ustinov: crises of contradictions

He found the theater frustrating and avoided seeing other actors, saying once, “because I find their shop talk boring and I can’t get excited over backstage gossip.” No actor was less temperamental, less preoccupied with his own role. habitually late for everything, Ustinov usually arrived at the theater barely in time to dress and make up for his part, and he would spend the intermissions listening to the radio, reading, or writing. He insisted that he never wrote himself into any part, ( “acting in one’s own play is an invitation to schizophrenia”), although many who saw him as the Wicked Fairy in The Love of Four Colonels and the General in Romanoff and Juliet- two enormously juicy, ideally suited parts- were said to be inclined to be skeptical of Ustinov’s claim.

— “You in your goodness are as inhuman as Claggart was in his evil.”
So says the master of the ship in “Billy Budd,” the 1962 adaptation of the Herman Melville novel directed, produced, co-written and starring Peter Ustinov as the conflicted captain who utters that line. This gripping and overlooked drama presents two men as paragons of innocence and depravity, and uses them as a lens to peer at the reactions they inspire in the muddled masses of the rest of the crew. It’s a morality tale writ in stark shades of gray.

It’s a full-blooded performance that’s built on vacancy. In the commentary track accompanying the DVD, Stamp confesses that he was barely able to speak a word to Ustinov at their initial meeting, so impressed was he by the older man’s “powerful aura.” It turns out this was the exact quality Ustinov had been seeking, interviewing dozens of young British actors to find someone capable of profound passivity.
He wanted Billy to be a reactive figure who absorbed the worst in other men and returned it with a smile. Indeed, after condemning Billy to death by hanging, Captain Vere (Ustinov) literally begs Billy to despise him for choosing duty over morality. Billy, who gives his age as “17, or 19 … or 18,” responds with his usual quizzical puzzlement. “I did my duty, and you’re just doing yours,” he says. Vere is more tortured by Billy’s absolution than any hatred he hoped to inspire.—Read More:

While giving the impression on television that he is having the time of his life, Ustinov in general, found TV a strain. “In some ways,” he once said, “it’s a more difficult medium than either the films or the theater. You have to be as relaxed as you are in movies, yet sustain your relaxation as you do in the theater.” On the whole, he found that acting in movies was the most satisfying medium of all: “You get it over with, you have days off, and you have a different problem to deal with all the time.” ( to be continued)…

—Caption: Peter Ustinov in Topkapi —Read More:–13614577


(see link at end)…Way back before then, in the 50s, he always seemed to play hammy old buffers in the movies. Even when he was a child prodigy, there was something eerily mature about him.

And immature. After all, this was the man who could while away the hours doing impersonations of a grand prix race. Ustinov has always embraced his contradictions – the ultimate anti-establishment establishment chappie; the leftie, with communist sympathies, who couldn’t wait for his knighthood; the laugh-a-minute comic desperate to be taken seriously.

…National characteristics have been at the root of much of his humour. He cannot complete a story without throwing in a handful of impersonations and prepackaged Ustinovian aphorisms. “I say occasionally that there is a difference between British militarism and German militarism – the great difference is that German militarism always leads to war, and British militarism always leads to parades. And the British get very annoyed with the Germans on occasion because war breaks out during a parade.” … Read More:

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