Saturday 19 August 2017

Fantastic Mr Fox acts like a Trollope!

The Hollywood actor Edward Fox, who brings a one-man show to Cork next week, is something of a curiosity. He is instantly recognisable, yet difficult to place. He made his name playing an anonymous and faceless character. He is famous as a film star, but many of the films he made were second-rate, and he did them to facilitate his stage career.

He disavows celebrity, and is diffident about film stardom, but is part of an acting dynasty that would make any would-be drama student seethe with jealousy.

Robin Fox, his father, was a theatrical agent, who warned his son against going into the business, thinking him too introverted. Instead, the father encouraged Edward's younger brother, James, who duly became a star when, in his early twenties, Joseph Losey cast him in The Servant, in 1963.

But by 1970, James was burnt out, exhausted by celebrity, drugs and the "bawdy side of the film business". He quit acting and found Jesus.

In the meantime, Edward had built a steady but unspectacular career in British rep theatre. Taking advantage of his brother's contacts, he persuaded Losey to watch him in a television play, and Losey then gave him his break, casting him in The Go-Between. "Luck is no more than a chain reaction," Edward has said.

The director Fred Zinnemann wascasting about for a lead actor for a film of Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal, and saw The Go-Between. Zinnemann needed somebody who could convincingly pass unnoticed in a crowd. He needed somebody, paradoxically, who could be faceless, and still carry a film.

Fox was that person. The film wasn't a commercial success, but it gave Fox credibility and a measure of fame. He wasn't interested in fame for its own sake, but realised he needed it to gain leverage as a stage actor.

"Fame is a very questionable commodity unless you use it as a spur to help you keep your own standards high," he said at the time.

"If an actor isn't placarded at some time, the public doesn't really think he can be of much consequence."

Having achieved that fame through playing an anonymous character, Fox traded on it in a series of largely generic roles, becoming something of a fixture as a hard-bitten version of the quintessential British toff.

He played army officers in A Bridge Too Far and Ghandi, and in a series of war-film sequels, Force 10 from Navarone, Wild Geese II and Return from the River Kwai, and in the Bond film Never Say Never Again, he played M. These were, he said, "holiday" jobs. His energies were focused on the stage.

"There comes a time when you have to decide exactly what it is you really want to do and then sacrifice everything else to that," he said at the height of his fame.

His family have proven rather good at getting holiday jobs: his daughter, Emilia Fox, is a successful actress, known for the BBC crime drama Silent Witness. By coincidence, her actor cousin, Laurence, son of Edward's brother, James, is also best known for a crime drama, starring in the Inspector Morse spin-off, Lewis.

Now 73, Edward is still stretching himself on stage. In Cork next week (at the Everyman Palace on Wednesday and Thursday), he will be almost unrecognisable behind an immense, bushy beard, to play the Victorian English writer Anthony Trollope, in a show compiled from Trollope's autobiography and favourite moments in his fiction. Might Trollope be a little obscure for today's audience?

"Shakespeare spoke to a really broad audience -- not just to the educated, but also to the 'groundlings'," he has said. "Trollope has the same effect. There's this prevalent idea that less well-educated people won't be able to understand writers like Trollope, but it just isn't true."

It may be literary, but it's not intended to be high-minded.

"People have a genuine need to go out and be entertained...The act of going to the theatre should be magical and glamorous," says Fox.

And, of course, the glamour of seeing a film star on stage -- much as Fox might disavow it -- can only add to that sense of occasion.

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