Tag Archives: robert mitchum

A Conversation with Theresa Russell

Theresa Russell is attracted to the very things that repel most actors.

In 1976’s The Last Tycoon, her first movie (and Elia Kazan’s last), she is unafraid of seeming to do very little. Young actresses like to show you they can act by really “acting,” but Russell, at only eighteen, knows what it means to be simple—and Kazan knows she knows. His close-ups foreground a girl of California gold darkened by knowing eyes. It’s like two different people looking at you through a single face. And just when you think she can’t possibly be that smart or strong, her voice breaks in the middle of a line like Barbara Stanwyck’s when she looks at Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity, and we forgive her everything, take the blame, and sign up for more (almost). In Bad Timing (1980), she works from the epicenter of a carnal earthquake and never once has to brace herself on secondhand, movie sexuality. Her moves are all her own. The result is something like Brando in Last Tango in Paris—too real to watch and not watch. There again you see what Kazan saw: the wilderness inside. Nicolas Roeg, her husband-director, saw it too. In (1985’s) Insignificance, their third collaboration, she plays Marilyn Monroe.

Sam Wasson: You’ve told this casting-couch story about Sam Spiegel, producer of The Last Tycoon. In the versions I’ve read, he basically threatens to destroy your career if you don’t sleep with him. You’re eighteen or so, without a single credit, and he’s this titanic power—and you reject him. With that rejection, it’s like you’re rejecting—I hate to say it—the Hollywood way.

Theresa Russell: I didn’t have anything to compare it to other than I knew that I didn’t . . .

SW: You weren’t going there.

TR: Yeah, exactly. If it meant the end of my career, then I don’t have a career. Okay. I always had other options. I’m good with animals. I had other things I wanted to do. I had to take that gamble because there was no choice, basically, in my mind. My boyfriend at that time, my first love—he was a primal therapist—he helped me a lot during that.

SW: This story about Spiegel combined with the movies you’ve picked all point to a quality you have, on-screen and off—zero tolerance for bullshit. Do you have any theories about how you came to have that kind of self-possession?

TR: No, I really don’t. I think I was born that way, basically. It’s slight madness, perhaps. My attitude about life in general has always been a little off, I suppose, compared to other people. It seems like the older I get, anyway, that’s true. [Laughs] But later on, I had to do shit things just to pay the bills and pay school fees, which was hard, but in some ways it taught me some good things too.

SW: To what extent do you think having a relationship with a primal scream therapist played a part in—

TR: In acting? [Laughs] Oh . . . I think I was that way anyway, but that did help in my acting, I have to say. Doing that kind of self-exploratory stuff. I think it helped me be less afraid in my work. Not necessarily in my life. I mean, my dad left at an early age, and I left home at sixteen.

SW: In your mind, does the primal scream connect to the Method?

TR: I think so, yeah. In that regard it correlated completely with my training. And it just made acting less scary. A lot of actors are afraid to go into those darker places of personal experience. Early memories, traumatic situations. That pain. So in that way, the primal scream showed me I could go there and come out okay.

SW: Let’s talk a little about Insignificance. Was this a part that immediately jumped at you?

TR: Actually, originally I turned it down. Here’s what happened. [Producer] Alexander Stewart kind of approached me before he even approached Nic [Roeg] to do it. I don’t know if Nic will even remember that, because he kind of rearranges history sometimes—like his movies [Laughs]—but that is in fact how it was. Maybe he wanted Nic all along, I don’t know, but he came in that way. I knew the writer of the play [Terry Johnson] didn’t want me to do it. He wanted Judy Davis, who had done the play in London. I think they were kind of an item for a while. So he was not happy with me doing it. Also, there had been a slew of Marilyn things going on, and Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and I was just like, Oh, God, I just can’t even think of going there, it’s just too silly. I just don’t want to.

SW: What changed?

TR: I loved the play. I just thought it was a terrific play. But to be Marilyn seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how I would begin to go there in a way that wasn’t a caricature—so obviously it was just easier to say no! But then when Nic wanted to do it, that’s when it got to another level.

There’s more. Read on at Criterion.

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Mitchum on Writing and Directing

Graham Fuller: Did you ever have the urge to direct a movie yourself?

Robert Mitchum: No. I’ve never had the urge to be an analyst or a stunt pilot either. (a) You have to get there in the morning before the actors do; (b) you have to stay there until they’re gone; (c) you have to wrangle with the producer and the front office; (d) you have to sit in a darkened room and watch the film frame by frame by frame. You can hire an albino to do that.

GF: Did people ever approach you to direct?

RM: Yeah.

GF: You just didn’t fancy it?

RM: No.

GF: But you wrote scenes in the movie occasionally. I’m thinking particularly of Macao [1952], the Josef von Sternberg movie that Nicholas Ray took over.

RM: I was pretty well compromised, wasn’t I? I walked in there and Nick and Jane [Russell] handed me a pad of paper and some pencils. That was it. I went to the dressing room and I wrote in the morning, and then we had it typed up and we shot it in the afternoon.

GF: Did you ever want to have a career as a writer?

RM: I wrote special material for night-club performers and I had worked as a junior writer at Warner Bros. Writing is a very lonely proposition. Every time I submit something, I would hand it in and run because I didn’t want to be around when the criticism came.

Remembering Jean Simmons

Remembering Jean Simmons, who died Friday of lung cancer at 80, the first thing I thought of is her performance in Angel Face. Opposite Robert Mitchum, Simmons played a femme fatale so fraught, she ought to be considered amongst the most challenging in all of noir. But to look at her you never would have expected it.

Until Angel Face, before she was bad, Jean Simmons was very, very good. One look at her pretty face in the late forties and it was easy to see why; she was cute as a button and plucky and English, with all the trappings of a proper, well-behaved girl. And when she was less well behaved – as she was as Estella in Lean’s Great Expectations or Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet – the young Simmons affected an attitude that suggested she knew her wrongnesses were wrong. “I know you’ll think this naughty,” she seemed to say, “but…” At her cleverest, she could have been Vivien Leigh’s kid sister.

But in those days, no matter how piercing her glance, there was something morally wholesome in her face. Even as she aged, Simmons retained a girlish roundness to her cheeks and chin, a softness that might have kept her star grounded to Debbie Reynolds territory if it wasn’t for Howard Hughes, who, ironically, she despised. In 1951, Hughes bought out Simmons’s contract with the British-based J. Arthur Rank Organization, intending, despite her protestations, to wring out of his new possession every last day she owed him (there were eighteen). To make matters worse, Otto Preminger, the director Hughes assigned to the project, was every bit as Austrian as she was English. They clashed almost right away. And as if that wasn’t uphill enough, she was to play Diane Tremayne – an unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killer – a part distressingly far from her established range. At least the psychopathic part was.

What Simmons didn’t know, however, was that Diane, for all her cold-bloodedness, is actually, sort of, poignant. Sort of. Unlike the other bad girls of noir, Diane kills not for power or money, but for love – her father’s love. She twists Mitchum’s character into knots, yes, but it’s not because she wants to see him go down. In fact, Diane defends him. At a crucial moment – like something out of Spartacus – she even speaks up on his behalf. That’s the Simmons in the Tremayne.

Watching the movie again, I glimpsed, for the first time, the Tremayne in the Simmons. I was struck now by those shivery looks of calculated helplessness Mitchum shakes out of her, looks that remind the viewer that no matter what Mitchum’s size, this one’s going to be a fair fight. Between her cat-like beauty (her head down and eyes titled up) and his powerful grip, it’s hard to say who is going to devour whom.

Though it seemed strange at the time, the casting of Jean Simmons in Angel Face, like every great feat of casting, now seems utterly obvious. Her nimble one-two punch, combining poignancy and intransigence, imbues the character with a paradox so mysterious, that to call her, simply, a femme fatale seems only to put a fence around her rabid strangeness. In Simmons’s hands, she is both definitive and impossible to define. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I like my unassumingly ladylike psychopathic killers.

Jean Merilyn Simmons (January 31st, 1929 – January 22nd 2010)