Laughton, Charles


Laughton, Charles
(1899–1962)
   The British character actor Charles Laughton was born on July 1, 1899, in Scarborough, England. Laughton, a Catholic, was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College. He followed his father into the hotel business and became a hotel clerk, before serving in World War I. He was gassed at the front and went into acting after the war as a means of exercising his impaired vocal cords. He was granted a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he appeared in plays throughout 1925. He made his debut in London’s West End in 1926. He met and married the actress Elsa Lanchester, who was also appearing on the London stage at the time. Because he was homosexual, theirs was a companionate marriage. She said after his death that they were good company for each other. Laughton appeared in his first British movie in 1929.
   Laughton and Lanchester went to Broadway in 1931 with the play Payment Deferred, and both appeared in the Hollywood film version the following year. He played the emperor Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign of the Cross (1933) and played Nero as effeminate, with a young favorite, a demure slave boy, sitting next to his throne. Nevertheless, he was not typecast in homosexual roles afterward. He returned to England to take the title role in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of Nero. Laughton continued to make movies in both England and America. His role as the tyrannical Captain Bligh in the U. S. film Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), opposite Clark Gable, remains one of his best-remembered parts. After starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s British film of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939) as the mastermind of a secret smuggling operation, he went back to America, where he remained for the majority of his career and became an American citizen in 1950.
   Laughton directed only one film, Night of the Hunter (1955), a mesmerizing nightmare thriller featuring Robert Mitchum as a diabolical parson. Because the film was a critical success, but a commercial failure, Laughton returned to acting for good and won plaudits in Billy Wilder’s movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1958), with Marlene Dietrich,Tyrone Power, and Elsa Lanchester. He played an eminent barrister who undertakes the defense of a fortune hunter accused of murdering a rich widow.
   STANLEY KUBRICK told GENE D. PHILLIPS that Charles Laughton gave him a lot of trouble during the making of SPARTACUS, a spectacle about a slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus in pre-Christian Rome. Laughton, who enacts the role of the Roman senator Gracchus, an old political enemy of General Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) in the Senate,was always an intractable actor for directors to deal with. Indeed, the reason that an earlier historical epic, I, Claudius (1937), was abandoned after a month of shooting was due largely to the friction between Laughton and the film’s equally strong-minded director, Josef von Sternberg.
   Kubrick remembered Laughton as living up to his reputation for being difficult during the making of Spartacus. He was a temperamental actor who was all too eager to take offense at slights and insults, real or imagined. Laughton was not at all pleased that Olivier’s salary of $250,000 for the picture hugely outclassed what he viewed as his measly $41,000. Furthermore, he complained bitterly that DALTON TRUMBO’s revision of the screenplay enhanced Olivier’s role and diminished his role. As a matter of fact, Olivier had accepted the role of Crassus on condition that Trumbo would beef up his part; moreover, Crassus, as Spartacus’s chief adversary, was obviously a more pivotal role than Gracchus. In addition, Laughton thought Olivier lorded it over him in rehearsals, presuming at times to advise Laughton how to read a speech. Conversely, Olivier felt that Laughton was often discourteous and sarcastic. The animosity between them reached the point where Olivier, before rehearsing a major scene with Laughton, requested that Kubrick have someone other than Laughton sit on the sidelines and feed him his cues. Little wonder that Alfred Hitchcock summed up working with Laughton by reflecting, “You can’t direct Laughton in a picture. The best you can hope for is to referee. ”
   In the course of Spartacus, Gracchus plots to keep Crassus from assuming command of the corps of Roman soldiers who are being sent to quell the revolt of Spartacus and his slave army. Gracchus rightly suspects that Crassus wants the Senate to grant him dictatorial powers to put down the revolt, with the hope that they will allow him to permanently rule as dictator of the Roman Empire after he defeats Spartacus. Gracchus simply will not submit to the dictatorship of Crassus, and declares his stand vehemently in the Senate.
   While steaming in the Roman baths, Julius Caesar (JOHN GAVIN) learns that 19,000 men have been lost in a recent engagement. Crassus overhears Caesar’s conversation with Gracchus about this recent military setback. He bargains with them to allow him to lead the legions against Spartacus. After Crassus departs, Gracchus whispers to Caesar that he had made a deal with some Cilician pirates to spirit Spartacus’s army out of Italy for a price:“We won’t interfere with them while they are transporting Spartacus and his tribe out of Italy. With Spartacus out of the way, there will be no need to make Crassus dictator. ”“Is the Senate to bargain with pirates?” Caesar chides, apparently attempting to retain the shred of integrity he still has left. “If a criminal has what you want, you do business with him,” is the sum of Gracchus’s political philosophy. But Crassus bribes the pirates with a larger sum of money than Gracchus had offered them, and so they leave Italy without Spartacus and his slaves. Crassus accordingly leads a Roman legion against Spartacus’s army of slaves and scores an overwhelming victory. He finally identifies Spartacus among the slaves who have been taken prisoner after the engagement. “Crucify him,” the general orders; “I want no grave or marker. His body is to be burned and his ashes scattered in secret. ”
   Batiatus (PETER USTINOV), an old ally of Gracchus, wants to aid Gracchus in making life uncomfortable for Crassus. Batiatus tells Gracchus that Varinia (JEAN SIMMONS), Spartacus’s wife, has borne a baby boy, and that she and the baby have been taken into custody by Crassus. “Let’s steal the woman,” Gracchus suggests with a wicked gleam in his eye. “I can no longer hurt Crassus in the Senate, but I can hurt his pride. ” Batiatus brings Varinia and the baby to Gracchus, who had hoped to claim Varinia and the child as part of his victory against Spartacus. Gracchus gives them all senatorial passes to leave the city, along with articles of freedom for her and the child. Gracchus is painfully aware that Crassus’s victory spells defeat for him, since Gracchus has been Crassus’s sworn enemy for some time. He has,we know, no intention of trying to acclimate himself to Crassus’s regime. Almost thinking out loud, he says to Batiatus and Varinia, “I’m going on a journey too. ”
   After they have all gone, he picks up a sword and walks slowly down a corridor, away from the camera, a lone figure diminishing in the distance. As he makes his last exit, the formerly powerful senator is pictured as metaphorically reduced in stature by Kubrick’s canny camera placement. Gracchus goes through a doorway and draws a curtain behind him. The curtain has closed on his career and his life.
   Despite the difficulties that Laughton caused the director during shooting,Kubrick was the first to see that Laughton gave his usual strong performance in Spartacus. Laughton lived to make only one more film, Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), in which he played a U. S. senator; the story revolves around a fellow senator who commits suicide when his homosexual past comes to light. Although Laughton did not play a homosexual in the film, he took the part because the film shed sympathetic light on a homosexual who is dogged to suicide because of what one senator refers to in the film as the young senator’s “tired old sin. ”The character of the hapless young senator resonated for Laughton because he was tortured by the need to be secret about his own sexual orientation. In any case, Laughton’s portrayal of the aging U. S. senator in Advise and Consent, along with his depiction of the Roman senator in Spartacus, were two fine parts for him to bow out with.
   References
   ■ Halliwell, Leslie, Who’s Who in the Movies, rev. ed. , ed. John Walker (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 244;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 65–78.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Laughton, Charles — born July 1, 1899, Scarborough, Yorkshire, Eng. died Dec. 15, 1962, Hollywood, Calif., U.S. British actor. He made his London stage debut in 1926 and acted in plays such as The Government Inspector, Medea, and Payment Deferred, in which he made… …   Universalium

  • Laughton, Charles — • ЛО УТОН, Лаутон, Лотон (Laughton) Чарлз (1.7.1899 15.12.1962)    англо амер. актёр. Окончил Королев. академию драм, иск ва в Лондоне. С 1926 в т рах Лондона, Стратфорда он Эйвон, Нью Йорка. С 1928 в кино (к/м ф. Васильки ). Известность принесло …   Кино: Энциклопедический словарь

  • Laughton,Charles — Laugh·ton (lôtʹn), Charles. 1899 1962. British born American actor whose many motion picture roles include that of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). * * * …   Universalium

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