Film Studies: Not quite angry enough

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The Independent Culture

In the New York Times obituary for Alan Bates there was an irony that might have amused the actor: for while it was pointed out that his knighthood came on the eve of discovering his pancreatic cancer, and while it was asserted several times that his impact as Cliff in the original Look Back in Anger was never forgotten, what was omitted was maybe Bates's finest hour - his Guy Burgess in John Schlesinger's direction of an Alan Bennett script, An Englishman Abroad, in which the very gay spy languished in the Moscow of the free entertaining visions of fresh shirts from Jermyn Street and a long night of Her Majesty's guardsmen.

In truth, Cliff is a whipped spaniel of a part, the uncomplaining object of Jimmy Porter's scorn. The remarkable thing about Bates the actor was how seldom he got to be Jimmy Porterish - teeming with jaundiced eloquence, carrying all before him in tirades of despairing superiority. That was the Bates of Butley, the Simon Gray play that was probably the climax of his odd career, first on the London stage, then on Broadway (winning a Tony) and then in the film (directed by Harold Pinter).

Time and again, Bates consented to be the rather staid, decent onlooker for bigger performances: the inarticulate and hardly worthy lover to Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd and The Go-Between; the Englishman, Basil, who has to be taught to relax by Anthony Quinn's Zorba the Greek; watching Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl; the still centre in Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts (a cult once but forsaken now); and he was the implausibly perfect lover for Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman. Not to mention his dry manager to Bette Midler's self-destructive singer in The Rose. Just to list those films is to recollect how often Bates got involved on pictures that, somehow, don't play much these days. The king of that sad heap is The Fixer, taken from the Bernard Malamud novel, where Bates was the lead - and actually got an Oscar nomination. Yet I can't recall the last time I saw it playing anywhere. But, of course, the New York Times has apparently never seen An Englishman Abroad, either. It was rather in the pattern of Bates's life that he should be steadily employed, taken for granted, but not quite remembered.

In part, that's because he was not quite "angry" enough in that age when British actors were supposed to snarl at every vestige of the old order.

Bates was subtle, gentle, watchful, deadpan, and more comic than many people guessed until Butley came along. Thus, he was the younger son in the original London production of Long Day's Journey Into Night (the self-portrait of author Eugene O'Neill). He was also very good as the social climber in Nothing But the Best, written by Frederic Raphael and directed by Clive Donner.

He became more comfortable, I think, when the moisture of youth had left him and he could settle in character parts - Diaghilev in Nijinsky, the awful author in Quartet, John Mortimer in A Voyage Round My Father, all the way to the secret service man in the excellent Pack of Lies, Claudius to Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Proust in 102 Boulevard Haussmann. When the proper filmed tribute comes along, I wouldn't be surprised if a troubled man is exposed beneath two or three dozen immaculate supporting roles. But I hope, very soon, the BBC will give another run to An Englishman Abroad, for it was in that kind of dismal exile that Bates flowered.