Malcolm McDowell: The Rebel Star
In anticipation of Malcolm McDowell’s visit to Curzon Mayfair, Ian Hydn Smith recounts the film roles that made a rebel out of him.
As an actor, Malcolm McDowell has over 260 credits to his name. He is also listed as having seven as a producer, two as a writer and six for soundtrack contributions, including that performance of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. No small feat. And though this prolific output highlights his longevity – he might also be one of the only actors to give Samuel L. Jackson a run for his money for the number of films he has appeared in over the course of a single year – it doesn’t tell of his iconic status as a star. There was a moment, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, when Malcolm McDowell was the cinematic face of rebellion.
A brief biography. He was born in Leeds during the Second World War. Like many of his generation, an exuberant spirit channelled its way into theatre. He worked at the RSC, but mostly backstage. Moving to London, performances became more regular. Whilst appearing as Sebastian – “a thankless role”, the actor claims – in a contemporary update of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Royal Court, McDowell was invited to audition for Lindsay Anderson. Unaware of who he was, either as a director of film or theatre, McDowell proceeded to criticise the production he was appearing in. When Anderson told him he was a regular director at the Court, the actor thought the meeting would come to an end. But Anderson saw something in the young man – an incendiary quality. He subsequently cast McDowell as the lead in his anti-establishment satire If…. (1968), which made him a star.
Stanley Kubrick purportedly saw If…. five times. But at the first viewing, in an early scene when McDowell is pulling faces in front of a mirror, the legendary filmmaker knew he had found his Alex for an upcoming adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971). Those two films cemented McDowell’s status as the face of a new generation, while his bad boy screen persona was further bolstered by a rollicking turn as popular fictional anti-hero Captain Harry Flashman in Royal Flash (1975) and an ambivalent pilot in the anti-war drama Aces High (1976). There were also two further roles in films by Anderson: O Lucky Man! (1973), based on McDowell’s experiences as a coffee salesman, and the NHS satire Britannia Hospital (1982).
From the late 1970s on, McDowell’s career encompassed numerous forgettable films. His performances often outshone the material. There were still standout roles: H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979); a key protagonist in Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982); playing himself in a delicious cameo in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and reuniting with the director a decade later for The Company (2003); a rapist in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) and a terrifying serial killer in Evilenko (2004); the butler in The Artist (2011). He is soon to play Rupert Murdoch in a drama about disgraced Fox Network executive Roger Ailes. But however villainous his performance is in that film, it’s unlikely to top his portrayal of the older, but no less ruthless, mobster in Gangster No. 1 (2000). It’s not only a highlight of McDowell’s career, it reminded audiences of his greatness on screen. Paul Bettany, who plays the gangster’s younger self, is similar to the age McDowell was at the peak of his powers in the early 1970s. And in every moment of Paul McGuigan’s brutal film, the youthful energy McDowell exuded in those older films can be seen in the way he tears through every scene.
If… now ranks among the finest British films ever made. The timing couldn’t have been better for it. Europe was ablaze with student demonstrations and riots, and America felt on the cusp of imploding as a result of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and an air of unease as a result of the Nixon administration. Social unrest was everywhere. Except within the British establishment. Even though London was the scene of the youth explosion in the early 1960s and the country ruled the roost when it came to pop music, the old guard still seemed to hold sway over the country. Anderson’s film and McDowell’s wild spirit challenged this. With Eton College as a backdrop, If…. gave British audiences a taste of a younger generation rebelling. The order needed changing and if Anderson’s film was a rally cry, McDowell’s Mick was its figurehead.
In the three years between If… and A Clockwork Orange, the world had become a darker place. The hedonism and hope of Woodstock had already been undermined by the violence of Altamont (the California music festival headlined by the Rolling Stones, in which a Hells Angels gang employed as bouncers murdered an audience member). Vietnam rolled on, accruing a massive death toll on both sides, as well as millions of innocents caught in between. The world was about to enter a massive economic downturn. And social reform seemed to be slowing down. Anthony Burgess’ novel reflected a period of despondency among Britain’s youth and Kubrick’s film hit a nerve. The film, like the book, is a razor-sharp satire, and its violence is unremitting. The first hour, though occasionally very funny, remains shocking in its nihilism. While the second half offers a direct attack on the inefficiency of political bodies, on both the right and left side of the spectrum.
The controversy surrounding the film in the UK notwithstanding (it was accused – albeit without foundation – of inspiring copycat crimes and as a result Kubrick pulled it from cinemas), A Clockwork Orange remains a key film of the era thanks to the collaboration between its filmmaker and star. Kubrick’s vision is stark and, at times, brilliant. But the film would not have been so effective without McDowell’s commitment to his role. It’s an extraordinary performance, full of rage and humour.
McDowell’s roles in If… and A Clockwork Orange, along with those in O Lucky Man!, Royal Flash, Aces High and even Caligula (1979), made him a star. But he also represented a new kind of screen persona, becoming one of the few faces to define this turbulent, uneasy era.
Malcolm McDowell Q&A
Malcolm McDowell will be on stage at Curzon Mayfair following the 14:30 screening of A Clockwork Orange on Sunday 7 April.
A Clockwork Orange returns to UK cinemas from Friday 5 April. With thanks to BFI.