IMAGINE that you are learning to play golf. You know nothing about the game, but you are led on to the course and a ball is placed on the tee in front of you so you swipe it madly – and make the hole in one.
Now what is your reaction? If you are human and therefore weak, you will probably give only a part of the credit to luck and for the rest begin to view yourself as a natural born golfing genius. Not for you the hours of patient practice, the setbacks and the slow improvement of the common or garden novice – or so you think. But, alas, there are bunkers ahead.
Now if you follow this rather elaborate little simile you will understand my position as a film actor who holed in one – that is to say, achieved star billing in my first picture. Only two short years ago I was one among hundreds of ex-service actors trying to make a come-back at the Reunion Theatre. I remember at my first audition there how surprised I was to find an audience in the stalls and circle – until I realised that they were all down for the audition too. There were only three one-act plays being cast, but my luck was in. Shortly afterwards I was chosen for the part of the schizophrenic younger son in Michael Hutton’s play, “Power Without Glory” which opened at the New Lindsey Theatre.
When the play transferred to the Fortune I was spotted by Ian Dalrymple, the Wessex film producer, plucked off the stage and set down in Pinewood Studios where I straightway walked into the leading role opposite Kathleen Ryan in “Esther Waters.” So this was stardom; it all seemed quite easy – but was it?
When I had recovered from the first dizziness, the surprised pleasure at finding that people knew my name, I started to find out and I have been finding out ever since that there is a good deal more to being a film star than having one’s name printed over the title.
Seeing my first rushes was a sobering experience, to say the least. I came out of the projection theatre feeling horrified and not a little scared at what I had seen. When I confided my qualms to the director he laughed and said that all newcomers were the same – “they expect the camera to flatter their profiles.”
I said it wasn’t the profile that worried me; it was just that I was plain bad. This outburst, I suppose, was written off as a bout of temperament. But I honestly wished that I could go back to the beginning and learn the job of film acting in small parts. It was too late, however, and I just had to pick up what I could as I went along.
The trouble was that none of my carefully planned effects seemed to “come off” on the screen. At first, in ignorance, I worked on the theory that stage acting can be transformed into film acting simply by toning it down. As an example, where I would have raised my left eyebrow half-an-inch on the stage I raised it only a quarter of an inch. Then I found that nothing had happened on the screen at all except rather odd sort of flicker from me. I thought that you only “projected” on the stage; that on the screen you only had to “think” your part. And I tried that. I thought like mad and still nothing came over. At last I realised that it was necessary to project on the screen too. One must act; it is not enough just to be natural.
So I had to start all over again, experimenting the whole time. And there were so many other things to contend with, things no actor on the stage had to worry about. Lights and their position to a fraction of an inch ; one move of the head up or down may throw the whole of the face into a deep shadow.
My second film, “Quartet,” was not such an ordeal as the first. The part was a smaller one and there were plenty of big names in the cast so that I was partly relieved of the awful responsibility of stardom. And it really is awful at times to think that the financial success of a picture depends very largely on your personal popularity with the public. For popularity has to be earned and no matter what they say about overnight stardom, it takes time.
I learned a lot on “Quartet” from playing opposite that magnificent actress Francoise Rosay and went back to Pinewood with slightly renewed confidence to play the leading role in “Once a Jolly Swagman.” But still I missed – how I missed – the theatre audiences and realised how much I had depended on them to tell me where I was going wrong.
There was an occasion in “Power Without Glory” when I had to make a very long speech which began in a whisper and ended in a fit of screaming hysterics. I could feel the audience all along; they were with me for a part of the way and then I could feel them getting either embarrassed or bored and I wondered what I was doing wrong, because the speech was very well written. And so I started to try out little tricks on the house and eventually hit on a very simple bit of business. I ended my speech screaming good and proper and then at the crucial moment thumped my fists on to a table. It worked. I was amazed and delighted to find how that movement enabled me to get the speech right because I knew how to build it up.
That sort of thing never happens in movies. You have to judge audience reactions in advance which is far more difficult. And remember, once a performance is in the can it is fixed for all time.
Thus I was very glad of the chance to go back to the stage for a short while after finishing “Once a Jolly Swagman.” The management of the “Q” Theatre where I had my first stage job – boiling glue, making tea and calling the “quarters” – offered me the lead in a new comedy by Arthur Watkyn called “For Better or Worse.”
It was the first time I had ever played comedy and I had cause to be grateful for the initiation when I embarked on a comedy role in my next picture “Dear Mr. Prohack,” with people of such experience as Cecil Parker and Hermione Baddeley.
Now that the glory of that “hole in one” stardom, and the inevitable feeling of anti-climax that followed it is over, I believe that I am settling down to learn film acting in the only dependable way. That is to say I am doing plenty of it and playing a variety of parts. My two latest films take me right away from romantic leads – a change which I regard with unmixed pleasure. In “Boys in Brown,” I play a low and crafty lad in a Borstal Institution, and in “The Blue Lamp” I’m a criminal who murders a policeman. Now I’m working on “So Long at the Fair” with Jean Simmons.
When I’m not acting I try to profit by the experience of others. So each week I go off to the local cinema and watch our top stars doing their stuff. I watch enraptured and often in awe; not their big emotional scenes or the passionate love that goes on. I want to know how they handle those little moments on the screen that matter – the crossing of a room in a long shot, taking off a pair of gloves.
These commonplace actions reveal a technique that is born only of experience and knowledge. They prove that it is no use trying to be a star in one. You have to work. You have to know how and you have to want to. I do.