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James Mason - under-appreciated great actor, why?


manderstoke
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It's generally agreed that Mason was a great actor.  It is also generally agreed that he was never the first choice for a role, and he was not well received by American audiences.  Any thoughts on why he fared so poorly in America?

Not sure if he fared poorly here-- just maybe not as well as he was received back in his home country. I do think he had some standout roles in Hollywood, and he certainly had a long and illustrious screen career. 

 

This said, do you think he exhibited the same kind of heat that other Brits did? Compare him to Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Ray Milland, Michael Caine or Laurence Harvey. That may have been what was lacking. He didn't have the same type of sex appeal these other men had.

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Not sure if he fared poorly here-- just maybe not as well as he was received back in his home country. I do think he had some standout roles in Hollywood, and he certainly had a long and illustrious screen career. 

 

This said, do you think he exhibited the same kind of heat that other Brits did? Compare him to Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Ray Milland, Michael Caine or Laurence Harvey. That may have been what was lacking. He didn't have the same type of sex appeal these other men had.

 

Funny, but other than Cary Grant and maybe Ray Milland, I can think of more James Mason movies worth watching than those made by any others of the above. He made for a great villain, a credible pervert, a memorable alcoholic, and an interesting character no matter what sort of role he was in. I'm not a scholar of box office returns, so it's hard to form an opinion about his popularity when his career was effectively  over by the time I started getting interested in movies.  But on my personal 10 scale of actors, he rates a solid 9.

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Actually, I think Mason generated more heat.  His sensuality was of the smoldering variety, or, as Pauline Kael remarked, his fires were always banked.  There was also an element of danger and menace in his sexual persona.  Mason was the original "bad boy", the Byronic antihero of the 1940s.  Certainly, in his prime, he was far better looking than any of the other actors mentioned. Look at him in ODD MAN OUT, JULIUS CAESAR, THE MAN IN GREY, THE MAN BETWEEN; he was beautiful and the camera loved that face.  Powell described him as a "dark young god."  Perhaps that was part of his lackluster appeal here - he projected a dark, troubled form of sexuality.

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Considering why Mason didn't get quite enough recognition is an interesting question.  Some of these have to do with the rules of oscar nominations:  winners should be serious, but not offend anyone.  That, at any rate, is my explanation for why he wasn't nominated for North by Northwest on the one hand, and Lolita on the other.  And some of his roles were not prominent enough for Hollywood:  Odd Man Out and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, as well as The Reckless Moment.   As for Julius Caesar,  the whole point of the play is that Brutus is outshone by Mark Antony.  I've never seen  An Officer and a Gentleman,  but I suspect that it doesn't last as well as either The Verdict or Robert Preston's role in Victor/Victoria.

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You made some good points about the failure of the powers in Hollywood to recognize Mason's work.  Also at play, I think was his history of being openly contemptuous of producers and the moneymen.  He saw then as parasites living off the work of the actors, writers, directors, etc., opinions that he expressed in the many articles that he wrote.  He detested Hollywood and its culture.  But this still doesn't explain why American audiences rejected him.  Was he too dark, too complex, too cerebral? 

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Another point that occurs to me is that when Mason finally partially made it in Hollywood, he was in his forties, which is not the best time for a leading actor.  It's not an infallible rule--Bogart was also in his early forties when he finally made it, but he was playing a very different type of character.

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Funny, but other than Cary Grant and maybe Ray Milland, I can think of more James Mason movies worth watching than those made by any others of the above. He made for a great villain, a credible pervert, a memorable alcoholic, and an interesting character no matter what sort of role he was in. I'm not a scholar of box office returns, so it's hard to form an opinion about his popularity when his career was effectively  over by the time I started getting interested in movies.  But on my personal 10 scale of actors, he rates a solid 9.

Maybe it's exactly what you say - that he played villains or "odd men out" types so much. It's hard to think of him playing a normal guy, or a guy you could root for. Maybe that is why he is underappreciated and not remembered that well. I'm old enough that I can remember when classic films played during the off hours on TV, and still I didn't get to see very many Mason films and become a fan until after TCM came on the air and began playing Mason's films.

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Maybe it's exactly what you say - that he played villains or "odd men out" types so much. It's hard to think of him playing a normal guy, or a guy you could root for. Maybe that is why he is underappreciated and not remembered that well. I'm old enough that I can remember when classic films played during the off hours on TV, and still I didn't get to see very many Mason films and become a fan until after TCM came on the air and began playing Mason's films.

I agree. Recently, I watched a copy of BIGGER THAN LIFE, the Nicholas Ray film he made at Fox in the 50s. I had recorded it off the old Fox Movie Channel (now called FXM Retro). Mason is credited as a producer. So he obviously had a passion about the material, but it is quite offbeat and while his acting avoids the main pitfalls, much of the story is over the top. I don't think these kinds of films, where you really couldn't feel too good about the characters he portrayed and the situations they were in, endeared him to audiences. But I suspect that he was more into being a serious film actor than a confectionary movie star.

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Having been a James Mason fan myself since a kid(for many of the same reasons Andy earlier gave) I have to wonder if the term "under-appreciated" could rightly be applied to the man.

 

However, IF this is true at all, then yes, I think calvin's guess as to the "age factor" might possibly account for some of this. However, while manderstoke earlier mentioned him thus: "Certainly, in his prime, he was far better looking than any of the other actors mentioned.", I question this comment, as even in his younger British film days he never possessed the classic "matinee idol" looks of those that Andy mentioned(Grant, Olivier and Harvey).

 

Nope, I think because of his lack of this "classic matinee idol looks" AND because he could possibly be considered one of the first lead actors in film, British OR American, who almost from the get-go specialized in playing the "Anti-hero" as manderstoke mentioned with his "Mason was the original "bad boy", the Byronic antihero of the 1940s" comment, I think a good comparison to his career and his seeming being somewhat "forgotten" or "under-appreciated today might be drawn with another great film actor who fits these same descriptive factors...John Garfield, and even factoring into this "equation" the much longer career Mason had due to Garfield's early and untimely death.

 

(...just a thought)

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It's generally agreed that Mason was a great actor.  It is also generally agreed that he was never the first choice for a role, and he was not well received by American audiences.  Any thoughts on why he fared so poorly in America?

Interesting question.

 

I'd have to put him in the no connection made category, along with Eddie Robinson and Charles Boyer. There was never a time in all the thousands of years I've been watching movies that I've said to myself: oooooh, there's a James Mason movie on, I must catch it.

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Perhaps a couple of quotes from Mason himself may shed some light on this:

 

To be a successful film star, as opposed to a successful film actor, you should settle for an image and polish it forever. I somehow could never quite bring myself to do that.

 

and

 

I'm a character actor: the public never knows what it's getting by way of a Mason performance from one film to the next. I therefore represent a thoroughly insecure investment.

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Many good points being made in this discussion.  I agree that Mason was coming up against the age barrier by the time he finally got to Hollywood and he did specialize in complex, dark, not altogether sympathetic roles.  He commented once that American audiences saw him as a "somewhat sinister foreign import" and after Lolita, as a "somewhat sinister foreign import who molested little girls."  So, yes,  his choice of roles worked against him and  he did seem to have a gift for making poor choices.

 

For all his greatness, there was one type of role that Mason could never play well - that of an ordinary man.  His screen persona was so large that he wasn't credible as the Ed Averys of the world.  Of course, when you went to see Mason, you went to see Nicholas or Rohan or Ivo, or Stephen, or Del Palma, even Manderstoke, but never Ed Avery!

 

I must object to lamentations that Mason didn't have the matinee idol look (Brits thought so for 4 years, voting him as the most popular male star).  In his thirties and forties he was beautiful.  You don't believe me? Watch ODD MAN OUT or JULIUS CAESAR.  In his fifties, he was still awesome looking (THE MAN BETWEEN and THE UNINHIBITED); in his sixties, his looks faded rapidly.  In his prime, the camera loved that face with the dark eyes and eyebrows, the cheek bones sculpted like blades, and a mouth so sensuous that it was surely x-rated.   

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Manderstoke, your extremely favorable opinion of Mason's looks is starting to remind me of a very nice lady who was a regular around here for quite a while before she sadly and unexpectedly passed away some time back, and who thought the person I earlier mentioned as somewhat of a comparative to Mr. Mason in both the "looks department" and their great abilities as actors, John Garfield, was THE "most handsome" actor she ever saw.

 

However, and while in both cases here, she(did) and you apparently might have or do find "that certain something special" about each of these actors' appearances which you both found or find "sends you", I still say in both cases that when "polls" are taken of who are the "most attractive" male actors during the "Classic" years, seldom are either Mason or Garfield mentioned within those polls. Nope, it is usually Cary Grant and/or the (young) Laurence Olivier OR the extremely masculine types like Clark Gable or Robert Mitchum who get mentioned in these sorts of polls.

 

However again, and with that being said, I actually think the first two paragraphs of your previous post AND what darkblue quoted Mason himself as saying about his own career would probably more explain Mason's "lack of greater success"(if such a thing is true) in the American market than does anything about his "looks". 

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Many good points being made in this discussion.  I agree that Mason was coming up against the age barrier by the time he finally got to Hollywood and he did specialize in complex, dark, not altogether sympathetic roles.  He commented once that American audiences saw him as a "somewhat sinister foreign import" and after Lolita, as a "somewhat sinister foreign import who molested little girls."  So, yes,  his choice of roles worked against him and  he did seem to have a gift for making poor choices.

 

 

Was it really a matter of "poor choices", or was it either he wasn't offered the typical romantic male leads; or, like Robert Ryan, another actor with classic rugged good looks, he never really pursued such roles, due to a simple lack of interest.  I'd think it's quite possible that Mason, like Ryan and like Barbara Stanwyck, found more satisfaction in being a great actor than in being a box office star.*

 

*Which Stanwyck also was at a certain point in her career, but not in the same way or on the same level as a Harlow or a Hayworth or a Monroe.

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Was it really a matter of "poor choices", or was it either he wasn't offered the typical romantic male leads; or, like Robert Ryan, another actor with classic rugged good looks, he never really pursued such roles, due to a simple lack of interest.  I'd think it's quite possible that Mason, like Ryan and like Barbara Stanwyck, found more satisfaction in being a great actor than in being a box office star.*

 

*Which Stanwyck also was at a certain point in her career, but not in the same way or on the same level as a Harlow or a Hayworth or a Monroe.

 

I agree with you here, Andy...though not with the idea that Mason had "rugged good looks in the vein of a Robert Ryan".

 

Nope, two different set of "looks" here, my friend...at least I think so anyway, and with Ryan's tough as nails "rugged good looks" being often used to great effect as someone I wouldn't ever want have to tangle with mano-a-mano, AND with Mason's FAR less "tough" appearance being one often best used for characters I wouldn't turn by back on if I were smart BUT could probably still kick their keysters IF worse came to worst!

 

(..but yeah, other than THAT, two GREAT film actors who could do "intense" as well and probably better than anyone on screen)

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Dargo, When you described both Ryan and Mason as doing "intense" better than any other actors, I was, of course, reminded of CAUGHT.  In this film, I think Ryan's intensity ran circles around Mason.  The irony was that Opuls wanted Mason to play Ryan's role, but Mason was determined to avoid the very type of roles that had made him famous in UK and caused Hollywood to beckon.  Again, bad career choices.  Instead, he plays Dr. Quinada - Mr. Ordinary Guy, who just isn't very interesting.  He should have followed Opuls advice, although I thought Ryan was perfect in the role.  Ryan, too, was an excellent, but underrated actor.

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Dargo, When you described both Ryan and Mason as doing "intense" better than any other actors, I was, of course, reminded of CAUGHT.  In this film, I think Ryan's intensity ran circles around Mason.  The irony was that Opuls wanted Mason to play Ryan's role, but Mason was determined to avoid the very type of roles that had made him famous in UK and caused Hollywood to beckon.  Again, bad career choices.  Instead, he plays Dr. Quinada - Mr. Ordinary Guy, who just isn't very interesting.  He should have followed Opuls advice, although I thought Ryan was perfect in the role.  Ryan, too, was an excellent, but underrated actor.

Was Ryan underrated, or under-appreciated? Now there was an actor who could get the girl, Mason was always the type from whom the girl would be running.

 

I considered Robert Ryan an outstanding actor who could do everything, although I can't see him doing comedy. I put him in the same class as Sterling Hayden. 

 

But hey, different strokes and all that jazz.

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I agree with you here, Andy...though not with the idea that Mason had "rugged good looks in the vein of a Robert Ryan".

 

Nope, two different set of "looks" here, my friend...at least I think so anyway, and with Ryan's tough as nails "rugged good looks" being often used to great effect as someone I wouldn't ever want have to tangle with mano-a-mano, AND with Mason's FAR less "tough" appearance being one often best used for characters I wouldn't turn by back on if I were smart BUT could probably still kick their keysters IF worse came to worst!

 

(..but yeah, other than THAT, two GREAT film actors who could do "intense" as well and probably better than anyone on screen)

You're right about Ryan's and Mason's differing looks.  They both portrayed "dark" characters, but in terms of how their features come across, Ryan was a slightly handsomer version of Robert Mitchum, while Mason was a bit more on the "pretty boy" side of the line.  I probably should have just dropped the "rugged" part, since it wouldn't have changed the point I was trying to make.

 

One other aspect of Mason which helped him portray those "dark" characters so well was his voice, which had an extraordinary combination of intelligence and menace to it.  You can hear this immediately in North By Northwest, but that's only one of many examples. 

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One other aspect of Mason which helped him portray those "dark" characters so well was his voice, which had an extraordinary combination of intelligence and menace to it.  You can hear this immediately in North By Northwest, but that's only one of many examples. 

You're so right about his voice, and you do hear it immediately. In "North By Northwest" you don't fear his physical self as much as you fear his intent as expressed in his voice, letting you know how casually he could unleash his goons to do the actual damage. And then he could be so tender and sympathetic when he helped Judy Garland redo the overdone makeup in "A Star is Born", sending her on her way with a totally reassuring and calming "Once more into the breach..."

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You're so right about his voice, and you do hear it immediately. In "North By Northwest" you don't fear his physical self as much as you fear his intent as expressed in his voice, letting you know how casually he could unleash his goons to do the actual damage. And then he could be so tender and sympathetic when he helped Judy Garland redo the overdone makeup in "A Star is Born", sending her on her way with a totally reassuring and calming "Once more into the breach..."

 

A Star Is Born may be my favorite Mason movie of them all, and in part it's because the character he portrays is at once so maddening and sympathetic, so arrogant and pleading, and so oblivious and self-knowing.  It's all wrapped up in the same package, made convincing by Mason's amazing talent in modulating his voice to reflect his changing moods.  It's a talent that's positively Stanwyckian, and it's what makes Norman Maine so utterly true to life.

 

No wonder Garland was often at her wit's end trying to deal with his volatility, and yet that most perfect of ending lines----"This is Mrs. Norman Maine"----was spoken with the uttermost sincerity, without a single false note.  Garland's musical set pieces were the box office pull, but other than "The Man That Got Away", they could almost have been pulled from the script without diminishing that extraordinary film's power one iota, thanks to the acting of Garland and Mason.

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Pardon me for going a little off topic here, but I thought I'd share a few James Mason facts gleaned off Wiki (a dubious source, at times, I admit).

 

Aside from his film appearances, Mason's silky voice worked wonderfully well as narrator on two of the best film documentaries about silents ever made, Kevin Brownlow's Hollywood, and the marvelous Unknown Chaplin. Even more significant in Mason's contribution to the history of silents, after moving into Buster Keaton's former home, he discovered several reels of Keaton work considered lost (including his short, The Boat), and made immediate efforts to have the film transferred to safety stock, thus saving it from oblivion.

 

Mason was a longtime friend of Charlie Chaplin, and his Swiss grave is only steps away from the tomb of the Little Tramp's.

 

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Mason and Chaplin at the circus in 1970.

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"...Mason was always the type from whom the girl would be running."

 

 How wrong can you be!  Francesca ran towards him, Marian ran towards him, Hester ran towards him, ditto Barbara (before she killed him), ditto Pandora, ditto Helene, ditto Jean, ditto Laura, ditto Susanne, etc., etc.  I myself would have been first in line.

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"...Mason was always the type from whom the girl would be running."

 

 How wrong can you be!  Francesca ran towards him, Marian ran towards him, Hester ran towards him, ditto Barbara (before she killed him), ditto 

Yes, but I wouldn't be.

 

Did all those women run towards him? I didn't like him, so I never a movie where he wasn't a heavy, and not a SAAM heavy like Ryan or Hayden.

 

He may very well have been an outstanding actor, but if I can't relate to said actor, I can't be a fan.

 

As I noted earlier, different strokes.

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