as a result, the most disturbing. Playing the henpecked husband of a fraudulent medium (Kim Stanley), he agrees to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy couple in order to “prove” his wife’s powers. She plans to then “help” the police find the child and, as a result, earn a reputation for reliability (and, hopefully, a plethora of paying customers). Naturally, these best laid plans go wildly astray. Attenborough is mesmerizing, doing both the meek and the menacing with his standard everyman aura, proving that, even in the most mild looking fellow, great horror can exist.
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Photo: Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park (1993)