Tuesday, February 3

King Yul

Yul Brynner has always fascinated me.  It may be true that when I have mentioned him in this blog, it has been in generally unfavorable terms.  It also seems true that he is most deserving of  smears hurled by his detractors.  He was a piece of work... conceited, arrogant, mean, controlling, insufferable, frequently unstable, a liar and a cheater.  I am not even sure he was a great actor, although I thought he was a good one and more importantly, one of the most mesmerizing screen presences I have ever encountered. 

To be fair, he also loved laughter, was quite cosmopolitan, elegant, worldly, urbane and could actually be quite sensitive, especially when it came to refugee children of the world.  Brynner did much to support them in most anyway he could and he certainly did a great deal with his money.

I could scarcely pay attention to anyone else sharing a scene with him.  That man had some mystical powers that drew me to him.  Funny that I felt that way.  That's just as he knew I would.  The bald head didn't hurt.  Those penetrating, sometimes demonic eyes pierced right through you.  He had a speaking voice that was commanding, sonorous and rich. The imperious manner was always in evidence.  In his greatest role, The King and I, it's surprising he allowed the and I.  He would have been the first to say that he was so good in the role because there was a majesty about him.  With apologies to Laurence Harvey, Brynner was as self-centered as I know any actor to be.  What always mattered to him the most was what mattered to him.  Damn I loved watching him on that big silver screen.

His origins have long been a mystery which his large ego devilishly created.  He delighted in watching peoples' faces contort as they struggled with his truth.  He derived great joy from shocking people.  Keeping people in a state of confusion was a Brynner specialty.  He has said he was Swiss, a Romanian gypsy, from China, a mongol, Lithuanian, Siberian.  But he was born in Russia in 1920.  His grandfather had once left his growing family and Yul's father would do the same (as would Yul himself).  When one could get him to tell the truth and speak from the heart, he would have said he had abandonment issues all his life.  He would get very sad telling of the days and nights he sat and waited for his father's return, a man he learned to hate.

His youthful narcissism was apparent to those who knew him  and combined with the great stories he could weave (lies, all lies, others would say), folks began telling him he should be an actor and soon he agreed.  In addition to wanting to be an entertainer, he loved being entertained.  As a teen he began attending operas (some Chinese operas) and plays, he would listen to street musicians and sometimes join in with the guitar he had learned to play.  He loved to sing gypsy songs.

Paris became the center of his young life when he and his mother and sister moved there when he was 14.  A year later he was playing his guitar in a nightclub.  He was already wooing and being wooed by the ladies.  His dance card quickly filled up.  And then a funny thing happened.  He joined a circus.  He became an acrobat, a mime, a clown and even took a shot at trapeze work.  In that endeavor he had an accident tumbling off a net and hurt himself badly.  His long recuperation saw him get an addiction to smoking opium, something in later life he tried to keep a secret.

He would eventually come under the spell of Michael Chekhov, a nephew of the famous playwright and he would eventually get work in playhouses, generally, but not always, behind the scenes.  When Chekhov moved to Connecticut and started an acting company, Brynner followed.  He returned to performing in nightclubs and also supplemented his income by posing nude for art classes. The company opened in Twelfth Night on Broadway which would lead to him joining Mary Martin in Lute Song... and his star would rise. 

During Lute Song, the married Brynner was having an affair with Judy Garland and becoming a terror with coworkers.  It was noted that he had a curious petulance, an explosive temper and harangued anyone in earshot with a special affection for his director.  In his film career, he was generally disliked, I think, and had dustups on many of his sets.  Directors were his specialty.  There were times his outbursts on sets were so intense that he was given oxygen to help calm him down.

He picked up a wife (his first of four) along the way and had a son.  He also developed a great passion for photography which would last his lifetime.  He became somewhat famous for his photographs, some of which were taken behind the scenes on his films.

He began doing live television and even made a movie debut in 1949 in Port of New York.  The less said the better.  Then came his signature role... few actors are more identified with a role than Yul Brynner was in The King and I.  Its Broadway debut was thunderous.  Long live the King.  It's said he's played the King of Siam 4,625 times.  I was thrilled to see one of them at Hollywood's Pantages Theater in the early 80s. 

In the cast for Broadway's The King and I was Sal Mineo who some years later would costar with Brynner in 1962s Escape from Zahrain and they would have an affair.  Bisexual though he may have been, I see his overall sexual nature as being about a man with a gargantuan sexual appetite and a massive ego and a need to have them both stroked often.  The stroker was not so important.

Another stroker, and a bisexual herself, was Marlene Dietrich.  Massive ego meet massive ego.  They carried on for several years and most everyone knew about it.   Their affair ended when he more or less dismissed her.  The King had a habit of dismissing his subjects and few ever dismissed Dietrich.  When she heard years later that he had cancer, she crowed good, he deserves it

He won a Tony for his performance (duh) and an Oscar (duh) when he repeated the role for 20th Century Fox's 1956 film.  He loved Deborah Kerr and probably got to know her quite well since he would claim that he slept with almost all of his leading ladies and she would join him again three years later for the war drama, The Journey.  Interestingly, he thought the film of The King and I was an embarrassment.  I'm guessing it was the opium.  I don't care whether he was in it or not, how dare him bum rap one of my favorite musicals.  No wonder I speak poorly of him.

1956 was a good year for Brynner.  He not only won the Oscar but he was also in the year's best picture, The Ten Commandments.  As Rameses II he was exquisite, giving that epic just what it needed... which, of course, was to offset Charlton Heston's performance as best he could.  The same year he performed in Anastasia, which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar for her return role in America.  He was again vivid and exciting as the opportunistic businessman out to present an impostor as the long-missing Grand Duchess.  Bergman had fled to Europe some years earlier because America turned its back on her due to her adulterous conduct.  Luckily it was kept from the world that she and the married Brynner carried on the length of the film.

The Brothers Karamazov (1958) was a natural fit for Brynner.  Good as he was at his craft, it had already been decided that he was too exotic to play just any role.  He likely beamed when he heard it but he would one day consider it more of a liability.  But Dmitri Karamazov, the son who steals his father's girlfriend, was perfect.  Offscreen he romanced both of his leading ladies, Maria Schell and Claire Bloom.  The same year he and Bloom would show up in The Buccaneer, a fun romp in which Brynner (with hair restored) played the pirate Jean Lafitte but a troubled production as Brynner battled with director Anthony Quinn.

He kept his hair for his two 1959 productions, The Sound and the Fury (as the head of an impoverished Southern family) and Solomon and Sheba, replacing Tyrone Power (who died during a sword-fighting scene) in the sword and sandals tale.  In the former he and Joanne Woodward didn't get along and he and Gina Lollobrigida knocked heads in the latter until they discovered a mutual love of photography.  I wonder how they made up.  Neither film is highly-regarded but I enjoyed (and own) both.

Comedy was not Brynner's milieu but in 1960 he tried two of them, Once More With Feeling (with Kay Kendall and Surprise Package (with Mitzi Gaynor), and both were flops.  Then came the starring role in one of my favorite westerns ever, The Magnificent Seven.  The film about a small western village paying gunfighters to protect them from their enemies was a monster hit worldwide.  Next to The King and I, this is the film for which Brynner is best remembered.  It is also remembered in Hollywood circles as the one where he and another battler, Steve McQueen, didn't find one another so magnificent.  Starting with this film and forever after, Brynner dressed entirely in black most of the time, onscreen and off.

He would go on to make 25 more films before the end came but only three of them are worthy of much space.  In 1962 he made Taras Bulba, the story of a Cossack father and his two sons, one of whom will betray him when their people go to war with the Poles.  I thought it was a grand film, full of epic splendor, a cast of thousands, breathtaking battle scenes and tender moments of father-son love.  Tony Curtis was top-billed as one of the sons but it is Brynner we remember.

He was Pancho Villa in 1968s Villa Rides in which a revolution is helped along by an American pilot imprisoned in Mexico.  He and Robert Mitchum, two very different actors, partnered well.  It was not a great success but was a great popcorn/rainy weekend kind of movie.  He had much more success and his last with 1973s Westworld about a robot malfunction that creates terror for vacationers at a futuristic adult-themed amusement park.  It brought him fame with a whole new generation.

He was disenchanted with his later body of work and he had every right to feel that way.  None of his later films compared with his earliest work and his specialized type of role was harder and harder to find as he got older.  It never helped that he was an impossible jerk on film sets.  When you're much in demand, that bad behavior is often overlooked as much as possible but when the glory days are long gone, Hollywood holds one accountable for every year of trouble.

So how does an actor feed that large ego.  He revives the role that made him famous.  He returns to The King and I.  He'd done it once on Broadway and once on film.  He even did a short-lived television series on it.  And now he embarked on world-wide tours, some a few years apart, and ultimately wound up back on Broadway where he was awarded a special Tony for resilience if not brilliance.

He was a life-long smoker and it would kill him in 1985 at age 65.  The King would die of lung cancer.

Movie Review

1 comment:

  1. All you say may be true, but man, he was charismatic and attractive. I got to see him onstage in The King and I in the mid 1970s and I remember he had the brightest aura of almost any other live performer I have ever seen, other than maybe Liza Minnelli. Breathtaking stage presence.