Anthony Quinn: When it came to ham, this hunk was prime cut and honey-roast

Anthony Quinn died last week, leaving a host of characters drawn from all nationalities and walks of life ­ and every one the same
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The Independent Culture

Four times in his boisterous life, Anthony Quinn was nominated for Oscars: he was Greek as Zorba; he was Italian in Wild is the Wind; he was Mexican in Viva Zapata!; and he was French, being Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life. From one to another, the accent and the approach did not vary, and were not questioned. He was the perfect foreigner in an age when nobody bothered to make that unfortunate handicap authentic. In Quinn's way of thinking ­ and in that of his audience, too ­ most varieties of foreign-ness were easily fed on ham.

It may be a measure of my own frivolity, or of the way I revelled in Quinnery as a child, but I cannot muster the indignation to be disapproving. The fabulous thing about this shameless man was that, while he had been a bloodthirsty and impeccably "savage" Crazy Horse in the 1941 They Died With Their Boots On (that's Errol Flynn as Custer), he was every bit as politically incorrect some 20 years later as a hawk-nosed, Arab rogue in Lawrence of Arabia. Now, in theory, Lawrence is a respectable film, made by a master, faithful to history and respectful of the Arabs. Yet there are parts of it that are sheer hokum, and they all have Anthony Quinn.

Ah well, you say, the early 1960s was the end of an era. We had the Six-Day War a few years ahead. After that, no one could be as cavalier with Middle Eastern feelings. Fine sentiments, which Tony Quinn would have dismissed with a harsh chuckle and a wave of his scimitar. In 1980, another 20 years later, when he was 65, Quinn was in Lion of the Desert (a piece for connoisseurs) in which he played Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin hero who tormented the Italian occupying army in Libya around 1930. This riotous mélange has John Gielgud as another Arab and Rod Steiger as Benito Mussolini. (Oliver Reed was the Italian general hunting down Omar ­ you can hear the smack of colliding hams.)

Indeed, the pattern of Quinn's career (with well over a hundred movies) was that of being taken increasingly seriously. By the 1950s, after he had left movies for a few years, to play Stanley Kowalski on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire (after Marlon Brando had wearied of the role), Quinn vaulted up from small parts to large gargoyles of villainy which then had the audacity to turn into lovable figureheads of warm humanity. He even went to Italy and was recruited by the wondrous Federico Fellini to play the brutish strong man in La Strada. This was nothing less than a universal archetype.

Art house audiences were moved to the tips of their toes, and a decade later the same people reckoned that his Zorba the Greek was the genuine life force. Maybe. I had had too much fun enjoying Quinn's sardonic menace in Hope and Crosby road films, his frequent taking up of loin cloth and war paint in Westerns, to say nothing of his grinning scoundrels in so many Latin roles.

I loved his chief Osceola in Budd Boetticher's Seminole, his piratical seal-hunter in The World in his Arms, his matadors, his lechers, his hombres, his Spanish grandees and his seething teaming with Sophia Loren in a fatuous epic called Attila. With Tony starring, you didn't need to add the Hun stuff.

Nor was it simply a matter of his being a cheerfully bad actor. On the contrary, as good a director as Elia Kazan (who guided him to the Oscar as the envious brother in Viva Zapata!) said that Quinn was a child-like listener who soaked up direction. No, it was more that in those days (has it really changed?) the gap between ham and glory was one small step ­ and just a matter of material.

Under Minnelli, as Gauguin, Quinn was brilliantly moody, aloof and competitive. He was always at his best cast in support of an actor (like Brando or Kirk Douglas) on whom Tony was certain there hung smaller and feebler balls. As well there may have been. Quinn was a man of many wives and children, habits carried on into his eighties. He was full of life, and yes it did spill over. His Zorba needed no ouzo; his Zapata was tequila-proof. For the kind of energy and passion Anthony Quinn brought to acting was drunk on self-belief.

You can tell yourself that this is a thing of the past, if you like. Maybe. It is my impression that there is a breed of hams captivated with the idea of dressing up for the camera and becoming ... an Eskimo (that's Tony in Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents); or Kubla Khan (that's Tony in Marco the Magnificent); or a version of boxing champion Primo Carnera in Requiem for a Heavyweight. He was also Quasimodo to Gina Lollobrigida's Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (and I bet the hump was his own); just as he was Aristotle Onassis to Jacqueline Bisset's Jackie O in The Greek Tycoon.

In the end, "O!" was all you could say about Quinn, or maybe "Olé!" Would it comfort you to think that such flagrant over-acting has been eliminated? Yet, consider the loss. I would only add that when he died, last Sunday, Quinn was making a film with Sylvester Stallone. The man had many children.

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