Monday, August 08, 2011
I'm reading The Privilege of His Company by William Marchant at the moment - it was lent to me by a friend. It's a book about Noel Coward and gives quite a different picture of him than I'd ever come across before: he's seen as a gracious and generous man, one who is happy to mentor a young writer and help him to success. Of course the wit and urbanity is there (although Coward frequently lectures Marchant against urbanity in the book), and the theatrical stories...and, most importantly, the understanding of stagecraft which to me is the most interesting part of the book.
I think what is perhaps now forgotten to a great extent is the admiration other actors had for Coward, and this permeates the book. They loved him because of his generous nature and personality; there were few airs about Coward, and no arrogance.
It brings to mind a scene in one of his films - one of several made late in his life, none of which were particularly remarkable in regard to the parts he played. This film was The Italian Job which, on a recent viewing proved to be a pretty unremarkable piece of filmmaking, and worth less than its following (and sequel) warrants. Coward is one of several well-known British actors in it (Irene Handl makes a brief - and rather course - appearance, for instance) and his first main scene is in prison, where he's treated with great respect by all the inmates...and the staff (who basically allow him to do what he likes). This was his last film, made only 3 or 4 years before his death, and Coward doesn't look particularly well. He was seventy at the time.
This first (longish) scene has Coward doing nothing more than walking slowly down the stairs of the prison clapped in time by the inmates. He waves his hand in a regal gesture. It has nothing to do with the movie, but perhaps a good deal to do with the veneration he was naturally given by other actors and directors.