Friday, August 21, 2015

Book review - "Robert Shaw: The Price of Success" by John French (1993)

Robert Shaw appeared in some of the most popular films of all time but was he a film star? Kind of but not really seems to be the answer. He was really more effective as a character leading man - in his biggest hits, Jaws, The Deep, The Sting - he was never the actual capital H hero... even in The Deep that role more belonged to Nick Nolte. The did play the hero in a large number of movies but the public never went for them - Swashbuckler, and so on. And sure you can blame the quality of the films but I think part of it was Shaw himself - he had a harsh, cold presence, with made him so effective as a villain, or in Harold Pinter. He lacked warmth and charm.

But what a career and a life. His father was a doctor who had a bad drinking problem and killed himself, which haunted Shaw all his days. His African-born mother had enough money to send him to boarding school, and he later got into RADA. It wasn't easy for him to establish himself - but it wasn't super hard either. He had charisma, energy and dynamism, plus could convey a rugged masculine edge which many English actors (then and now) struggle to do so.

He did long stints with various companies - for Alec Guinness (who had something of a crush on him), at Stratford, touring Australia. He seemed to burn bridges with his ego and impatience but would always recover with a break - either say by getting the lead in a TV series, The Buccaneers, finding a home at the Royal Court, being a brilliant interpreter of Pinter and being cast in The Caretaker as it took on Broadway, scoring perhaps the best villain part in a Bond film of all time. Most of all there was his writing - he was a highly skilled novelist especially and managed to propel his career with acclaimed writings, notably The Hiding Place (filmed as Situation Hopeless Not Serious) and The Man in the Glass Booth.

His most effective performances for many years were on stage and/or supporting roles. Phil Yordan tried to turn him into a film star with roles in The Battle of the Bulge and Custer of the West but he never really crossed over into big league stardom, which bugged him. He had a terrible problem with alcohol and was forever spending money (he had ten children in all to three different women... although, interestingly he wasn't a womaniser according to this book... too busy drinking and writing.) This forced him to make an awful lot of crap, although he had enough of the soul of an artist to continually go back to the low budget role.

The turning point really came in the 1970s when he left England to become a tax exile, moving to Ireland; his writing slowed to a trickle, he became unexpectedly popular in movies following The Sting, his drinking grew worse, his second marriage to Mary Ure ended horribly with him smacking her and her taking a fatal overdose of pills. He earned more and more money, never broke that million dollar film fee barrier he was desperate too and finally died of a heart attack when 52. His third wife was the nanny, with whom Shaw had been having an affair while married to Ure - probably out of efficiency more than anything else.

This is a fascinating book about a talented, tormented man. French was Shaw's agent and assistant for a number of years so has excellent insight - even if it is weird reading him talk about himself in the third person. There is a lot - possibly too much - about Shaw's financial arrangements and battles with the tax man, as well as seemingly endless stories of his difficulties putting on the play Cato Street.

I guess it's a matter of what you find interesting - I was hoping for more on Black Sunday and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which I think are great movies (French seems to be dismissive of them), plus his other films. I loved the stuff on Shaw's theatre career and novels about which I knew little. The stories of his personal life, particularly the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf relationship with Ure, was harrowing and cries out for dramatisation.

There was some annoying errors - The Deep was actually a big hit, and Robin and Marian was written by James Goldman, not his brother William - which made me worry about the accuracy of the book in areas of which I knew less. But it's a great read and made me re-appreciate Shaw in a big way.

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