a life wish

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Written for David Cairns’ Late Show Blogathon at Shadowplay, where the subject is last, lost and late movies of all kinds.

YouTube has preserved for posterity the 1968-model David Frost signalling a chat-show commercial break with the words: “…the Rolling Stones, with Sympathy For The Devil. We’ll be right back with John Betjeman and Nicol Williamson.”

The front man, the poet and the actor (along with Father Harry Williams, another blast from the ecumenical past) then get into a prime-time debate about death and the nature of dying. An elegant chat-show for a more civilized age, now bizarre enough to be a broadcast from the Twilight Zone. Our loss.

“I don’t think there is anything after this except complete oblivion,” says Williamson, with the fates of both Hamlet and John Barrymore presumably in mind. “I don’t want to believe that, but I feel that to be true. What makes me panic-stricken is the thought that one won’t fulfil in life all the things that you know that you can do, and do well, and enjoy doing; the threat of sudden death that cuts you off before you have made any statement, or climbed any foothills, or made any mark or contribution.”

Psychoanalysing actors is not to be attempted without the aid of a whip and a chair, but Nicol Williamson was always capable of presenting himself on screen in far more conflicted and vulnerable states than the other legends in Equity’s padded Wild Men wing. Perhaps he was telling Frost why.

Consider his version of Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, twitchy and deranged through cocaine addiction and compelled to seek treatment from Sigmund Freud. Holmes spends the whole film stuck believing things that he doesn’t want to be true: that he’s not ruled by logic at all, and a timid little man named Moriarty won’t leave him alone.

Or perhaps Little John in Robin and Marian, facing the end of his days and assessing what his revolutionary deeds have added up to. It’s a humane performance, possibly the actor’s best; boldly contemplative and funny too, in a film that is all those things.

For that matter, ponder The Exorcist III. The actor who had once said of the afterlife that “It would be rather awful to end up in some kind of hearts and choirs arrangement; what angers is the feeling that it could,” was parachuted into William Peter Blatty’s re-shoots to deploy righteous religious weaponry on behalf of the choirmaster. Perhaps he found the fictionalized clarification of his dilemma amusing. He only made three more films, so maybe the joke was tedious.

Spawn would not have helped. The film is dour enough to make anyone consider retirement; but this was 1997, and dour was de rigueur. Separated as we now are from 1990s superhero films by the watershed moment when Bryan Singer signed a contract to make X-Men, re-acquaintance with the mood of the moment takes some effort.

Todd McFarlane’s original Image Comics superhero stories were “a suffocating miasma of violence and bad religion,” according to Grant Morrison, who may have meant it as a compliment since he wrote three issues of Spawn himself. McFarlane was savvy enough to have screen versions of the character in mind right from the off in 1992, but the Image Comics trademark bag of stylistic tics was already a substantial downer on paper. On screen, with the goth trappings of The Crow hanging over things, all that a film could do with that style was pulp it into a mash of pop-video sensibilities, primitive CGI, endless flat shallow focus, an absence of daylight, a surplus of night-time gloom, and a raft of aggressive dirty jokes. The result makes little sense, and is no fun at all.

Spawn himself is a military assassin, played by Michael Jai White, who gets double-crossed and sent to hell by a villainous Martin Sheen. Having struck a bargain with the local management, he returns as the gruesomely scarred emissary of the devil, before eventually developing a conscience and switching to the side of the angels. This conversion naturally requires a teacher; the one here is named Cogliostro, a role New Line no doubt pondered for several seconds before envisaging a Brit with stage training.

Enter the mentor. To say Williamson looks bored doesn’t convey the full ennui of the situation. In fact he seems lethargic, borne down by the inertia of a film which plods when it should at least be strolling, and the contractual obligation to say things like “The battle between heaven and hell has waged eternal” – although in that glorious voice it still sounds like poetry. Cogliostro is a sketchy character, outfitted with the authentic floppy hat of a magus but motivated by nothing but hot air. He shifts between guru and sidekick as the plot wills, before swapping the hat for a chain-mail coif and heading to hell for the final punch-up.

Whatever the actor thought of the film’s canter through a CGI afterlife, the sour nature of the thing would surely not have been lost on him. In 1992 the comic caught the mood of the times fair and square, an angry fable about a disfigured soldier returned from the covert assassination business and seething with rage. But by 1997 Hollywood was putting that mood into cans. There’s no official starting gun for US mainstream cinema’s addiction to the myth of redemptive violence, a cultural climate change with roots much deeper and further back than any deal with Image Comics, but when the cameras rolled on Spawn the myth was laying claim to being a legitimate teenage power fantasy. This notion seems less funny now than it did then, and it wasn’t much of a hoot at the time.

I choose to believe that someone as aware of his own mortality as Williamson felt the change in wind direction as keenly as anyone. He could probably have carried on mentoring fantasy archetypes in front of green screens forever, with Excalibur as a permanent calling card; but rather than go through all that palaver again, he instead opted not to step in front of the camera in the fourteen years left to him.

He retired, made music, sought no limelight, lived in The Netherlands, and fought oesophageal cancer, a struggle which in the end presumably clarified the issues he mentioned to David Frost.

“I think of death constantly, throughout the day,” he had told the perplexed-looking host, 43 years before the event itself finally arrived. “This is not a death wish. It’s a life wish.”

It was. It showed.

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