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Malcolm McDowell: The Luckiest Hooligan

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Tbilisi. Rustaveli Street.
Café Parnas. Noon.
- Are you shooting a movie?
- Yep.
- Wait a minute…Who is that guy sitting at the table? His face seems very familiar…
- Malcolm McDowell.
- Who?
- The one who stars in A Clockwork Orange.
- Ah, yes… I remember… That was the movie that film critic Gogi
Gvakharia showed on his TV program, wasn’t it? Who is Malcolm
McDowell playing now in your movie?
- Himself.
- Himself? Come on, how is he playing himself?

 

In his New Balance sneakers, dark indigo jeans and white T-shirt, the man with the potato-shaped nose, snowy white hair and very blue playful eyes stood out at Café Parnas in the early days of June. Had you stopped by then, you would have found one of the biggest cinematic hooligans there. Malcolm McDowell had arrived in Tbilisi for several days to star in Georgian director Nika Agiashvili’s short film Tbilisi, My City – the first of twelve short-subject films directed by Georgian filmmakers and collectively produced as a joint U.S.-Georgian project of Iberia Films and Story Man Productions, LLC.
   “Green tea and milk, please,” Malcolm McDowell asked a waiter and turning to me: “Georgians are horrified when I ask for tea with milk.” To my question whether he liked milk, I expected him to say, “Yes, of course, very much.” Instead, he admitted not liking milk at all; he only drinks it with tea in the custom of the English. It seems I am haunted by the Korova Milkbar. Even though McDowell has starred in one-hundred-and-fifty movies during his long career, he is still best known for his work in A Clockwork Orange as a disturbingly alluring villain in white overalls, black bowler hat and combat boots who listens to Beethoven, drinks milk and enjoys battering people. 
   In 2011, the fortieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s highly stylized violent masterpiece was observed at numerous screenings in countries around the world. Malcolm McDowell accompanied the film to each country and, with a smile on his face, answered the same questions ad nauseam from countless reporters. There is virtually no question he has not been asked about the film throughout these forty years. He talked about all that again last year and he is fed up with it all by now.
   Malcolm McDowell began life as Malcolm John Taylor in Leeds, England. He grew up there with two sisters and earned pocket money by serving drinks in his parents’ pub. As a child, he recalls being “a rebel, always in trouble.” When his school headmaster was once asked to describe the young Malcolm, he remembered the boy as “naughty but not malicious.” His young years coincided with the period of Beatlemania and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. He trained as an actor at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and, after graduation, began using his mother’s maiden name, McDowell, because there was another English actor named Malcolm Taylor. 
   He first thought about becoming an actor when, standing on a stage, the lights dimmed and then gradually brightened and shone directly into his eyes. It was a great feeling, one that made him feel completely relaxed – as if this was where he belonged and what he was meant to do. He was eleven years old then and wearing an Aladdin costume. After that, he never missed a school performance and did not once envy his friends who spent their time playing cricket and chasing after a ball in the yard. He was happy standing on the stage thinking of the next role. 
    As a young unemployed actor, he worked for a year as a coffee salesman. He had become acquainted with an American businessman who offered him that job driving around Northeastern England in search of coffee clients. The prospect of traveling appealed to him and he never once regretted accepting the job. His one-year coffee adventure later served as the inspiration for his role in Lindsay Anderson’s movie O Lucky Man! To this day, the mere mention of that movie brings a glimmer to the eyes of the aged actor and he starts gazing off somewhere in the distant past. 
   If you want to get McDowell talking, just ask him about Lindsay Anderson – he clearly enjoys reminiscing. McDowell always speaks about his friend and mentor with great warmth and affection. To mark the tenth anniversary of Anderson’s death, McDowell dedicated a live one-man show at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival to “Lindsay Anderson – A Personal Remembrance.” Reading from Anderson’s diaries and letters, McDowell described the film director as more important to him than his own father. 
   It was in Lindsay Anderson’s film If… (1968) that McDowell performed his first lead role. He played a rebellious student who together with his non-conformist friends revolts against harsh rules at a private school and takes up arms to fight against injustice in school and society. “After the Second World War in England, the establishment thought they could just carry on like they did before the war. Young people were fed up. So, slowly, they started to rebel. There was not a revolution in streets like there was in Paris. It started in its own way; it started in 1956 with the play Look Back in Anger – which was a beautifully written and violently anti-establishment play. Its main character was very compassionate, very robust, very intelligent. It sent shockwaves which spread everywhere [and influenced] painting, poetry, music,” McDowell told me in explaining the social context of Lindsay Anderson’s film. “It showed the schools that have been there for a thousand years – and they were incredible schools. In Britain, aristocrats sent their children there to educate them, to send them out to rule the empire. And so the revolution takes place in one of these schools. That sent shockwaves. In England – oh, God! – it was like heresy. And If… was the end result of this period.”
   Anderson introduced McDowell to cinematography and helped create the look that was to become the actor’s signature – black attire, black hat and black scarf wrapped around the neck and covering the mouth. Only his piercing blue eyes are visible – the eyes of a person living somewhat on the edge; eyes that are at once elusive and unforgettable.
   Anthony Burgess published his literary classic A Clockwork Orange in 1962. The dystopian novella is about juvenile delinquents who skip school, enjoy beating, raping and killing. The main character Alex and his three “droogs” speak in Nadsat – a mixture of slang and Russian words (a hint on Soviet expansion) invented by Burgess himself – and keep asking “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
   Stanley Kubrick first saw McDowell in If... As Kubrick’s wife Christiane later recounted to McDowell, when Kubrick saw the actor’s first appearance in the first scene of the film he said “Rewind it. Start again.” Kubrick did that five times, then turned to Christiane and said, “We’ve found our Alex.”
   Stanley Kubrick then called McDowell to tell the actor he had the title role in a movie Kubrick was shooting. Kubrick asked McDowell to read the script, but not to tell anybody about it. After reading the script, McDowell worried about how he was going to play the Alex role. He tried to discuss that with the director, but “Kubrick did not want to talk about it. He said, ‘Look, I hired you to do it. Just do it.’” 
   So, McDowell turned instead to Lindsay Anderson to help him find the essence of the Alex character: “Lindsay said, ‘There is a shot in If…, a close up’ – when I open the doors of a gymnasium for the beating, I come in and smile. He said, ’This is the way you play Alex.’” I remember that scene pretty well too. McDowell’s hero enters the gymnasium with his head up, with a happy countenance. Smiling, he opens the door wide and steps in in a demonstrative manner. He knows that he will be spanked there, punished, but his determination to express protest is so great that he does not give a damn about the consequences. If you watch that scene even once, you will instantly recognize in that personage the delinquent juvenile conceived by Burgess.
   It did not matter that the shooting was scheduled for a later time; McDowell had to turn up on the set at 7 a.m. to rehearse. Although he told me that he had never had such fun in his life, he once said in an interview with The Guardian that “Kubrick was the kind of personality who’d use and dump; he’d squeeze you till the pips squeaked and then, when it was over, it was over.”
   Stanley Kubrick would insist endlessly on take-after-take of one and the same scene. It took three days to film just that one scene in A Clockwork Orange in which the juveniles burst into the writer’s home, bind and severely beat the aged man and then rape his wife in front of him. After that, Kubrick asked McDowell, “Can you dance?” McDowell instantly thought of Gene Kelly in that scene from Singing in the Rain in which the famed dancer is buoyantly happy, singing and dancing in the rain. And so Malcolm started humming the song “Singing in the Rain” as he kicked the bound writer in the belly; he continued singing the song merrily and gave another kick… Within three hours of shooting that scene, Kubrick had rushed off and bought the rights to the song. 
   During the filming of the torture scene, where McDowell had to keep his eyelids held open, a producer asked him how long he thought he could stay with his eyelids that way and his hands tied. The actor’s eyes were anesthetized so that he could film for periods of time without too much discomfort. Nevertheless, his corneas were repeatedly scratched by the metal eyelid locks. With filming taking too long, he started shouting and trying to free himself. In the process, he scratched one of his corneas and was temporarily blinded. 
   “You have been asked constantly about A Clockwork Orange since its release. Is there anything that you have not told anyone yet?” I asked, poised to receive that “anything” yet untold. “Probably,” he said, “but there are some things that I will never tell. That’s the way it is. Some things I keep hidden because you can’t tell everybody everything.”
   After filming A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick ended his relationship with McDowell. The role of Alex nonetheless had a great impact on McDowell’s future career. “It was a hard shoot, very exhilarating. I mean it was very exhilarating; creating was hard. Before this in cinema, I don’t think there had been a part like this because here was an immoral person who the audience was asked to like. And we had not had this before.” And after that movie, it was as if he was doomed to play negative characters and never to achieve any greater success in his career. 
   “No, we do not have A Clockwork Orange,” read signs posted in almost every British video store in the 1970s. The film was released in 1971 but within two year’s time was withdrawn from distribution by Stanley Kubrick himself.
   Kubrick did that because of attacks from the press and the public. A Clockwork Orange was blamed for encouraging a host of violent crimes, with lurid headlines in British tabloids contributing to all of that. The real story is that two copycat crimes occurred soon after the film’s release: the 1973 rape of a Dutch girl in Lancashire, Britain by men singing “Singing in the Rain” and the beating of a sixteen-year-old boy who had beaten a younger child while wearing a uniform of white overalls, a black bowler hat and combat boots inspired by the Alex character. Later, a similar crime was committed in Lyon, France. With his film, however,
Kubrick had wanted to expose violence, to provoke indignation and revulsion toward violence. One of Kubrick’s reasons for withdrawing the movie in the U.K. was that he and his family had received several death threats because of the film.
   It was not until twenty-seven years later that A Clockwork Orange made it back onto the screens in Britain. That finally happened in 2000, the year after Stanley Kubrick’s death.
   “Your favorite things tend to be the ones nobody else likes, just because nobody likes them,” McDowell says. “There are a lot of films that I do and, really, they have never been seen. Those are some of the films which I think are really fantastic. One of them is a movie I did in Russia with Karen Shakhnazarov, Assassin of the Tsar. Nobody in America has seen this film. It is sort of like it does not exist. If they do a retrospective of my works – and I always say, ‘Include the Assassin of the Tsar’ – they say ‘Nobody knows it.’ And I say, ‘That’s why I want the people to see it.’” 
   McDowell believes that his best role will be his next role. He does not have a favorite character: “I love them all. I know it may sound weird, but when you are doing it you so love it. Then, when it’s over, I really don’t care if I see it on a screen. Because I lived through it, [I do not feel] I have to see it.”
   In 1979, the Tinto Brass film Caligula was released with Malcolm McDowell as the dissolute Roman Emperor. McDowell has often been asked why he agreed to star in a film depicted as art pornography and banned in many countries. Even though the original script did not lack for any shortage of sexually explicit scenes, additional sex scenes were later filmed and inserted into the movie by producer Bob Guccione, the founder and publisher of Penthouse magazine. By inserting those gratuitous sex scenes into the finished movie, Guccione illogically transformed an art film into a hard-core cartoon romp. Malcolm McDowell says the actors did the film because of Gore Vidal’s perfect script. Ultimately, though, Vidal felt as cheated as the actors did and insisted that his name be removed from the film credits. One positive result, according to McDowell, was that he got to perform in the film with such wonderful actors as Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren.
   McDowell always thought he would finish a movie and go back to Britain. But that never happened. He says he stayed in the United States because of better weather there. In 1975, he married Margot Bennett. Five years later, he married his second wife – actress Mary Steenburgen, with whom he had two children. His daughter Lily Amanda is an actress; son Charles is a film director. Malcolm asserts that Charles bears a striking resemblance to him at the age when he starred in A Clockwork Orange.  
   It is now thirty years since he has had a cigarette, a drink or taken a drug. He stopped all that after undergoing twenty-nine days of treatment in a clinic. “A lot of people got addicted in the 1980s, especially to cocaine, which at that time they claimed was not addictive. ‘Oh, you can really use this drug because it is not addictive.’ It is such nonsense; it is very addictive, actually. They said that about nicotine. Everybody is addicted. It’s really the same thing, basically. It’s a chemical that affects your brain, that’s it.”  Since then, he has been nicotine-, alcohol- and drug–free: “Why take the chance?”  
    He has never shown his movies to his children. “They know I am an actor, but I am not going to force my kids to see my bloody movies. I am just ‘Dad.’” Lily was eighteen when she moved to the East Coast to attend college. By that time, she had not seen a movie starring her father. One day she called him: “’Dad, you won’t believe it but a lot of the kids in the dormitories have posters of you in their rooms.’ She had no idea who the hell I was,” Malcolm tells me. Then he received a call from the college, asking for a retrospective of his films. It was there that Lily for the first time watched her father in A Clockwork Orange. “She was like ‘Oh, my God."
   He is especially fond of performing voice roles in animated cartoons: Robot Chicken, Pinoccio 3000, South Park… When a cartoon voiced by Malcolm is on TV, three children start running around and screaming. Malcolm McDowell has three kids – three, five and eight years old – with current wife Kelley McDowell. He lives in Santa Barbara in a huge mansion built on a hill according to his own design and with a cinema hall on the ground floor. Lemon and orange trees are planted around the mansion. Jaguars, Austin Healey and others cars are around. When free, he plays golf and hosts friends there.
   The conversation is coming to its end. In the final scene, Malcolm has to dance to techno music. 
   “My wife said, ‘Oh, my God, I hope you are not dancing? You are such a bad dancer,’” he says. Then, turning to me, he asks, “Do you like this music? Really?” and grins: “It is manufactured in the computer.” 
   He knows for sure that he is just “a lucky thing.” Earlier in life, he used to be more careful about what he said. But now, “I really don’t care what people think. It is too late.” He thinks his eyes can tell everything: “That is what I say to writers: ‘Why do you write all this stuff?’ Look, when the camera hits me like this, they will know exactly where I am from, they know exactly where I am going.”

     

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 103, published 4 June 2012.

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