Friday, April 27, 2012

All hail Christopher Lee!

Today we salute one of the coolest actors ever to walk (or, when playing Dracula, fly over) the Earth: Christopher Frank Carandini Lee.

He will turn 90 in exactly one month, and he's still constantly working: reprising his role as Saruman in the two-part "Hobbit" now being filmed, acting in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" (which opens May 11), doing voice-over for "Frankenweenie," Burton's upcoming animated feature. (Lee has one of the all-time great film voices: urbane, witty, menacing or ironic, as needed. Search for him on YouTube, and you'll find him singing opera!)

Probably no one has watched every film in his 64-year career, but I've had a fair sampling. And I don't ever think I've seen him give a dull or insincere performance. He's been in some bad movies, he's been surrounded by people who are bad in movies, and he's sent up bad movies with a sly wink. (See the Nic Cage stinker "Season of the Witch.") But he's never bad.

My father's generation knows him for Hammer horror films that came out of England in the 1950s; mine knows him for "The Wicker Man" and "The Howling II," and anyone under 30 would probably identify him as the nasty magician in "The Lord of the Rings." Yet his career extends way beyond fantasy and horror, from the roguery of Richard Lester's "The Three Musketeers" -- still the best film version of that story -- to multiple interpretations of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses.

Unlike many icons, he can really act. See "Triage," a neglected 2009 movie directed by Denis Tanovic (who did the Oscar-winning "No Man's Land"). Lee plays a Spanish psychologist whose granddaughter asks for help: Her husband, a photojournalist in the Middle East, has come home from war in a mental agony he can't escape. Lee shows up in the last third of the film and gives a performance of intelligence and dignity, the kind that ought to win a supporting actor Oscar -- if anyone thought of Christopher Lee in those terms.


TriadGee said...

Being the high-brow critic, I take it that you neglected to mention Lee's portrayal of the triple-mammaried Scaramanga in the 1975 Roger Moore Bond flick "The Man w/the Golden Gun", on purpose. The Bond series at this point was starting to emphasize gadgets over character development, yet Mr. Lee's presense nonetheless added his usual panache. I've always viewed his reoccurring portrayal of Stoker's Vampire Count to be the definitive cinematic depiction. He brought alluring charisma to the part eighteen yrs or so before Frank Langella made waves as a heartthrob Dracula on Broadway.

Steve said...

One of the earliest films I can remember seeing him in is Horror Hotel. He was excellent. I'd also forgotten about him being in the Bond film, but I've seen that one a few times and, again, I could not fault his performance. He's a very versatile actor and... 90! It's hard to believe. I wonder if someone should hold a mirror in front of his face.