James Mason: Suave And Sinister
Apart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.
Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.
His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.
A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.
Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.