Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in Beautifully-wrought Performances in Unfinished Song
By: Ellis Nassour
They’re a couple of actors who in their prime were among the most celebrated and beautiful film and stage stars. Evidently, they had what it takes to not only make it, but also robustly keep going. Not that there weren’t obstacles thrown in their paths. Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave are powerful presences on screen in Unfinished Song (Weinstein Company), which has been busy on the festival circuit, including last year’s London and Toronto. The film opens locally on Friday.
Stamp in the 60s, with his piercing eyes, striking face, and run-your-fingers-through hair, was considered one of the most desirable men in the world. It led to affairs with many women, but also to a huge ego problem. He shot to fame in his second film, Sir Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1962), which earned him an Oscar nomination and international attention.
Ms. Redgrave, from the celebrated stage family, was most acclaimed on stage and screen and as a controversial activist. She has been Oscar-nominated six times, winning for her featured role in Julia (1977).
She has made over 80 films; he, over 60.
Ms. Redgrave was nominated for a 2913 Drama Desk Award playing Off Broadway, opposite actor/playwright Jesse Eisenberg, in the Rattlestick Playwright’s production of The Revisionist. Her last outing on Broadway in the 2010 revival of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, opposite James Earl Jones, won her a Tony nomination. She was Tony-nominated in 2007 for her solo performance in The Year of Magical Thinking; and won a Tony and Drama Desk for the 2003 revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams’ Unfinished Song traces the lives of an ordinary, working class bloke and his wife, who’s in an advance stage of cancer. Marion (Ms. Redgrave) has cancer and finds joy in a local choral group. Cantankerous, but doting husband Arthur (Stamp) seemingly doesn’t share her passion for song. Since we later find out he’s been hiding a secret, it appears he’s jealous of her time away from him. After her death, his heart broken, he becomes a bitter man and more estranged from his son. With steady perseverance from choir director Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), he faces his loneliness and rethinks his outlook on life.
The ever socially conscious Ms. Redgrave, who’s 75, points out there aren’t many movies about older people. An exception is the excellent Quartet [now on DVD], starring Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly and directed by Dustin Hoffman, also 75.
"Old Age Pensioners don’t get much of a look-see in our society," she notes, "and I’m not just talking about the film world. In life, they get abused and their funds get taken away. I love the fact that Marion has become a member of a choir and what a life-giving role it plays. There’re many layers to the story. I was impressed with how socially relevant and well-written it is."
She says she finds singing very life-giving. "The point of Marion’s ‘True Colors’ solo is that she’s giving her life to Arthur, which is such a lovely thing. Nevertheless, I confess, I was nervous."
No need to have been. She does a quite moving rendition of the Cyndi Lauper tune. You didn’t know she sang? She really doesn’t, but she’s been known to almost carry a tune (film adaptations of Camelot and Three Penny Opera). "Father [Sir Michael Redgrave] gave me loads of singing lessons. When I sang in a benefit with Natasha for Roundabout Theatre, we did quite well on a song from A Little Night Music, thanks to her coach, who found my voice again."
When Stamp first met Williams, he recalls, "I wasn’t as enthusiastic as Andrew hoped. It was vital to connect with Arthur, but I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. He said, ‘You’re worried about your looks, aren’t you?’ I replied I was. He put me at ease by telling me he wrote the film about his grandfather, who was quite good looking in his later years. That gave me confidence. I began to think it was about my working class parents."
He confides it was strange channeling his father. "What made it stranger still is that I never really knew what dad thought of me. I think he was proud, but he said so." Stamp had another reservation about playing working class. "You know all actors are insecure, but I never I play ordinary very well. I feel I’m never convincing. Maybe, there’s this deep-seated fear that I am ordinary. I originally turned down The Collector.
The intense 1965 psychological thriller was based on John Fowles’ best-seller about an outcast who purchases a remote country house and stalks and kidnaps an art student [portrayed by Samantha Eggar] he’s had a crush on.
"It was being directed by one of my all-time favorite directors," he notes, "the great William Wyler, but I didn’t want to play this icy psychopath, invisible bank clerk and entomologist with a snotty nose." Of course, after discussions with Wyler, he changed his mind after Wyler told him to forget the book, that they were going to make it a love story. Stamp called it a "dream shoot, a milestone in my career."
Back to Unfinished Song and the singing. Throughout Stamp’s career looks and his unique voice were part and parcel of his stardom. He says he could handle the aging, because he always kept himself in shape. In fact, he looks at least 10 years younger than 75 [which he turns in July]. But criticism about his voice from Sir Laurence Oliver had haunted him.
"In my first film [Term of Trial (1962)]," Stamp recalls, "Larry told me ‘You’ve got a terrible voice. [He does a spot-on imitation of Olivier’s high-pitched tone] I know you’ve just left drama school, but remember something about your voice. As your looks go, your voice will become empowered.’"
In the sixties, when stage and film director Josh Logan [South Pacific], literally begged Stamp to play King Arthur opposite Ms. Redgrave as Guenevere in the film musical of Camelot, "I turned it down because of fear – one of the few things in my career I regret. When the movie came out, co-starring Richard Harris, I thought, ‘I could have sung it as well!’ So, when Vanessa was cast in Unfinished Song, I knew I had to do this film. The universe had given me a second chance to conquer my fear of singing and to work with her again."
As rehearsals began, Stamp thought the film would be quite an ordeal for Ms. Redgrave, who had lost her sister, daughter (Natasha), and brother (Corin) within a year, but, he says, "I realized that she was completely shattered. My first thought was to be for her."
You might think with their paths crossing in so many ways, and since they had starred in a mid-70s Ibsen revival on London’s West End, that they were friends. "We really hadn’t known each other," admits Stamp. "We were friends from afar. Vanessa was a vocal political activist. I wasn’t into the political."
He notes that like the axiom of the show must go on, "When the camera rolled, she was a trouper. We never discussed it in depth. She put all that emotion into the character.”
In Unfinished Song‘s third act, Stamp acquits himself quite well on Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard’s "How Do You Speak to an Angel" and a memorable, six-hankie reintroduction of Billy Joel’s "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)," which won’t leave
a dry eye in the house.
Writer/director Williams is also an actor, who starred in the recent Golden Globe-nominated TV series Wallander, alongside Kenneth Branagh. If you don’t blink, you’ll catch him pulling a Hitchcock at Arthur and Marion’s door as a delivery person.
Arterton, in the pivotal role of the volunteer choir director, at 26, has already had a stand-out film career (Clash of the Titans, Tamara Drewe, Neil Jordan’s upcoming Byzantium, and the thriller Runner, Runner opposite Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake). Noted Brit film/TV/stage actor Christopher Eccleston plays Arthur and Marion’s son. One of the 24-strong members of the elder choir may look very familiar: Anne Reid, considered a Brit TV national treasure for roles on such cherished series as Coronation Street.
In the 60s, Stamp was in international demand by top directors. After being labelled as quite the womanizer, he settled down with supermodel Jean Shrimpton. They became one of the most photographed couples of the day. As they jetsetted the world, he began turning down roles he felt weren’t right for his persona. That led to a decrease in starring roles and "I wasn’t quite ready to play character parts. I became a creature of my ego." That partly led to the traumatic breakup with Shrimpton. He packed his bags and fled for 10 years – a lot of those spent in India seeking a spiritual reawakening.
Then, one morning the phone rang and director Richard Donner wanted to fly him to London to read for the role of General Zod in his reboot of the Superman franchise. He was back on the map. "Richard’s two Superman films set the benchmark. Every kind of comic book movie of the superhero genre borrowed from them."
Regarding Zach Synder’s current reboot Man of Steel, Stamp says, "I doubt if it’s as funny and sophisticated as Richard’s. However, I don’t think today’s youth are interested in that. If Richard’s Superman came round today, it probably wouldn’t be as charming as it was then. It was quite a different time."
>>> Tune in Monday for Ellis Nassour’s intimate profile on Terence Stamp’s life and career. <<<