Friday, April 28

Max in English

Max von Sydow has managed to balance his acting career on two different planes for many years.  On the one hand he started out in his native Sweden as director Ingmar Bergman's gloomy alter-ego and then morphed into an internationally sought-after character actor with an intellectual bent, often specializing in austere villainous roles. His tall, imposing, often severe and mysterious presence can occasionally give way to a glorious smile.  However one cuts it, this is a most watchable actor who has performed in foreign productions across the planet.

Bergman once said of von Sydow... he controls his demons with the utmost degree of discipline; never allowing them to roam free in his private life , only unleashing them on stage.

He is sometimes referred to as the greatest living actor.  I expect that is certainly the thinking in his native Sweden and perhaps even throughout Europe.  A portion of the acclaim may come as a result of his being at it for six decades.  And the classy gentleman is today 88 years old and still working.

I first saw him in 1963 in Bergman's Winter Light.  It was not my idea.  I worked for a newspaper in the entertainment department and I would cover anything my boss didn't want to do.  He reviewed most of the big movies and I got stuck with what he called the weird stuff, which included foreign-language films.  If he only knew that I generally couldn't stand them either.  And Swedish films were way too dour and spare for my tastes but there I was.

I usually favorably reviewed films.  The reason was simple... I tried to find good stuff in films and when one was as earnest as I was about it, I usually found it.  Winter Light deals with a priest who is struggling with his calling and von Sydow had a supporting role as a troubled parishioner.  He was the one I noticed.  I thought that day and I do on this one that he is a tremendously elegant actor.

He was an only child born in 1929 to a wealthy family.  His father was an ethnologist and taught Irish and Scandinavian languages and also comparative folklore at a university.  His mother was a baroness by birth and worked as a schoolteacher.  The von of his name usually indicates aristocracy. It fits him well.

At 15, he saw a performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and it blew his young mind... an actor he must become.  He and his young friends founded an amateur theatrical company and staged plays wherever they could.  He would train for three years at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater.  He made a couple of early films before he moved to Malmo in 1955 and came under the wing of the great Bergman.  

Director and actor would first work together on the stage but then they would collaborate on 11 films.  The first one, The Seventh Seal (1957), generally stands as the best and it made von Sydow an international star.  He plays a despairing knight returning from the crusades who is locked in a battle of chess with the Grim Reaper while questioning the meaning of life. The film is quite famous for the fabulous closeups of von Sydow.

Among the more famous movies von Sydow and Bergman worked on are Wild Strawberries, also 1957, The Magician (1958) and The Virgin Spring (1960).  He continued working in Swedish films almost exclusively until 1965 when he quit resisting offers to come to the States.  He made his American film debut as Jesus in George Stevens' star-laden spectacle, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  He has famously played clerics in several films which must have required some good acting because von Sydow identifies as an agnostic. TGSET bombed.

He turned down the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965) and we're not really certain if Christopher Plummer was happy about that or not.  That same year he filmed The Reward, a far cry from TSOM but a beautifully filmed western about a group of people on a long journey to deliver a fugitive while fighting among themselves about the reward.  It is a bit choppy at times and suffers from a poor ending but it is still better than it's usually credited.

Hawaii was the top box-office champ of 1966, which surprises me somehow.  He and Julie Andrews (ah, at last) are a missionary and his wife who attempt to bring Christianity to the islands and suffer numerous tragedies along the way.  Von Sydow's real-life two sons play his movie son at different ages.  

Many accomplished European actors portrayed villains in American films.  Von Sydow was most effective as a menacing Nazi in The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and a wicked communist in The Kremlin Letter (1970), both of which increased his visibility although neither was a stellar film.

The seventies saw von Sydow working in Italian films after he moved to Rome.  The decade also brought about at least four films for which the 6'4" actor received sterling notices.  He and Liv Ullmann starred in The Emigrants (1971) and its sequel The New Land (1972), the stories of Swedes who come to America and take up residence in Minnesota amidst hardship and despair. Both films were internationally acclaimed and both received Oscar nominations as best foreign film. 

Of the 110 big-screen roles von Sydow has played, none is more famous than that of the old priest, Father Merrin, in the 1973 horrorfest, The Exorcist.  The character appears in only the last third of the film but the actor brings intense and solemn confidence to a role that winds up with him involved in fierce combat with the devil.

Director Sydney Pollack wisely hired him to play the nearly-mute foreign assassin out to make life shorter for Robert Redford in the superb Three Days of the Condor (1975). The fedora, the horn-rimmed glasses, the turned-down mouth, the sudden shifting glances all provided the actor with a threatening presence.  He brought a desired creepiness to the part that few others could have delivered as well. 

Voyage of the Damned (1976) was a thoughtful if painstaking look at a true event of WWII.  A 1939 voyage of the MS St. Louis departs Hamburg, Germany, with 937 Jews aboard, bound ostensibly for Cuba. The passengers come to realize it is all a setup. Cuba has no intention of accepting them and apparently no other country does either.  The voyage is a mere propaganda exercise to prove to the world that Jews are not welcome anywhere and that Germany is right to take the approach it had.  I thought it was a gripping film with wonderful acting by Oskar Werner, Julie Harris, Ben Gazzara, James Mason, Orson Welles, Katharine Ross, Faye Dunaway, Lee Grant, Maria Schell, Jose Ferrer, Wendy Hiller and von Sydow as the captain of the ship. Unfortunately, it didn't fare so well at the box office.

Did he find a way to become a bit of a pop-culture icon?  With roles in Flash Gordon (1980), Conan the Barbarian (1982), as the villain Blofield in the James Bond franchise, Never Say Never Again (1983) and the less-than-expected Dune (1984).  In 1987 Pelle the Conqueror was released and von Sydow received his first Oscar nomination for a film that remains his favorite.  Like The Emigrants and The New Land before it, Pelle concerns Swedish folks moving to Denmark at the end of the 19th century. 

It seemed that all the great directors wanted to work with the tireless Swede.  Woody Allen came calling with Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), in my opinion, the best of the films that Allen acted in. (I confess I prefer the films that he directs only.)  We visit a large family only at Thanksgiving time over several years.  The main focus is the three sisters, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest.  Hershey is in a relationship with von Sydow, a much older recluse, and as their marriage is slipping away, she engages in an affair with her brother-in-law, Michael Caine, with expected and not-so-expected results.  This is a very strong cast Allen has assembled and the writing is smooth and witty.  How this film is laid out is part of its immense charm.

While Hannah is a great film, von Sydow's role is a fairly small one compared to most of the others in the cast and this is generally how the rest of his career has gone... small character parts, sometimes as few as just one or two memorable scenes.  Even going back to the start of his career and as gifted as he's always been, he was never one to hog the spotlight.  Being the star of a film never meant as much to him as much as it's about the work, the story, his director.  He and others must know he's the auteur of any scene he's in.  His presence in any film lifts it to a more glamorous status.

Throughout the 1990s he seemed to be involved in doing a lot of television, both in documentaries and movies.  He came back in 1999, stoic and impressive as always as an elderly attorney in
Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), a moody little murder mystery for which I have always had high regard.  

In 2007 he had a small but delightful role in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  Based on a true story of French singer Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film focuses on his life after a massive stroke which rendered him speechless.  He could only blink his left eyelid.  Playing Bauby's father, von Sydow has a couple of powerfully unforgettable scenes, especially the one in which father says goodbye to his son.  It is so dignified and yet so heartbreaking. An actor of von Sydow's range keeps it in check, keeps it from being cloying.
He appeared in Shutter Island as a creepy doctor and Robin Hood, as Robin's blind father-in-law, both 2010, and a year later as the ornery mute tenant of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for which he received his second Oscar nomination.

It's no surprise that he made it into the Star Wars franchise (The Force Awakens (2015) or into TV's Game of Thrones (2016). Von Sydow's high-minded intelligence and strong voice make him a shoo-in for such ambitious action-adventures.

He has been married for 20 years to French documentary filmmaker Catherine Brelet and was formerly married to actress Christina Olin for 20 years.  He became a French citizen in 2002, having to forfeit his Swedish citizenship.

He has certainly worked with some of the greatest directors of his time but I suspect that when any of them were asked to name some of the best actors they've worked with, the name of Max von Sydow was likely mentioned early on.

Next posting:
A good 70s films

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