RIP Edward Woodward

Edward WoodwardI was very sorry to hear earlier this morning of the death at age 79 of a personal favorite of mine, Edward Woodward.  Although he may still be best known for his roles in the acclaimed fact-based war drama, “Breaker Morant,” the espionage/crime-vigilante TV series, “The Equalizer,” and by our friends in England as the cynical, super-tough spy “Callan,” his role in what was once a fairly obscure cult film all but buried by its studio, the 1973 “The Wicker Man,” is getting the lion’s share of attention in most of his  press obituaries, that’s including the very touching one issued by the BBC this morning.

“The Wicker Man” has been one of my favorite movies since I was teenager and remains so now — not even the worst imaginable remake can touch that film, and that proposition has now been tested.  Still, my admiration of the actor Woodward goes well beyond one single role. He was the kind of performer you could rely on to be great in anything and so he was on countless television programs.  A master of understatement who knew when and how to go big (the oft-spoiled ending of “The Wicker Man” being a case in point), he was a real virtuoso whose un-showy approach probably doomed him to being underrated to a certain degree. Still, he didn’t seem to mind and judging from the press accounts I’ve been reading, he was a real gentleman and as fun to be around as his best known characters were definitely not. He was also, by the way, an accomplished Shakespearian stage actor and a fair-to-middling pop singer. It’s a shame he rarely got to do either on screen, though his voice can be heard to powerful effect during the final scene of “Breaker Morant.” (If you don’t mind learning the fate of his title character, or already know it from history, you can see the conclusion here.)

Two of his more devoted fans appear to have been Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who were smart enough to cast Woodward in “Hot Fuzz,” and you can read their thoughts at Wright’s blog and via a message board post by Pegg. (Big h/t to Beaks.) Wright’s piece is really lovely and I strongly recommend you read all of if . However, here’s one line that tickled me, in the spirit of “it’s funny because it’s true.”

I also remember telling him that Quentin [Tarantino] was a huge fan of his film ‘Sitting Target’ (another great soundtrack – btw) and he looked shocked. I’m not sure anyone had ever complimented him on it. He replied “Well, you must tell your friend he is very strange indeed”.

And so it goes, another great lost. I do want to echo Edgar Wright’s entreaty that, especially you’ve never seen it, you watch the 1973 “The Wicker Man” as fast as possible and avoid any place where spoilers about the ending might be found, which seems to be about 99% of what’s been posted about it recently. (I tried to avoid giving too much away in my 2000 review linked to above.)  Woodward’s portrayal of a repressed, bitter, humorless, but also decent, principled, and compassionate man is, to me, very much what acting is all about.  So, why are we surprised to hear about what a funny and regular guy he was in real life? He was acting — extraordinarily well.

Greg of Cinema Styles has more. Highly recommended.

  

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Sir Christopher Lee, CBE, in a musical mood

He’s got an awe-inspiring 266 credits listed on his IMDb c.v. Nevertheless, finding good embeddable clips for Christopher Lee, one of the most beloved yet also underrated actors of the 20th and 21st centuries, hasn’t exactly been easy. Sad, considering how much enjoyment he’s given audiences, how many good movies he’s enlivened, and how many mediocre-to-godawful ones he’s come darn close to saving single-handedly. However, in honor of his well deserved knighthood today, we have what we have. And they both involve music.

My personal favorite Christopher Lee movie, and I think his as well, is 1973’s “The Wicker Man.” Below in a great scene which, for reasons much too complicated to go into here, is deleted from the most commonly seen version. In it, Lee as the avuncular and dangerous pagan Lord Summerisle takes part in a ritual with Britt Ekland as the local high priestess of sexuality. He also recites some poetry by Walt Whitman, as Edward Woodward’s repressed “Christian copper” tries to get to some sleep, snails make more snails, and Peter Giovanni sings the hauntingly erotic “Gently Johnny.”

The Wicker Man – Gently Johnny

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Lee actually sings — quite well — in “The Wicker Man” but that can’t be found. So, moving with warp speed from the sublime to the completely ridiculous, I found this incredibly strange number featuring a full-throated Lee from “The Return of Captain Invincible,” an ultra-ultra-obscure very pre-“Dr. Horrible”  1983 superhero musical starring Alan Arkin and Lee, with music by a number of people including Richard O’Brien of “Rocky Horror” fame. In it, a villainous Sir Christopher sings of a subject of my own interest — cocktails. Always, a gentleman of taste.

  

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