Malcolm McDowell Takes His Pound of Flesh
by Jay S. Jacobs
My mother has been having nightmares about Malcolm McDowell for years.
It’s not his fault really; he was just doing his job to the best of his ability.
It all started in 1971 when my stepfather took her to see the buzzed-about new film A Clockwork Orange, the latest movie by legendary director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove). My mother, who has never been good with violence, was completely freaked out by the film – an extremely dark comedy with some brutal sections.
Nearly 40 years later, A Clockwork Orange is considered a classic and its mood of extreme sexual and violent anarchy – which were at the time of release was extremely controversial – has been put into a different context by generations of moviegoers.
McDowell is still an acclaimed actor with several projects in the hopper – including the new independent drama Pound of Flesh, a recurring role on the hip HBO comedy Entourage, an upcoming TNT series called Franklin & Bash and a supporting role as the school principal in the popular recent comedy Easy A. Still, he thinks it is pretty amazing to have been part of an iconic film which excited such passions, positive and negative, in people.
“Oh it was great,” McDowell says. “It was great, because really, the truth is, if you see the movie now with an audience, they react to the film that we made – which was a very black comedy. That’s exactly what it was. I knew we were making this comedy, a very black comedy, but still a comedy. The fact is if you’re beating a guy and raping his wife to ‘Singing in the Rain’ – it is obviously [being facetious].
“I was rather shocked initially, because everybody took it rather seriously,” McDowell continues. “There were write-ups in the editorials of the newspapers – The New York Times and everything – accusing us of being pro-violence in society and encouraging it and all kinds of nonsense. Filmmakers really just reflect what’s going on in society and I think Kubrick did that very well. But the truth is, it was a black comedy and now audiences love it. They laugh and they do everything I expected them to do 40 years ago.”
Sometimes it takes a while for the world to catch on to what Malcolm McDowell knew all along.
“It’s one of the films that you’ve got to see,” McDowell says. “Get it on a BluRay and just have a great evening. It’s an unbelievable film.”
Actually, A Clockwork Orange was just one of a trio of masterpieces with which a young McDowell exploded into film consciousness in London in the early 60s and 70s. McDowell was a huge part of the late 60s film explosion in England – a scene that also spawned Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw and more.
However, despite the talent of the new school of British actors, McDowell has always aspired to a long-term career more like one of the old masters of British cinema.
“Well, you always presume you will be [acting for many years],” McDowell says, “because acting in England is a profession and like a doctor or whatever you feel that you’ll do it until the day you drop. So, I presumed, but of course there are a lot of big pitfalls on the way to a long career. My hero, in terms of longevity and the way he conducted himself was John Gielgud. John really changed with the generations and managed to adapt his style. He never went out of style, really. He was amazing. And he learned late in life how to be a really powerful film actor. He always thought that he wouldn’t be a very good film actor, but it’s actually not true. When he was in his 60s he delivered some extraordinary performances on film.”
At that point, between the films, the British Invasion in music and the trends in art and fashion, London was the place to be and be seen. McDowell was out of the gate running when he made his film debut in director Lindsay Anderson’s classic drama If. McDowell knew he was part of something special and he was going to live his dream to the fullest.
“It was amazing,” McDowell recalls. “We were making these classic movies. Michael [Caine] made his great share of them – my God; he made some extraordinary movies in that time. I’m thinking of Alfie and The Icpress File and things like that. And Get Carter was a brilliant movie. [For me] to make If, A Clockwork Orange and O, Lucky Man! – it came out of the gate rather fast. They were the movies of their time and they were great pieces of… not only box office, but they were artistic triumphs, certainly. So, you’ve got both – the hit with the art movie. So that was great. That was a terrific thing to get.”
It all came back to director Anderson, with whom McDowell quickly developed a rapport, starring not only in If, but also in the director’s films O, Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.
“He was the enfant terrible of his generation of directors,” McDowell says, “an extraordinary talent, one of great, great geniuses of his time, really. He was a theater director primarily. His film work, I suppose is rather meager compared with the talent. He didn’t make that many movies, but when he made them, my God, they were unbelievable. I was lucky enough to be cast by him in my first movie If, which was about a revolution in a boy’s school. It’s a fantastic film and holds up very well today. It has not dated at all. It’s one of the classics of British cinema. I was lucky enough to be chosen by him. I went to an audition and he picked me out, so I was just very, very lucky, because I had done loads of auditions before and I’d always got to it’s either me or somebody else – and it was always somebody else who got it. So, I was very lucky, this time it was my turn. The thing was: I got a masterpiece. It could have been a Hammer Horror film, but it wasn’t, it was one of the great movies ever made in England.”
It was the performance in If that put McDowell on Kubrick’s radar for the starring role in A Clockwork Orange. The director was so impressed by McDowell’s work that he didn’t even have to audition for the role. In fact, McDowell recalls, he was essentially cast with a phone call. Kubrick was notorious as a director for his perfectionism and his occasional prickliness – his Paths of Glory and Spartacus star Kirk Douglas famously called Kubrick “a talented shit” – however McDowell enjoyed working with the man. McDowell does acknowledge it was a very dissimilar type of set than he had experienced with Anderson.
“Kubrick was a very different type to Lindsay Anderson, who was very emotional, irascible and didn’t suffer fools lightly,” McDowell recalls. “Stanley was very self-contained, very quiet, very measured. Completely the opposite, really, but still extraordinary in his appetite and enthusiasm for everything connected with movies. It was amazing. He was a fantastic guy, really – and, of course, made some of the greatest films that have ever been seen on the big screen.”
By the mid-70s, McDowell was on top of the acting world. And then the British cinematic tradition pretty much ground to a halt.
“Everything changed,” McDowell recalls. “The Arabs put up the price of oil. Every American producer in London upped his stakes and moved to California and that was the end of it, because without the American producers there, the English were not very good at putting things together and raising money and wheeling and dealing, which the Americans of course were geniuses at. So, the film industry as we knew it completely disappeared. Of course, they made movies there. They made the Bonds and things like that, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. They could be made anywhere. They’re basically American, anyway.”
Therefore, McDowell did what any reasonable actor would, what most of his contemporaries did, what even John Gielgud ended up doing – he went to Hollywood.
McDowell’s first American film released – he actually did Bob Guccione’s infamous Caligula first, but it was not let loose on cinemas until later – was a sweet and intriguing science fiction film called Time After Time (1979), which speculated what would happen if pioneering sci fi writer H.G. Wells had actually created a time machine and was forced to go into the future in search of Jack the Ripper. The film was a bit of a box office disappointment at the time of its release, but in the years since it has grown a strong cult following.
“It was delightful,” McDowell says. “I fell in love with my leading lady [Mary Steenburgen] and we got married. We had two children. It was a fantastic shoot to be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – San Francisco – playing this lovely character who is a whimsical person. H.G. Wells, the great socialist of the Edwardian era, who actually meets a modern, liberated woman and is completely befuddled by it. He doesn’t understand it at all. All the modern inventions, which, of course, some of them he foresaw – it’s fun seeing modern life through his eyes. It’s a very charming film and I’m very fond of it. I’m very fond of the character I played. And also, he’s not a heavy… They never offer me these parts, though I’m playing one now on television – a renaissance man. It was fun for me to change up, because I think the movie I’d done before was Caligula, so coming from that to this lovely film, it was a lovely change of pace. I really enjoyed it.”
McDowell has never looked back, taking on a wide variety of roles in film – from big-budget blockbusters (Blue Thunder, Cat People) to genre films (Star Trek: Generations, Tank Girl, the recent Halloween remakes) to smaller independent films (Night Train to Venice, Bopha! Red Roses and Petrol) to comedies (Get Crazy, Milk Money, In Good Company, Easy A). He has also been a significant presence on television, starring or recurring on series such as the late 90s remake of Fantasy Island, Pearl (Rhea Perlman’s post-Cheers sitcom), The Mentalist, Phineas & Ferb and Entourage.
Though he is best known for dramatic roles, McDowell enjoys comedy and feels it suffuses all his parts.
“I am known for the dramatic stuff, but you know if you look at it, really closely, I always go for the comedic, even if I’m playing a serial killer,” McDowell says. “I’ve always tried to find the comic moments whatever the part – obviously not if it’s obviously something very serious – but I always try to look for not a laugh, but a smile or something, something to engage the audience.”
Perhaps his best-known comic role has been one of his most recent ones, the recurring character of an aging Hollywood talent agency head on the popular HBO series Entourage.
“That’s a great show and of course, it’s brilliantly written,” McDowell says. “Doug Ellin is an amazing writer and has managed to keep the standards… through eight seasons I think it’s pretty remarkable, of course like anything on television it’s uneven, but he’s managed to keep it really good from season to season. I love doing it. I love the character. It’s fun. It’s always fun sparring with Jeremy Piven. That was fun.”
McDowell is also going to star in an upcoming series comedy/drama series with Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar for TNT called Franklin & Bash.
“That’s a terrific show. It’s about a law firm in LA and I’m the sort of a renaissance man who is the head of it – and rather an eccentric character who is lovely and hires these two thirty-somethings to come in and give the law firm a kind of thinking outside the box, because they are sort of ambulance chasers. It’s great.”
He is also starring in the independent drama Pound of Flesh as a popular college Shakespeare professor who gets into trouble when he sets up a service where his attractive young students “date” local businessmen in exchange for getting their tuition paid off. The film also stars film vets Timothy Bottoms (The Paper Chase), Dee Wallace (ET-The Extraterrestrial) and upcoming actress Whitney Able (Monsters).
The role – based on a true story – was written for McDowell by writer/director Tamar Simon Hoffs, who had also directed McDowell in the film Red Roses and Petrol. Hoffs has been on the fringes of the Hollywood scene for years – she is probably best known for writing the Tony Curtis film Lepke (1974) and writing and directing The Allnighter (1987), the film debut of her daughter, 80s rock star Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles.
McDowell has been lucky enough to work with some of the great directors in film history: beyond Anderson and Kubrick he has worked with the likes of Richard Lester, Nicholas Meyer, John Badham, Richard Benjamin and others. Still, he enjoys the passion of less-well-known directors like Hoffs.
“Well, everybody’s got to start somewhere, however talented,” McDowell reasons. “I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked with some great ones and we go through the whole spectrum. A lot of first time directors I enjoy. The thing is, of course I’ve been around a long time and obviously I’ve picked up quite a lot, but the thing is if you’re working with a young director or new director is not to make them feel intimidated and to listen to what they have to say, because actually you really want to be directed. You really do want help. Of course, I can do it on my own, but I’m always open to suggestions. So, it’s fun working with new directors. And of course, working with established and well-known directors is also fun, because you know whatever you do; they are going to make you look twice as good.”
McDowell had enjoyed working with Hoffs on Red Roses and Petrol and enjoyed the experience, so he was happy to sign on when she came to him with another idea – which became Pound of Flesh.
“I worked with Tammy on that movie and it’s a very sweet, charming movie,” McDowell says. “We became friends. I’m friends with the whole family. Tammy is a dear friend. She’s an extraordinary woman. She’s seventy-something… I don’t think she’ll mind me saying that… and has the energy of a twenty-one-year-old. She’s a pretty amazing person, very talented, a very good writer. She wanted to write a part for me and this is the part she came up with. She wanted to explore the hypocrisy of where we live and all the rest of it. I really enjoyed doing it. It’s nice to play a guy who knows something about our great writers, especially, of course, Shakespeare. That was fun, doing him, Professor Noah Melville.”
In fact, McDowell is very natural and charming as a professor. So, had things happened differently in his life, could McDowell see himself as a teacher?
“It’s a possibility. I think I would have been a very good teacher. I think I would have been.”
McDowell’s character, Prof. Melville, says a couple of times in the movie: “Sex is the one occupation in which women are paid more than men, which is why men almost immediately made it illegal.” The professor does not really see his little scheme as wrong or even so much as a money-making thing – it was just more of a way of making sure everyone gets what they need, one way or another.
It leads one to question whether the professor was right or was he being a bit naïve?
“Obviously, he was a bit naïve because he broke the law,” McDowell allows. “But, having said that, I think there is tremendous hypocrisy about sex in America. We’re so bound up. We’ll slaughter people in the streets, but we won’t see a naked bum on television. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me. Of course, he is rather naïve, and he went about it, but his thought is – and I don’t necessarily see it as horrendous – is that these girls are going to come to college, they’re going to have affairs, why not pay your college tuition in doing it? Also, with guys who are going to treat you well and take you out to nice dinners and restaurants and nightclubs, etc., etc. Now, you can argue either side of it, but I think it’s fun to expose it and to say, ‘There it is, now you talk about it.’”
Of course, many of the other older characters in the film have strong feelings one way or the other about what is going on, however those feelings are not necessarily trustworthy.
“They’ve all got their agenda, haven’t they?” McDowell asks. “Dee Wallace, who is such a delightful actress – as is Tim, he’s a brilliant actor – she is of course still angry at him for something in the past that is obviously some kind of rejection from Noah Melville and she’s never forgiven him. Timothy Bottoms is one of these people that has just managed to slide above everything. He is as culpable, if not worse, because he is indulging in these girls. Noah Melville is happily married – a moral man and monogamous and very into his wife and child. It’s a dichotomy there, and it’s interesting, the dynamic of it.”
The professor’s scheme comes apart when one of the girls is killed while on a date and the police start looking at Professor Melville. Therefore, despite the fact that the professor has nothing to do with the girl’s death he loses everything – his job, his wife and daughter, his standing in the community and must flee to keep his freedom. It seems a bit much for the crime, somehow.
“I honestly think, yeah, that it was a bit excessive,” McDowell says. “But, I think the original guy got twenty years. Twenty years. Where, literally, people that kill other people get out in fifteen. That’s the hypocrisy we’re talking about. But, anyway, it’s certainly a point of view.”
A point of view – that has certainly been a constant in Malcolm McDowell’s career. He tends to take roles that make you think and react, whether it is the schoolboy in If or the sociopath in A Clockwork Orange or the utopian dreamer in Time After Time or the tarnished professor in Pound of Flesh. McDowell likes making people think and stirring debate with his roles.
Yet, McDowell does not obsess about how his career is looked at. He just does roles that he finds interesting or exciting; he can’t plan his career around what people expect.
“Oh my God, I don’t really care how they see it,” McDowell says. “Because what can I do about it? I just work and do the best I can every time I go out. I hope… I know I’ve given people enjoyment through the years. People have told me. So, that’s enough for me. That’s great. If you can make people happy for a brief moment and take them out of their misery, then that’s enough.”
Also, if you think that you see Malcolm McDowell in a film and have a handle on him, then fine for you – but you’re probably wrong. So, does McDowell have some surprises up his sleeve?
“Oh, probably, but I wouldn’t tell you,” McDowell laughs. “I mean, yes, there’s lots of things that I do, because I’m not the person I am in the movies. Even when I’m playing myself, you are never yourself. You only play yourself at home.”
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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 3, 2011.