Jul. 8th, 2009

michael_gothard_archive: (wild)
The BFI brought out three films in which Michael Gothard had major roles, “Herostratus”, “The Devils” and “La Valleé.” The booklets that accompany “Herostratus” (released 24/08/2009) and “La Valleé” (released 08/06/2009) include sections about him, which - apart from some material in the “La Valleé” booklet which specifically relates to his role in that film - are basically the same.

These notes show a disappointing reliance on online sources, one of whom – Curtis Harrington – actively disliked Michael Gothard. A quotation from Harrington is even used to provide the title: “An interesting type.”

At best, this phrase, culled from a highly personal attack that Harrington launched on Gothard some years after his death, damns a very talented and unique actor – not a ‘type’ – with faint praise, and tends to discourage the reader from looking more closely at his work.

It is tempting to think that the reason this quotation was used, was that it was easy to find. It’s true that there was not much information about Michael Gothard available at the time the booklet on “Herostratus” was written, but a little research in a library reveals that John Glen, the Director of “For Your Eyes Only”, described him as “a captivating actor”1, and that Louis M. Heyward, the Executive Producer of “Scream and Scream Again” said: "I felt that Michael Gothard was going to be the biggest thing that ever happened. He had that insane look and that drive, and he was wonderful … He had a lot of class and a lot of style.”2

Either of these quotations could have more aptly supplied a title for Michael Gothard's mini-biography. Instead, Harrington’s quotation sets the tone for an article which is not only negative, but misleading.

Firstly, the statement that, “Michael Gothard’s choice of television and film roles illustrated the dark side of the 1960s and 70s” warrants scrutiny. The word “choice” assumes that at the start of his career, Michael had the pick of television and film roles - which seems unlikely – rather than having to take what was offered.

Secondly, even if he did, indeed, choose the roles he took on between 1967 and 1979, from among many, it cannot be said that all or even most of them illustrated the "darker side" of those times. An argument could be made for his roles in “Herostratus”, “Up the Junction”, “More”, “The Storyteller”, “The Excavation”, “La Vallée”, “Nine Bean Rows”, “Games People Play”, “Run for Your Money”, and “Stopover”, but even some of those are debatable, and not all of them are extant.

As for the rest: “The Machine Stops” is set in the future; “The Further Adventures of the Musketeers”, “Michael Kohlhaas”, “The Last Valley”, “The Devils”, “Arthur of the Britons”, “The Three and Four Musketeers”, and “Warrior Queen” are all set in the past. “Les Fleurs du Mal” is an escapist spy/crime drama, “Scream and Scream Again”, a horror/science fiction, “When the Spirit Moves You”, a supernatural comedy, “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?” a thriller, and “Warlords of Atlantis” a fantasy adventure. It is hard to see how his role in any of these could illustrate the darker side of the 1960s and 70s.

The notes go on to describe Michael as having a “deep, hard voice.” In his work that post-dates “Up the Junction”, his voice was deep, but “hard” is not how most people would describe it. David Wickes, who directed him in “Jack the Ripper” and “Frankenstein”, spoke of “his soft, husky voice” which “was electrifying … he knew how to use it to maximum effect.”

The notes go further into the realms of fantasy when they state that Gothard was “usually cast in historical actioners, European arthouse or mind-bending genre movies, more often than not torn apart or committing the ‘elemental crime’ of suicide.”

It’s true that he was often cast in historical pieces: a total of twelve productions. Under the heading “European Arthouse” there seem to be only three films, “Herostratus”, “La Valleé”, and a non-speaking appearance in “More.” Mind-bending genre movies? Again, perhaps “Herostratus” is one of those, along with “Scream and Scream Again”, and “Lifeforce.”

However, this only constitutes seventeen productions: less than half of Michael Gothard’s forty-two roles. This doesn’t fulfill the description, “usually cast.”

But it is the final assertion in the sentence – that his characters are “more often than not torn apart or committing the ‘elemental crime’ of suicide’” – which is the most damaging, and the most lacking in substance. It is complete fabrication.

Even if one assumes that by “torn apart”, the writer means “conflicted”, rather than literally “torn apart” (which never happens), this statement has no basis in fact. Most of Michael’s characters show no sign of being conflicted, and certainly not to the extent of being “torn apart.” Many of them – Kuno, Mordaunt, John, Weber, Hansen, Father Barré, Albie, Volthan, Gaspard, Locque, Terry Marvin, Karl Portillo, Strett, Stefan, Xaros – are unusually single-minded.

Of his 42 known film and TV roles, only six of them, Max (“Herostratus”), Ivan (“Games People Play”), Olivier (“La Valleé”), Kai (“Arthur of the Britons”), Felton (The “Musketeers” films) Athelstane (“Ivanhoe”) and Sergei (“From Fulham With Love”) suffer significant internal conflict. Only in Max and Olivier is it a basic character trait, rather than something arising from circumstances, and Olivier’s conflict is not a bad thing, but the result of intellectual curiosity, and a refreshing capacity to step back from his sociological context.

As for the ‘elemental crime’ of suicide’: in “Herostratus”, Michael’s character, Max, intends to commit suicide, but changes his mind, then accidentally kills someone else. In “Scream and Scream Again”, as the artificially-created vampire, Keith, he jumps into a bath of acid to avoid capture, presumably because he has been programmed to do so, rather than from an actual desire to kill himself.

There is no other instance in his entire known canon of film and TV work, of a character Michael Gothard played, committing suicide.

Even if, being charitable, we count all six of the conflicted characters, and add in Keith the vampire as a suicide, this makes a total of seven roles out of forty-two: one sixth does not constitute “more often than not.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the writer made these claims in a misguided attempt to make things seem neat and tidy - by telling the rather tired story of an actor and his roles becoming one and the same thing - rather than making the effort to find out the truth.

Another less important inaccuracy, is the claim that Michael Gothard appeared in “Vampyre.” He did not. It was intended that he should appear, but the project fell through, and was eventually resurrected without him.

Towards the end of the article, the writer describes Michael Gothard “momentarily acting opposite Marlon Brando” as if that were his finest hour, when it was more like Brando’s worst. In fact, Gothard was brought in as a possible replacement for Brando, whom John Glen thought unreliable, and in the end, Brando got terrible notices for the film.

Finally, the article says of Michael Gothard: “Overpowered by depression, he hanged himself at home in Hampstead, aged 53 and alone.”

We know that Michael Gothard had suffered from depression for most of his life, on and off, but his suicide was unexpected. Some friends suspect that prescription medication may have precipitated his suicide, but the truth of what was going on in his mind will probably never be known, so to claim, as fact, that he was “overpowered by depression” is pure speculation.

Naturally he was “alone” at the time when he killed himself – few people take their own lives in company. But the tacit implication of “aged 53 and alone” is that he was “alone” in his life, and this is completely wrong.

A lifelong musician, he often met up with fellow musicians for jamming sessions. He dated many beautiful women, and was an avid letter-writer, keeping in touch with old friends and girlfriends. While he seems – as far as the creators of this archive have been able to discover – to have had no contact with his father, and little with his mother, he did have close friends whom he regarded as family.

The writer of the notes in the BFI booklet could not have known all this at the time they wrote the article, so - presumably because Michael Gothard’s social life was not plastered all over the tabloids every day - they have made the mistake of interpreting his whole life in the light of his final act, and suggesting that he was living a solitary and miserable existence. This is both misleading, and insulting to him and to his friends. It would have been better to be honest, and simply say, “Little is known of his private life”, but that wouldn’t have fitted in with story the writer wanted to tell.

~~

1 "For My Eyes Only: My Life with James Bond”, by John Glen. (2001)
2 Interview with Louis M. Heyward by Gary A. Smith, in “Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976.” (2006)

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