George C Scott would have been ninety a couple of weeks back, and, distracted by Harvey Weinstein or some such, I neglected to mark the occasion. I regret that he's not around, because he would have made a great screen geezer. Instead, he barely eked out his three score and ten. I saw him on stage not long before he died, in 1995 on Broadway in Inherit the Wind, and I count myself lucky. He spent the first part of the run fighting off the flu, the second part fighting off a $3.1 million sexual harassment suit from his 26-year old assistant (If you're wondering "Why the .1?", I've no idea), and then he got an aneurysm in his leg. The producer, Tony Randall from The Odd Couple, was also the understudy and he ended up playing a lot of performances.
Inherit the Wind is a bit of old-school efficient play-making drawn from a famous 1925 court case about the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. I'd been told George C was ...variable, to put it mildly, and prone to distraction. One night, as crusading attorney Clarence Darrow, he strode up to the bench and, instead of saying, "The court rules out any expert testimony on Charles Darwin's Origin of Species or Descent of Man", he said, for some reason, "The court rules out any expert testimony on Charles Darwin's Design for Living."
Which is certainly a more striking bit of dialogue.
The guy playing the judge gulped, decided to ignore the line, and ploughed on. Afterwards, the director roared: "Design for F**king Living? They should have let me direct Noël Coward's Origin of the F**king Species." Who knew why Scott said it? Could be the flu, the sexual harassment suit, his famous drinking habits, whatever. But, on the night I saw him, the man was magnificent — a big shambling, slightly unsteady hulk who looked nothing like Darrow and more like some old actor-manager way past his prime. Yet he gave a very contemporary performance — shrugging off the lines as if they'd just occurred to him. Not "theatrical" but "filmic", as our not entirely accurate shorthand has it. As they waited in the wings before curtain up, Scott would turn to his co-star, Charles Durning, and say, "I'll see you in reality."
Scott's "reality" was always the stage. He claimed to despise film, as many actors do, but few let it show so much on screen as he did. Sixty years ago, he was the coming man, the next big thing, an actor with so much drive and authority that, in any meaty supporting role, he was the fellow you watched. Look at him as a prosecuting attorney in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), or as the manager opposite Paul Newman's Hustler (1961), or even as the detective in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), that strange John Huston thriller with disguised guest appearances by Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster et al. He wasn't ever going to be a conventional romantic leading man, but clearly he was going to be something.
What he was was Patton. The part was a gift: Scott surrendered to all his worst inclinations and let his ego rip. When he won the Oscar, he told 'em to go shove it. He did the same a year later when he won an Emmy for The Price by Arthur Miller. He despised awards, but he despised the work, too: His reaction to Patton was supposedly self-disgust. When fans approached him in the street for autographs, he made it plain he despised them, too. On the other hand, in subsequent years, shooting lesser projects, he'd have his uniforms from Patton flown in and start parading around in them off-screen to unnerve the crew.
The thing about being difficult is either (a) you have to be great every time or (b) people have to like you. Scott had problems on both scores. Playing Abraham in Huston's The Bible (1966), he fell in love with his Sarah — Ava Gardner — so they both started drinking heavily, and then he walloped her, almost breaking her nose. Her performance disintegrated, and so, to get Scott away from Ava, Huston had him sedated and tossed in a "nuthouse with bars on the window" for a few days. Sinatra, the gallant ex-, called Huston and said he'd heard Scott had beat the crap out of Ava and was it true 'cause if so he was going to fly out and beat the crap out of Scott.
And, at some point along the way, Huston found himself asking the question every director and producer ran up against: is it worth all this to get a performance out of George C Scott?
After filming, he followed Ava to London, broke down her door at the Savoy and got tossed in jail. Ava called Frank: you were right, I was wrong; you can beat the sh*t out of him now. Huston was more generous: he thought Scott hated himself because he was a coward and that was why he drank. And he drank more around Huston because he knew Huston knew.
He was a solid Rochester in Delbert Mann's 1970 Jane Eyre. The following year, he came fifth in the theater owners' poll of top stars — after John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. That's some company. But what happened? It's one thing to eschew stardom for good work, but for The Exorcist III? Scott was terrific in The Hospital and has one great scene in The New Centurians, both from 1972. But chase down much of the work from his last quarter-century and it's painfully obvious he's not a good enough actor to conceal his utter lack of interest. The guy had his problems — he was married to and divorced from Colleen Dewhurst, twice; and, on the basis of my very minimal acquaintance with Miss Dewhurst, I'm inclined to channel Lady Bracknell. But there is something pathetic about a gifted actor unable to resist the pull of the most tired showbiz cliché: the towering genius who renders himself unmanageable and spirals into decline. I'm grateful to have seen that last Broadway appearance, and I can't help thinking The George C. Scott Story would make a hell of a film.
But who would play him?
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