Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: 'A Life in Film: Peter Cushing'

Like the greatest star of the first golden age of sound Horror, Boris Karloff, the greatest star of the genre’s second golden age, Peter Cushing, was so appealing because the rotten characters he played were partly informed by the charming, gentle man he actually was. So as awful as, say, Dr. Frankenstein or Grand Moff Tarkin—a veritable Space Hitler—were, they remained oddly sympathetic, or at least, magnetically watchable.

In his book A Life in Film: Peter Cushing, David Miller coaxes these two poles together, simultaneously studying the rotten roles (and the non-rotten ones… let’s not forget his iconic turns as Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who, etc.) while keeping us updated on what was happening in Cushing’s life during his various jobs. If we come away with one thing from A Life in Film, it’s that Peter Cushing worked a lot. That Miller is able to give such attention to so much of the actor’s work in under 200 pages makes his book all the more impressive. Miller gives equal treatment to Cushing’s work on stage, television, and film, even summarizing and assessing his guest roles on TV shows such as “The Avengers” and “Hammer House of Horror.” Special attention goes to the actor’s most iconic films—Nineteen Eighty Four, Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles, Star Wars, etc.—but his most minor, and occasionally regrettable, roles never feel shortchanged.

Although Miller is more concerned with Cushing’s work than his biography, we still get a clear and satisfying portrait of the man behind the ghouls: his friendship with Christopher Lee (who comes off more playful here than usual) and his fatherly mentoring of the often put-upon actresses who appeared in his films, his proto-geek boy obsession with toy soldiers, his utter devotion to his wife Helen and the horrid funk he fell into after her death. Miller also slips in some interesting trivia about the projects that never came to fruition and the roles he never played; I hadn’t known that George Lucas originally had him in mind for another part in Star Wars. The main strength of A Life in Film is the way the author balances Cushing’s work and life, and I became so invested in the man that discussions of his performances I’d never seen were just as riveting as the studies of those I had. Peter’s depression over Helen, which cast a perpetual cloud over the final 22 years of his life, makes A Life in Film somewhat melancholy reading, but it only further humanizes one of the screen’s most utterly human monsters.

A Life in Film: Peter Cushing was originally published in 2000 by Reynolds & Hearn as The Peter Cushing Companion. I’m not sure what changes David Miller has made to this republishing by Titan Books, but it’s a really handsome hardcover edition loaded with rare photos, two full-color spreads, and elaborate end papers. A Life in Film is available as of today, and you can order it here on Amazon.com:

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