By John H. Foote
It was fortunate that I was in my teens for most of the seventies and able to see the forceful power George C. Scott brought to his roles. He was an astonishing actor, one I had the chance to interview while he was shooting a film in Toronto, just he and I talking film in his trailer. He was in an effusive mood discussing his great performances, including his Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and a pure delight to meet. There was no trace of the hard-drinking man who ate journalists for breakfast, just for fun.
This was an actor.
Scott would grow into an enormously gifted acted actor, blessed with a deep coarse voice, and an ability to make his rage near volcanic. His hard drinking off screen was near legendary, and sets were often interrupted by Scott’s drunkenness, or a fist fight breaking out with a director or co-star.
A ferocious reader as a child and teen, Scott had his heart set on being a great writer, but in college he fell in love with acting. Working on college productions as an actor, he attracted the attentions of New York, specifically Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival where his portrayal of Richard III was hailed as the “angriest Richard III of all time”. After some roles on television, Hollywood came calling and he made his feature film debut in The Hanging Tree (1958) with Gary Cooper and Maria Schell.
One year later he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his riveting work as a lawyer in the masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959) directed by the great Otto Preminger. He went back to the stage for The Andersonville Trial to great acclaim but was soon back in Hollywood as the satanic Bert in The Hustler (1961), one of the most repellant characters ever put on screen. The black and white film about hustling pool was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece and once again Scott was an Oscar nominee, again for Best Supporting Actor, but this time he refused to acknowledge the nomination as he did not believe actors should compete against each other.
Though Scott loved the theatre, he found less and less time with the film roles that he was accepting, finally finding stardom with the help of his appearance on the hit TV show East Side/ West Side as a New York social worker. That and his extraordinary performance in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), in which he was darkly hilarious, would catapult him into star status. He now had earned his pick of roles.
He worked with John Huston as Abraham on The Bible…In the Beginning (1966) as famous for its failure as it is for the back stories of Scott hassling Ava Gardner with drunken fights and professions of love. The film made money but was killed by critics, all of whom did mention the superb musical score, sadly lost to time. Scott was very good in the role of Abraham, tortured as he builds an altar on which to sacrifice his son to prove his love for God. After some work on stage he returned to film for The Flim Flam Man (1967) and the film Petulia (1968), both attracting attention, each making money.
Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and even Richard Burton had been considered for the plum role of General George S. Patton, one of the greatest military heroes of the Second World War. For many years the production, Patton, was in flux as they searched for the right actor to portray the rebellious, anti-authority General, but the search brought nothing. Francis Ford Coppola was brought in to punch up the screenplay, and one of the producers took note of George C. Scott. William Wyler stepped aside as director, the job falling to Franklin J. Schaffner, a most capable studio filmmaker who cast Scott, too young to play the part, which was fixed easily with makeup.
The result is one of the greatest American performances ever given by an actor. Any trace of George C. Scott is gone, we are watching Patton, from that magnificent opening scene until the end of the film, it is only Patton we see. Scott captured every aspect of the character, the habitual vulgar language, his disdain for cowardice of any kind, known for slapping a soldier for being shell shocked, refusing to follow orders if he thought his way was better (and it often was) and his fervent belief he had been reincarnated, that he had once been a Roman centurion fighting on the very sands where they stood. From that iconic opening in front of the massive American flag Patton makes clear who he is and what he expects, telling the thousands who have gather to hear the General.
“Now I want to tell to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country … Americans traditionally, love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle …”
It is an extraordinary moment in a masterpiece of a film, and watching the performance for the first time you lock in your mind that you are seeing one of the greatest performances in film history, it is searing itself into your brain as it is happening. We watch Patton wage war, his way, even when disciplined by General Eisenhower for insubordination, he rises to each occasion, making clear how he loves war. His performance dominates every frame of the film, and it was clear long before it happened that Scott would win the Academy Award. Once again he made clear he would not accept, though he did accept the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle, deeming it the only award worth accepting. He did win the Oscar, he did refuse to accept, but the Academy made clear they were honoring the performance not Mr. Scott. Patton was a huge winner at the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay among the major categories.
The film solidified his stardom and made Scott one of the most sought-after actors in modern film. He had four films released in 1971, including the black comedy The Hospital (1971) which earned him yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, which he again refused to acknowledge but the nomination stood just the same. The New Centurions (1972), Rage (1972), Day of the Dolphin (1973), Oklahoma Crude (1973), the highly controversial self-directed The Savage is Loose (1974), the big budget epic The Hindenburg (1975) were released before giving a performance for the ages as a Hemingway-like writer in the Hemingway adaptation of Islands in the Stream (1977). A beautiful performance, Scott is quietly magnificent as a loving father struggling with the loss of his eldest son in the war, trying his best to keep his other boys safe. In addition, that year he was nominated for an Emmy as Best Actor for his sensitive performance as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1977). Under make up that made him look part man, part pig, he found the humanity of the character in his eyes.
As his stock fell as an actor, he found it more and more difficult to get good roles, but was excellent in the tough film Hardcore (1979) as a devastated father realizing his daughter has fallen into the porn industry, and partnered with Marlon Brando in The Formula (1980) which should have been an actors dream but instead was a failure. Scott gave a fine performance in the genuinely scary horror film The Changeling (1980), a Canadian film he did because he liked the story, and he portrayed a heroic General in the popular film Taps (1981) which introduced audiences to Sean Penn and Tom Cruise.
Scott did a lot of television movies in the last years of his life, the best of them as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1982) and a terrific Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984) and another Emmy nomination. He portrayed Mussolini in Mussolini – The Untold Story, as well as Patton again in his last days.
Feature film work at this time in his life was sporadic but he was very good in The Exorcist III as Lt. Kinderman, an underrated film that was far better than initially reviewed.
He would win a Best Supporting Actor award from the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe) for his work in Twelve Angry Men as Juror No. 3, as well as appearing in the TV film Titanic (1996), eventually dwarfed by the James Cameron feature, and he gave a solid performance in Rocky Marciano (1999). His last performance in Inherit the Wind (1999) earned him a Best Actor nomination from the Screen Actors Guild before his death in 1999 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
His return to Broadway in the seventies as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman remains his greatest stage triumph. Scott directed the production as well, guiding himself to a Tony nomination, which he valued, greatly. He maintained his performance as Loman was his finest on a stage.
Scott had a unique screen presence, there was always rage percolating just under the surface and it could be fired up with a single motion or line. There was never anything but truth in his work, and all that mattered to him was the truth, which makes him one of America’s greatest actors.
Immortal forever because of film, rediscover him. Please.
Following are his five greatest film performances.
- PATTON (1970)
- ISLANDS IN THE STREAM (1977)
- THE HUSTLER (1961)
- DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
- A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984)
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.