Friday, January 27

Trevor Howard

He spent a long career playing military men.  What is fascinating about that is that he was twice turned down for military service and although he was ultimately accepted, he was eventually discharged because he was found mentally unstable. Trevor Howard played authoritarian roles most of the time. It was difficult for him to blend into the woodwork.

Always an actor's actor, coworkers tended to think the world of him, finding him a first-rate professional. Howard completely lost himself in his roles which were often middle-class men, sometimes grave, perhaps with a touch of neuroses. He always claimed he felt his best when he was working and invested in playing someone else.  That and his nearly life-long alcoholism might indicate he dealt with some demons. 

He was born in England in 1916 to a Canadian-born mother who was a nurse and a father who worked as an insurance underwriter.  He spent a great deal of his young life traveling all over the world with his mother who would frequently go off and leave him with near-strangers.  His rootlessness perhaps brought about a great deal of insecurity which he was never able to shake.  It is a template that could apply to a very great many actors. And perhaps adding to it all was his less-than-matinee-idol looks, another concern for those wanting to take on the acting profession, especially as romantic leads.

In his teen years he began fantasizing about being an actor. After boarding school, he attended the prestigious Clifton College (virtually in his back yard) and then attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He was voted best in his class after a performance in Much Ado about Nothing. During the last part of the 30s he appeared in plays throughout London, attracting much attention.  By 1940, however, he was in the service and when he was medically discharged (his wife disputed the mentally unstable business), it was time for the movies.

Howard certainly owed directors Carol Reed and David Lean credit at least for his early career.  Both found him to be a superb actor and some of their films would be better with him in them.  His first and second films, both for Reed, The Way to the Stars (1944) and Johnny in the Clouds (1945), found him on his course of playing military men.  His third film and his first of three with Lean,1945s Brief Encounter, is also one of his best and most famous.  He and Celia Johnson played train commuters, married to others, who have, well, weekly brief encounters. Howard claimed it was some of his best acting because the character was nothing like himself.  He would play a similar role for Lean again in 1949 in The Passionate Friends.

With Celia Johnson,, his favorite co-star

In 1946 he made a good thriller, I See a Dark Stranger, as a British officer who falls for an English-hating spy played by a young Deborah Kerr.  He was a surgeon and murder suspect in Green for Danger and a crook in They Made Me a Fugitive, both 1947. He had a smaller role in Reed's well-regarded The Third Man in 1949 where he first displayed those traits that actually came very easily to him... craggy, sarcastic, blunt and cynical.  Bits and pieces of those would follow him throughout his long career.

Howard made 70+ films and we are certainly not going to mention even most of them. Suffice it to say that he made a fair amount of so-so films although he was the best thing about them. One of those was 1953s The Heart of the Matter, based on a novel by Graham Greene.  He played a tortured, married Catholic having an affair with Maria Schell in Sierra Leone. Howard's reviews were rapturous while the film's were not.  He said it was his favorite of all his movies.
One thing was undeniable... this most English of actors had become a force of nature on a world stage.

The first time I ever saw him act was in 1956 opposite Richard Widmark and Jane Greer in Run for the Sun.  The story of a couple involved in a small plane crash in the jungle had Howard as the chief villain.  His first American-produced (by Jane Russell's production company) movie was certainly not up to his usual standards but I loved the cat-and-mouse chase.  Widmark and Greer were two of my favorites and I was fascinated by Howard's nasty performance.

In 1958 he joined William Holden and Sophia Loren for The Key, a well-made WWII opus directed by Reed in which tugboat captains help with salvage efforts.  These men come and go but they all are given a key to a flat that comes with a beautiful roommate. Holden is Howard's replacement but in real life these two shared the same barstool. Their drinking bouts were legendary and were resumed four years later when they joined Capucine in Africa for The Lion.

I love films made in Africa and one of those would include 1958s The Roots of Heaven, a Darryl F. Zanuck vanity project starring his girlfriend of the moment, Juliette Greco, and costarring Orson Welles and Errol Flynn and directed by John Huston.  It was actually not very good but Howard, as a one-man army to stop the slaughter of elephants, was the best thing about the picture.

Another rough day in Sons and Lovers

Next up was my favorite of all Trevor Howard roles, the father in D.H. Lawrence's grim coal-mining story, Sons and Lovers (1960). At the heart of it is a young man (Dean Stockwell) who longs to be an artist rather than follow the men in his family into the mines.  He is distressed by his mother's (Wendy Hiller) obsessive attention, his hard-nosed father (Howard) and his parents' contentious relationship.  All three acted their hearts out and Howard nabbed an Oscar nomination for best actor.

In 1962 Howard had one of his least-favorite working experiences while making Mutiny on the Bounty.  It seemed to be Murphy's Law in a state of frenzy. The movie was hampered by a weak director, an original ship that sank, actors being fired, constant script changes, weather conditions and more.  At the source of many issues was the film's star, Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame and obnoxiousness.  If I recall correctly, Brando and costar Richard Harris (no stranger himself to obnoxiousness) duked it out. Howard detested Brando, saying for public consumption that the man is unprofessional and absolutely ridiculous. Oddly, they made two more films together: Morituri (1965) and Superman (1978). Maybe all had been forgiven.

From this point on, Howard moved more into character parts, although he hardly faded into the background.  He made a very rare comedy in 1960, Father Goose, as a naval commander and Cary Grant's nemesis. I found the old curmudgeon to be very amusing.  In 1965 he appeared in two WWII thrillers, Operation Crossbow and Von Ryan's Express. He was back to his fiery self as a British general
in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).  

We recently highlighted his role as a bossy priest (if he wasn't going to be in the military, his next-best fit was surely the clergy) in David Lean's mammoth production of Ryan's Daughter (1970).

For me, if I was going to get into that historical British royalty state-of-mind, it didn't get much better than Mary, Queen of Scots (1971).  As Lord Burleigh, Howard was resplendent opposite two of his country's finest actresses, Vanessa Redgrave in the title role and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I. Though he appeared in many films below his talents, he was still fortunate enough to still have good supporting roles in a number of good films.

Drinking had taken its toll on his looks.  It can be assumed he was never confused in looks with his drinking buddy, William Holden, but age and liquor were making things worse.  And he was getting crankier, too.  Doing more television with its rapid pace often made him disagreeable.

If anyone questioned whether he still had the acting chops around this time, one only needs to take in The Offence (1973).  A difficult film to watch about police brutality, Howard, Sean Connery and Ian Bannen turned in some of their best performances ever. Ludwig (1973) was another sensational Howard performance as composer Richard Wagner who betrayed the gay king of Bavaria played by Helmut Berger.  Romy Schneider and Silvana Mangano added extra allure.

I may be one of few people who enjoyed Hurricane (1979) with Mia Farrow, Jason Robards, Dayton Ka'ne and Howard back in priest's robes. The following year he made another film I liked a great deal. Windwalker, in which Howard played the title role, an ancient Indian warrior, must be his most unusual role. It is told from the Indian point of view and gorgeously photographed.

It never hurts to be a part of an Oscar-winning best picture even if one has a smaller role among a large, international cast but Gandhi (1982) was that film.  Of course he played another authority figure, in this case a judge.

Most of his work in the 1980s was television but he returned to Africa for a film that totally captivated me, White Mischief (1987).  It concerned British expatriates in Kenya in the 1920s who are involved in a murder.  A bit of negative news made the press during the making of the film and it concerned Howard's alcoholism which had reached an all-time high, even for him.  The producers wanted to fire him but costar Sarah Miles who had worked with him 17 years earlier in Ryan's Daughter, threw a fit, threatening to leave the film if he did, and he remained part of the cast.

Talk about irony.  Later that year he was hired by John Boorman to play Sarah Miles' father in Hope and Glory but was dismissed and replaced with Ian Bannen. Though not a stretch to conclude it was again his destiny with drink, this time Miles was not to intervene for whatever reasons.

Howard was married only once, to actress Helen Cherry.  By most accounts it was a troublesome coupling because of his drinking and womanizing but the union lasted 43 years. They worked together on the stage and in a couple of movies.

Trevor Howard, one of the deans of British actors but one who remained modest about his accomplishments, died peacefully in his sleep in 1988 at age 71.  He had contracted influenza, bronchitis and jaundice and had cirrhosis of the liver.

Next posting:

A Howard co-star

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