Malcolm McDowell talks Critch, Caligula and craft
Interview | Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Son of a Critch
Tuesdays at 8.30 PM and on-demand
One of the (many) things the “Defund the CBC” mob misses in its idiotic crusade is that, if it’s successful, it would deprive us of the luxury of having Malcolm McDowell reciting Pickering poems in a Canadian sitcom.
This is the legendary actor’s third season on Son of a Critch. His part as warm grandfather Pop Critch stands in contrast with McDowell’s most heralded roles — the psychopathic droog Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange), deranged emperor Caligula, and proto school-shooter Mick Travis (If…) — and yet you can recognize that glint in his eye hinting he’s a moment’s notice from burning down the family home in Newfoundland and starting a new life in P.E.I.
McDowell spends 10 to 12 weeks a year shooting Critch in St. John’s. He’s happy not being the first in and the last out on set, going home at a reasonable time, going for walks around the city and eating at nice restaurants. This is far cry from the wild man one imagines watching his movies. The again, he is in his eighth decade.
While McDowell would be the first to acknowledge some of his movies have been less than stellar, it’s also true that few filmmakers know how to use his edgy screen persona to full effect. Those who do include some of the 70’s best directors: Stanley Kubrick, Lindsey Anderson and Mike Hodges.
In conversation, Malcolm McDowell is quicker to praise others than himself. There’s no film and TV cliché moldier than actors and crew describing themselves as ‘a family’, but when McDowell says it, you believe him: “When you’re working on a project, [the cast and crew] become your family for a moment in time, and just as quickly they’re gone and you’re onto the next one. As a young actor, I mourned the passing of ‘the family’. I took it too personally. Why aren’t they calling me? It takes some time to get used to, but it’s a very privileged life.”
I spoke with McDowell in December.
What keeps you coming back to Son of a Critch?
It’s a beautiful show. It has a good heart without being sentimental. The writers are fairly perceptive. They know me and write me some nice scenes. I can have a reasonably nice life without being a slave to learning lines. At my age, it gets harder.
There is a warmth to Pop Critch I haven’t seen in your most famous roles. Is it easier for you to conjure it?
I don’t go with whether it’s easy or not. I go with whether I’m enjoying it or not. Last year I played a rapist, a serial killer, and Pop — a tremendous variety of parts, and I love that.
Do you have to find a way to empathize with a character to play it?
You have to use as much of yourself as you can. That’s your shortcut. It grounds the character. But I don’t have to connect with it. I did a western last spring; I’m playing a schoolmaster travelling with a young thug. He’s like a fussy old woman. I’m not really like that.
Tales From The Greenery
Unlike most actors, you don’t have to pry for McDowell to open up about his most notable roles. Thank goodness, because his early work could be justifiably characterized as dangerous — the kind of movies modern Hollywood shies away from to avoid alienating audiences.
Is there a character you would revisit? Mick Travis from the movies you made with Lindsay Anderson (If…, O Lucky Man!, Britannia Hospital) comes to mind.
I would never do that without Lindsay. He’ll always be my favorite director because he cast me in my first movie. It’s been 30 years since he’s been gone and it’s still painful when I think of him. He was a wonderful man and a genius.
I recently saw If… [about brutalized students extracting violent revenge on those responsible] and it’s remarkable how prescient it remains.
It’s timeless and that’s the mark of a classic. It may be more relevant today than when made, given what’s going on in the U.S. with the Trumpers. I’m very proud of it and in a way it’s a shame it was my first. Lindsay told me: “Well Malcolm, you’ll never make another movie as good as this one.”
You often work with directors just getting started. Considering you have over 200 credits and worked with some of the best, how do you deal with ‘green’ filmmakers?
I enjoy working with young directors. It’s very interesting to see them develop. I try not to show them that I’ve been there, done that, but quietly encourage them to take the chances they want to take. If there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I just say, “I’m not comfortable doing that but let me show you what I would do,” and usually that’s the end of it.
Caligula’s long legs
McDowell’s most infamous movie, Caligula, has a well-documented history of producer interference. Unhappy with the cut delivered by director Tinto Brass, Caligula’s financial backer and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione shot additional footage more in line with his brand. The result was a mishmash of Shakespearean tragedy and the most expensive porn ever filmed. It bombed at the box office.
Malcolm, are there any movies of yours you wish more people had seen? Personally, I’ve a soft spot for Gangster No. 1 and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
Both fantastic films, especially Gangster. I love I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, directed by Mike Hodges, a dear friend who passed late in 2022. We’re all getting older, lots of friends are fading away… There are a couple of movies I made in Russia that I love: Assassin of the Tsar (1991) and Evilenko (2003), about a serial killer who’s triggered by the fall of communism and the loss of identity. But here’s another one that will be a shock to you…
It’s Caligula. I’ve always been devastated by what happened to that film. Thomas Negovan has taken it, incorporated unused material, and re-edited it. He didn’t use one frame shot by Guccione. It’s an amazing movie now. It still is about a decadent time in the Roman Empire, but all very realistic. In Guccione’s cut, Helen Mirren had 17 minutes of screen time. In the new one, an hour. The whole of the last hour of the movie has never been seen before.
I’ve seen other Tinto Brass movies and he’s not miles away from what Guccione did in his heyday.
Sadly, Tinto apparently has dementia, so he’ll never appreciate the new cut. When I saw it, I thought, “Tinto would be so happy.” This is the film I remember making with him. I was there every step of the way, every day. Helen loved it — she described it as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.”
You’re credited as “additional dialogue by Malcolm McDowell”.
Gore Vidal’s screenplay was awful. I did whatever I had to do to survive. I wrote a few scenes, actually. There was nobody left and I was the only one who spoke English well.
Have you continued writing?
No. I’d do it as a last resort. I find writing extremely painful. It’s like pulling teeth. I didn’t want to direct either and be stuck with the same movie for two years. I always thought I would be a good one, but it’s a moot point since I didn’t do it.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
People think I’m tough because of the parts I’ve played, “the villain” or “the heavy”. I keep it going because it keeps people who aren’t friends away. It’s helpful, but I’m not that way at all.
Is there any Kubrick story you still haven’t told? What is it?
If I had a day to think about it, I would come up with something. I’ve been at it for so long, over 60 years, which is frightening when you think about it. There are many stories I haven’t told… I guess I’ll have to do the book.