by David Lee Beowulf
George C. Scott (1927-1999), RIP
Of all the movie stars I “grew up with” the angriest had to be the recently dead George C. Scott. No one expressed frustration or determination like George C. Scott. No one screams “turn it off! turn it off!” like George C. Scott in Hardcore, where he sees his daughter in an 8mm stag film… that’s Scott at his angriest. It’s one of the great moments of anger in the movies, up there with Richard Harris yelling at God in Tarzan the Ape Man and Henry Silva screaming before he kills in Sharky’s Machine.
Certainly, Patton ranks among my favorite films of all time. George C. Scott gave one of the greatest performances an actor could possibly give, ranking with Sir Laurence Oliver’s Richard III, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and, ohhh, let’s say Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian.
Good acting? you ask.
Acting has nothing to do with it!
Olivier, who is, without a doubt, the century’s greatest actor (watch him in anything), was Richard III. Arnold, no matter what, is Conan. (Ralf Moeller is very good and well-cast in the TV show, but Arnold was born for that role). Flynn’s Robin Hood is the definitive Robin Hood; the man was born to swash a buckle, so to speak.
(And as far as my hero Charlton Heston is concerned, he’s the best American actor of the century -though he says that’s Spencer Tracy – but Chuck doesn’t get the superhistorical roles combined with great, all-around filmmaking, e.g., El Cid. With perhaps the exception of Touch of Evil and the excellent supporting character roles in, for instance, the Wreck of the Mary Deare, he’s always Judah ben Hur or Colonel George Taylor. Larger-than-life, yes, but he’s not a Gregory Peck as Douglas MacArthur, if you know what I mean.)
The films of George C. Scott that I’m most familiar with are Patton and The Hustler, each of which I’ve seen, easily, fifty times (it helps when you’ve worked in a video store for a couple of years); and both of which I’ve only seen on video or TV. (Patton came out when I was in first grade and, though some of my peers with older siblings got to see it – ’twas rated GP, alas, I was the oldest in the family… The Hustler came out two years before I was born.) I managed to see Crossed Swords (a good film version of the Prince and the Pauper starring Chuck Heston, too), Movie, Movie, the Hindenberg, Taps, Day of the Dolphin, and Islands in the Stream at the theater during their respective first runs. I saw Hardcore on cable, the New Centurions on regular TV, and I caught glimpses of The List of Adrian Messenger (again, on television). I’ve never seen Anatomy of a Murder, nor the Changeling. I thought the Hospital was boring so I changed the channel. I loved the Flim-Flam Man, dug the Exorcist 3, too. Bank Shot was a hoot. I didn’t see him as Scrooge on the last great TV version of A Christmas Carol, but I’ll take everyone’s word for it that Scott was Great. What also surprised me, was how young George C. Scott was. In fact, he died at the age of 71. That’s 71 in 1999. That’s a 41-year-old George C. Scott playing a 60-year-old General Patton. That’ s a 39-year-old George C. Scott playing a 75-year-old in the Flim-Flam Man. The man’s range as an actor was amazing! Beauty and the Beast? He pulled it off! Either that or he aged 60 years once he hit puberty.
As far as his other work goes, I lost touch with most of what he did through the 1980s and 1990s (his portrayal of Mussolini looked good from the ads).
And this might surprise a lot of people: I’ve only seen Dr. Strangelove once. (And it’s burned into my memory, nearly every scene. My take: Scott’s character of General Buck Turgidson is central to the mood; the best scenes take place in the rogue B 52 commanded by Slim Pickens and James Earl Jones.)
Scott could do comedy quite well as I remember. For example, in Movie, Movie he’s some sort of happily eccentric Broadway performer/producer/movie star during the 1930’s. It’s amusing and very, very light. In the white trash (it is!) comedy Bank Shot he rides a mobile home off a cliff in an effort -successful- to rob a bank. In my mind, though, the star of any comedic role Scott took was always his voice (it helped me laugh even more that Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, et al. rendered a perfect likeness through the seventies). Even in Patton (not comedy) the occasional humorous, gruff “barks” emanating from the General commanded a collective smile from the audience. In Brain Donors (I cringe when I remember I paid to see it – though not as much when compared with Cabin Boy), John Turturro’s character, an ambulance-chasing (literally) shyster, in one scene emerges from a second story balcony to shout “we don’t want any” at a doorbell-ringing comrade he thinks is a salesman. That line elevated the film from one of the stupidest movies of the last ten years to “amusing.” The way Turturro says “we don’t want any,” though recognizable as a line made for Phil Silvers, could have just as well been George C. Scott’s General Patton shouting at an ME-1 09 strafing his North African headquarters. Or it could have been General Buck Turgidson declaring that the United States “…can’t afford a coal mine gap!” in Dr. Strangelove. Or Bert Gordon in the Hustler screaming “you owe me money!” at Paul Newman.
In Day of the Dolphin Scott played a marine biologist who raised talking dolphins, who, unbeknownst to him were really being trained to assassinate the president. Fun stuff, with good stupid intrigue. Islands in the Stream, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s last (albeit unfinished) novel and directed by Franklin Schaffner, casts Scott as a divorced expatriate living somewhere in the Bahamas during the beginnings of World War II. It’s a gritty melodrama that’s one-half Brady Bunch and one-half Where Eagles Dare. Though it received “shit sandwich” reviews across-the-board, I dug the scenes of fishing, beachcombing, and things exploding as Scott’s character tried to help Jewish refuges escape to Cuba. I was so into the film that looked up the book in the local library to check if I could find lines from the book matching lines from the film.
Firstly, though, let’s hit on the made-for-TV sequel, the Last Days of Patton. The Last Days of Patton picks up at the end of the war, where Patton left off. General Patton is given the task of governing a piece of conquered Germany, something he’s not necessarily up to, but does with gusto. Apparently there’s a lot of controversy about his not “de-Nazifying” and letting Germans continue in the civic roles they held during the war. There are some good moments, two that stick out most prominently in my mind are discussions between Patton and a German Nobleman (there were a few left) who laments that his great country sunk so low with Hitler, the other being a field meeting between General Patton and some German civil engineers trying to get the region’s infrastructure back in working order. The other half of the show has a paralyzed, mortally-wounded Patton (due to a car accident) laid out on a backboard waiting to die.
An interview with George C. Scott in a newspaper magazine (Parade? I don’t remember) the week The Last Days of Patton was first broadcast was my first introduction to George C. Scott, the person. I looked forward to reading what the man who brought the legend of Patton to the big screen had to say. After reading it, though, my opinion of Scott went way down. Scott studied Patton’s life and was kind of upset that the first film didn’t show a side of Patton that he felt should have been explored; that is, Patton’s family life and how he handled an agonizing death. I didn’t necessarily agree with this. First of all Patton is nine minutes short of three hours in length. That’s a damn long time for a movie (knowing that Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind both clock in at four hours) and plenty of time to tell a great story on film. Besides, there are a number of excellent books on the subject. Patton’s war diaries are in print, as published by his wife, along with some excellent biographies, as are the autobiographies of General Omar Bradley, Eisenhower, et al; also, one can probably find the Pictorial History of World War 2 at the library for plenty of info and insight, including photos, of General Patton. Besides, Patton, the film, served its purpose in showing the general at his finest moments: commanding and winning World War 2. (Word to the wise: ignore Patton’s modern-day detractors, among them Andy Rooney. If anyone, Patton could claim single-handedly winning a large part of the war with Germany. Ask Luxembourg. If you’re a chess player, athlete -someone who appreciates competition, challenges and especially history you will appreciate General Patton – read War As I Knew It for a real picture. Then get General Bradley’s book and check out the photo of Patton relieving himself in the Rhine… Slapping “cowardly” soldiers? That was just the beginning! You were in literal “deep shit” if you were an officer and suffered from “battle fatigue.”)
What really disturbed me was Scott’s comment regarding Patton’s death. Apparently Patton lingered on for a little while in a condition of complete paralysis from the neck down. True indeed and a nasty, agonizing way to die. Not necessarily a “dignified” way to die, was it? Well, it’s probably better than being blown apart into unrecognizable bits by an 88 mm shell. Having a parachute not open would kind of suck, too. Anyway, Scott went on to say that Patton, being a “deeply religious man” suffered; Scott, however, “…believe[ed] in suicide…” and would have ended it quickly. This bugged me, as does any talk of suicide, because I consider suicide an act of cowardice. I’m of the mind that Patton considered it cowardly, too. Ernest Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun because he couldn’t face dying of cancer. Excuse me, but blowing your brains out, leaving your family to clean up the mess, is a shitty thing to do. Is dying of cancer any better? Hey, plenty of extremely brave men and women and children have endured the treatments and made it. Some haven’t, but they sure didn’t go without a fight. Roddy McDowall went gracefully, what was wrong with that? What about Christopher Reeve? He is one brave MF, liberal puke or not, let me tell you. Is suicide a way of preventing one’s family from “suffering”? In Patton’s case, every day he was able to live with his family was a blessing. What about the financial costs? Fuck that shit, man, it is only money. The man was a warrior in anything he did, so to face a slow death bravely was in keeping with his character. Military men view “suicide missions” as anathema, you think they’d appreciate a wounded soldier taking his life rather than fighting to the death? I don’t think so.
So here’s George C. Scott saying that if he were in Patton’s position, he’d choose to off himself rather than wait for God. I’ve always remembered that comment, so my first thought at hearing of Scott’s death was that he’d killed himself, like Brian Keith.
Patton, the film can be summed up in snobbish Halliwell’s Film Guide, 8th ed:
Brilliantly handled wartime character study which is also a spectacle and tries too hard to have it both ways, but as a piece of filmmaking is hard to beat.
Not bad for a limy reviewer, who, incidentally gave the movie three stars (out of four – indicative of “…a very high standard of professional excellence or great historical interest” Citizen Kane and Olivier’s Henry V were the only ones I could find with four stars, there might be more, find ’em yourselves!).
Here’s what reviewer John Gillen says about George C. Scott’s performance (also from Halliwell):
Here is an actor so totally immersed in his part that he almost makes you believe he is the man himself.
Can’t get a much better compliment than that, can you? And rightly so, Scott was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor of 1970.
Scott refused it.
What an asshole.
The film itself was awarded Best Picture, Best Script (who wrote it? Francis Ford Coppola, that’s who), Best Director (Franklin Schaffner, who also directed Islands in the Stream and Planet of the Apes -POA getting three stars from Halliwell, too). It also received nominations for Score and Director of Photography as well as numerous Golden Globe awards and other accolades.
Clearly it ranked as a milestone in movie making. Even though, in my opinion, the Oscars haven’t had any appeal or meaning since at least 1985, back “then” the bestowing of such an award, or even a nomination, was a great honor and considering the treatment of the subject (jingoist, pro-war, etc.) at the time when public outrage against the Viet Nam War was at an all-time high. Hollywood circa 1970 was loaded with pinko liberals and the fact that Patton was recognized for its art speaks volumes about the attitude of the Academy.
According to some of the recent obituaries I’ve read, George C. Scott spent the night watching hockey on TV instead of joining the affair. I can understand his animosity towards the “popularity contest” element in Hollywood and the awards, but great work usually won out against popularity when it came to the Academy Awards. Lawrence Olivier, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman, great actors and movie stars who’ve received actually few Academy Awards or even nominations (Olivier is the exception) but have always looked to the Oscars as a tremendous honor, one they wouldn’t dream of rejecting. After all, it is part of the craft, isn’t it?
So here’s George C. Scott, who refuses the award (he said “no thanks” to his nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the Hustler) out of a disdain for the movie business. Who the hell did he think he was? Marlon Brando, who is probably insane, refused his rightly-awarded Oscar for the Godfather, took the opportunity to use his refusal for political ends, something I can understand -maybe. Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. But Scott simply said “shove it up yer ass.” Why’d he have to do that? He got good roles. He did plenty of plays on Broadway. He wasn’t any different than any of his fellow actors who’d suffered for their art and finally made it (he made it before he was 30, don’t forget that). What was his problem?
As it turns out, Scott was a hard drinker. And he was a brawler (apparently his nose was that shape because it’d been broken five times -four of them in bar fights). A truly “violent man.” And he didn’t limit his violent outbursts to the bars. Ask Ava Gardener, whom he beat up (for all I know, she started it, but that doesn’t help Scott’s case). Add to that his five marriages (that’s not a good track record for anyone). Was it not surprising that a few years ago a young actress brought sexual harassment charges against him during the Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind? I mean, here was a violent, unstable, uncontrollable, ungrateful, arrogant, nasty drunk; not someone who would be much fun at a party.
It’s almost ironic that he left this world in peace.