George Shoots a Legend!
Another interesting person I got to point a camera at.
John Gielgud, April 14, 1904 – May 21, 2000
It was a beautiful day in London, sometime in the middle 1990s. White puffy clouds dot the sliver of sky I can see between the buildings from my window. I stumble down the three narrow flights of steps from the flat and onto the street. It's early, and Soho is quiet. I stagger into the Bar Italia. Caffeine! Two double espressos and, a large Americano, three sesame cookies. I'm ready to go. Late as usual, but I'm only a couple of blocks from my location—the Groucho Club.
The Groucho Club is a relatively private club for people in entertainment and the press. It takes its name from Groucho Marx, who wouldn't join a club that would have him as a member. Its membership is quite varied, encompassing journalists, actors and directors, rock stars, and the like.
Not to name drop (which means I will now name drop), I was at a get-together hosted by director and Monty Python member Terry Jones the night before. It was a relatively star-encrusted dinner and drinks. I'm not much of a drinker, but my glass was never empty, and I was probably still working the booze through my system. Free eats and drink are a sure way into my system, and the good company made it a pleasure.
Now I was back. A little shaky but raring to go. My job was to shoot a sequence and narration for a film about the evils of goose liver pâté. Victims of Indulgence, directed by Karen Bellone and Lisa Rinzler and produced by PETA. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Just how I got here is another story, but here I was. But where was the crew?
Thankfully they were all later than me. Now I could be pissy with them. Once we checked in at the desk we were instructed to walk up the four flights to the third floor. (This is England; they don't start counting until the second floor. I don't know why.)
We lug up the equipment. The camera. The lights. The sound equipment. The sound guy. I set up the lights, the boom mic, and the cutters on the c-stands. I'm going for drama. It's still early, and I'm thinking about lunch. We are all ready for when our star arrives. My stomach is grumbling from all that coffee. The executive from PETA comes with Karen Bellone, and we're waiting. I turned off the lights. In the old days, movie lights had only a certain amount of time on the bulb before it would blow out. Replacement bulbs were pricey and couldn't get purchased at the hardware store. Whenever we could, we saved the lights. There is the usual polite conversation on set, but there is a worry that three flights of steps (actually four) might be difficult for a man in his nineties.
Before I tell you about John Gielgud, one of the shining lights of the theater, let's talk about my stomach. It's grumbling. I need food. I can get a little bit cranky without some wood on the fire. I'm a professional, and I can suck it up a bit. I'm fully caffeinated and roaring to work. But I'm not going to lie; I was thinking about breakfast. I looked around at my camera assistant/loader, my sound guy, and the PA; their faces reflected the same thing: HUNGER. Usually, when you do a shoot, there are snacks provided. I would have done this. However, PETA and most of their associates enjoy the Vegan lifestyle. I think of myself as a conscientious carnivore who eats locally and stays away from mass-produced animal proteins.
The sound guy definitely eats haggis and blood sausage. My camera assistant bacon butties, that's a bacon sandwich with crusty white bread, butter, and HP Sauce (pronounced Haitch PEE). The production assistant, I had no clue, but she was young, so I'm going with yogurt and fruit. A plethora of animal products. Honey could have been a no-no. I didn't know, and I didn't want to look like a moron and offend. Our four stomachs began to sing in four-part barbershop harmony. The woman from Peta looked up and said, "I forgot, I brought breakfast."
Oh, she brought it, and it was gone like a Bond villain in a swimming pool of piranhas. The crew was downright chatty after our meal of muffins and fruit. Full disclosure, the muffins were filling, but I would be lying if I said they didn't taste a bit like dirt. I've already discussed my attachment to free victuals. This isn't a complaint. They were just a little "healthy" for my taste. But, free. Just as we were all getting comfortable. He was there!
'Oh, Sir John!" Said the Peta person, "You're here?"
"Well, who were you expecting? Sir Edmund Hillary?"
Now a little background about Sir John Gielgud. In his early days, he was one of the big three of British theater, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson. Before World War II, these gents were the cat's pajamas of classical theater. Gielgud was most famous for his Hamlet. In what was a rarity when he played the melancholy Dane on Broadway, it was in direct competition with a rival production starring movie star Leslie Howard. Gielgud won the battle of the Bards and returned to England just in time for the war. He returned to Broadway as a director with Richard Burton as Hamlet, and it is still the most successful Hamlet ever performed in the United States.
He is an actor to check out. He is also the rarest of persons to claim the title EGOT as he won the Emmy, The Grammy, The Oscar, and the Tony. And a couple of them more than once. I won't even go into his Knighthood and all the other stuff from the Queen, His Legion of Honor - from France, and an array of honorary college doctorates. On film, you can see his first Oscar winner, as King Louis the VII in Becket, or second Oscar winner, as Hobson in the original and incredibly better version of Arthur. I like him very much in Hitchcock's the Secret Agent. For the Tony Awards, he got three, two for directing, and from the Grammy's, he won once out of ten nominations. The Emmy committee nominated him four times, and he took the statue home once. When he passed, that must have been some garage sale!
I wish I could have seen some things in my life, and Gielgud's Hamlet is one of them. Now I'm not an expert, but for whatever reason, I have seen a lot of productions of Hamlet. The first time was with school. I was in seventh or eighth grade. It was a fantastic cast of who I only remember retroactively, Inigo Montoya. He was in it. The American Werewolf in London, he was in it. Avatar's Colonel Miles Quaritch is in it. Kevin's dad from home alone? In it! And Sam Waterston, from Law and Order, played he who is melancholy. That was the first time! Since then, I have seen Laurence Olivier (on film), Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson (on film), Jude Law, and the best of the bunch was Ruth Negga! That's right, and the little lady wins the kewpie doll for the best performance of Hamlet in my lifetime. She was not that melancholy. That's a whole lotta, Hamlet. If history has an opinion and Gielgud is the best, I want to make an informed decision for myself.
Back to the story, so we're all in place. Stomachs full. Lights up! Sound Rolling! Film Rolling. What followed was as commonplace as it could be. I framed the shot straight on. (Much like the still.) Sir John recites his scenes to the camera. He spoke with gravity. I guess goose liver pâté deserves it, but it was maybe a bit too serious for an appetizer. Gielgud read his off-camera lines from the script professionally with a pause for water. No fuss. Peta was happy that the script was brought to life by a voice that was described as "a silver trumpet muffled in silk." The most remarkable thing about the shoot was that I was filming arguably one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. After we wrapped the film camera and the sound, it was time to take stills. I'm a very chatty guy behind the camera. And since no one was supervising, we were free to discuss various topics.
When we got around to mass production of pâté, which is horrible and disgusting, you shouldn't eat it and probably wouldn't want to. We had an undercover "Farm Hand" working at a pâté farm, and I still have nightmares from what he filmed. (Pâté is made by force-feeding a goose, this causes its liver to become enlarged two or three times its normal size. Thanks to American ingenuity, we can now mechanically fetch a thirty-pound liver out of a twenty-pound goose.) He was shocked to learn this. I was surprised he didn't know this. "Well, dear boy, I never cared for the stuff. It's no sweat off my nose!"
And with a surprisingly strong hand clasp, he was gone, concluding another unexpected brush with greatness.
This photo is one of three from this shoot that survived the massive flood that destroyed my home and countless photographs I have taken—most from the 1970s and 1980s.