McDowell, Malcolm

McDowell, Malcolm
(1943– )
   Malcolm McDowell was born in Leeds, England, in 1943. He worked as a waiter in his father’s pub and later became a regional salesman for a coffee firm in Yorkshire. McDowell enrolled in an acting class, with a view to liberating himself from the sales force, all the while laboring to eradicate his working-class, regional accent. Eventually, he became a minor player in the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year and a half, until he moved on to acting on British television.
   Lindsay Anderson spotted McDowell on TV and cast him as an insolent, rebellious boarding school student in his controversial British film, If . . . (1968). The movie, which reflected a cold, queasy view of reckless youth, encouraged STANLEY KUBRICK to give McDowell the central role in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).
   A Clockwork Orange catapulted McDowell to international stardom overnight; the 1970s continued to be his peak years, ending with Nicholas Meyer’s Time after Time (1979), a SCIENCE-FICTION FILM in which McDowell played the young H. G. Wells experimenting with a time machine. His career then leveled off with a series of mostly undistinguished movies in the 1980s and 1990s. The exceptions were Blake Edwards’s Sunset (1988), in which McDowell played opposite Bruce Willis and James Garner in a picture about Hollywood in the silent era, and Star Trek: Generations (1994), one of the better entries in the Star Trek series. For a time (1975–1980), he was married to Margaret Bennett Dullea, the ex-wife of KEIR DULLEA. A Clockwork Orange, an adaptation of the ANTHONY BURGESS novel, is an anti-utopian story set in England in the not-too-distant-future (policemen in the movie wear an emblem of Elizabeth II on their lapels). The story concerns a young hoodlum named Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose only salutary characteristic seems to be his predilection for Beethoven, to whom he refers affectionately as Ludwig Van. In order to keep Alex from committing any more crimes, the state deprives him of his free will, and he therefore becomes “a clockwork orange,” something that appears to be fully human but is basically mechanical in all of his responses. Burgess borrowed the term from an old cockney phrase, “as queer as a clockwork orange” (queer meaning strange, not homosexual).
   As Stanley Edgar Hyman writes in his afterword to the novel, anti-utopian fiction like Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins, George Orwell’s 1984, and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange are not so much predictions of the future as depictions in an exaggerated fashion of the materialism, sexual promiscuity, and brutal violence of the present.
   In essence, the ugly and erratic behavior of Alex and his clan of latter-day Teddy Boys is their way of asserting themselves against the depersonalized regimentation of the socialized state in which they live. (Teddy Boys was the name used by juvenile gangs in England in the early 1960s). Alex, for example, lives with his family in Municipal Flat Block 18A, a characterless apartment building. Later on, when his crimes catch up with him and he is sent to prison, he is referred to from the start as 655321. But one wonders if he can be any more anonymous in jail than he was when he was a member of the regimented society that lies beyond the prison walls. Or, as Hyman puts it, “Alex always was a clockwork orange, a machine for mechanical violence far below the level of choice, and his dreary Socialist England is a giant clockwork orange. ”
   Kubrick selected McDowell, then 27 years old, to play the lead in the film, even though Alex is a teenager in the book. “Malcolm McDowell’s age is not that easy to judge in the film,” Kubrick told MICHEL CIMENT; “and he was without the slightest doubt the best actor for the part. ” In fact, Kubrick had McDowell in mind right from his third reading of the novel. “It might have been nicer if Malcolm had been seventeen, but a seventeen-year-old actor without Malcolm’s extraordinary talent would not have been better. ” A director does not often run across actors of McDowell’s genius, Kubrick concluded; nor does an actor often find a character as challenging to play as Alex.
   Kubrick gave him a copy of the novel, and McDowell states in VINCENT LOBRUTTO’s biography of Kubrick that after reading it, he was convinced that the book was a modern classic. He phoned Kubrick and inquired, “Are you offering me this?” Kubrick assured him that he was. McDowell then invited Kubrick to come to his home to discuss the film with him. Kubrick, says McDowell, showed up with “a sort of convoy. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal for Stanley Kubrick to leave his home. ”
   Kubrick decided to have Alex narrate the film, just as he narrates the novel. So Kubrick’s screenplay retains Alex’s first-person narration from the novel as a voice-over on the sound track, and hence utilizes verbatim in the script much of Burgess’s colorful language from the book. In this manner, Alex remains an abiding presence in the movie, as McDowell delivers Alex’s detached, sardonic narration with tongue firmly in cheek.
   A Clockwork Orange begins with a close-up of Alex, sneering at the camera, as he introduces himself and his three “droogs” (gang members), Pete, Georgie, and Dim. The camera pulls back to show them sitting in the Korova Milk Bar, as they plot out a night of sadistic sexual activities. The Korova Milk Bar, Alex says, “sold milk-plus, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. ” With Alex’s first words the viewer is aware that he is speaking some sort of unfamiliar lingo. Actually it is a type of slang which Anthony Burgess calls Nadsat. He developed it for the novel and Kubrick carried it over into the film. The novelist explains in his essay on Clockwork Orange that he constructed his own brand of teenage jargon for Alex and his buddies to use, since the ephemeral Teddy Boy talk in vogue when he was writing the book would be obsolete in a short time anyhow.
   He consequently devised Nadsat, which uses Russian roots, “odd bits of old rhyming slang, and a bit of gypsy talk too,” he says, in order to create a timeless vocabulary for the gang. The meaning of these word is usually clear from the context in which they appear. “Gulliver,” for example, means head (from the Russian golova), and is furthermore a deliberate reference to the satire of Gulliver’s Travels, which has resonances in the novel and film. Alex and his droogs are surrounded by the grotesquely functional statuary and furniture of the milk bar. Fiberglass nudes kneel on all fours to serve as tables; others dispense milk-plus from their nipples. Alex and his mates are dressed in equally bizarre outfits, which include white trousers complete with codpieces, offset by black combat boots and derbies.
   Once outside the bar, the boys begin their nightly prowl. Alex and his droogs eventually go joy-riding in a stolen sports car. “What we were after now was the old surprise visit,” he says. “That was a real kick, and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolence. ” The house he selects for “the old surprise visit” is one that has a welcoming neon sign in the yard that spells out “HOME. ” It is occupied by Frank Alexander, a writer (PATRICK MAGEE), and his wife (Adrienne Corri). The writer is a rabid radical who believes passionately in helping the underdog. Accordingly, he ignores his wife’s suspicions of night callers and accepts the story of the young man at the door, who claims that he must use their telephone to report an accident. Frank tells his wife to let the lad in and Alex forces the door all the way open to admit his companions, who are wearing bizarre clown masks.
   This is one of the scenes in the movie that benefited most from what Kubrick calls the “crucial rehearsal period. ” Kubrick customarily revised a script while a film was in production. During rehearsals he worked out the details of the action, listening to all the suggestions that the cast and crew had to offer. He then weighed all of these carefully against his own ideas and finally decided on how the scene should be handled. He would then film a master shot of the action and go home and type the revised version of the scene into the script, prior to actually filming the scene, shot by shot. This period of rehearsal is one of maximum tension and anxiety, Kubrick states in Gene Phillips’s book,“and it is precisely here where a scene lives or dies. ” The subsequent choice of camera angles, he felt, was relatively simply by comparison with the working out of the scene with the actors in rehearsal. Kevin Jackson records that McDowell remembers that Kubrick sometimes would bring a copy of the novel to the set, look at the scene in question, and ask the cast,“How shall we do it?”The actors would then spend hours, even days, in discussion and rehearsal with the director before finally filming the scene. In the case of the present scene, the rehearsal period took three days. “This scene, in fact, was rehearsed longer than any other in the film,”Kubrick recalled, “and it appeared to be going nowhere. ” Then he got the idea of having Alex sing a song while he stomps Alexander and prepares to rape his wife. Malcolm McDowell adds that, when Kubrick asked him to sing a song, “Singin’ in the Rain” was the only one that came to mind to which he knew all of the lyrics. During the lunch break Kubrick arranged to have one of his aides obtain the necessary copyright clearance to use the song in the film. Here, then, is an excellent example of how a mixture of careful planning and inspired improvisation can produce a dramatically effective scene on film, as the result of “the crucial rehearsal period. ” The purpose of the song, says McDowell, was to show the contradictions in Alex’s character: Here is Alex larking about, singing a light-hearted song, to accompany the ferocious violence he is inflicting on Alexander and his wife. “This is why Stanley Kubrick is such a great director for actors,” McDowell comments in Vincent LoBrutto’s biography of Kubrick, “because he will allow you to create. ”
   The lyrics of “Singin’ in the Rain” take on a shattering irony in the case of the circumstances in which Alex sings them at this point in the picture. When he exults that “I’ve a smile on my face for the whole human race,” we see Alexander lying on the floor, beaten, bound, and grotesquely gagged with a red rubber ball that has been forced into his mouth and secured there with Scotch tape wrapped around his head. As Alex continues, “The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love,” he is snipping off Mrs. Alexander’s pajama suit in preparation for what he always refers to as “the old in-out-in-out. ” McDowell recalls in MICHAEL HERR’s book that when he and the other actors would come to Kubrick for direction, Kubrick would sometimes tell them to decide how they wanted to play a given scene, in order to see what they could come up with on their own. “Malc,” Kubrick said to him on one occasion, “I’m not RADA” (a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art);“I hired you to do the acting. ” Adds McDowell, “He encourages you and accepts what you have. If he trusts you, you’re alright. ” As a matter of fact, Kubrick operated the camera himself, as he did in shooting all of the scenes in the film in which the handheld camera figured. “In addition to the fun of doing the shooting myself,” he explained, “I find it virtually impossible to describe what I want in a handheld shot to even the most talented and sensitive camera operators. ”
   Kubrick cuts to the Korova Milk Bar, to which the gang has repaired for some liquid nourishment, “it having been an evening of some small energy expenditure,” our narrator says in voiceover. A woman at a nearby table bursts out with a passage from the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for no ostensible reason. Dim (Warren Clarke), one of Alex’s droogs, ridicules her with a Bronx cheer and Alex smashes him across the legs with his cane. The oafish Dim whimpers like a wounded puppy as Alex lectures him on his lack of respect for the few beautiful things in life. Besides establishing Alex’s love for Ludwig Van, this encounter also indicates the first rumblings of the gang’s discontent with Alex’s highhanded ways. In fact, a palace revolution is in the offing. After a subsequent ultraviolent escapade, Alex’s droogs knock him out and abandon him at the scene of the crime, to await the arrival of the police.
   “This is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning, O my brothers and only friends,” intones the voice of Malcolm McDowell, as “your humble narrator” continues the story. An aerial shot of a prison compound now appears on the screen. Alex patronizes the prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) and presses him for information about the Ludovico technique, which reportedly enables a prisoner to leave prison for good after two weeks. Alex is soon transferred to the Ludovico Medical Facility. As the treatment begins, Alex is given a shot by a physician and then transported to a screening room. “I was bound up in a straight-jacket and my gulliver was strapped to a headrest with wires running away from it. Then they clamped like lidlocks on my eyes, so that I could not shut them no matter how hard I tried. ” Alex sits bug-eyed watching a film portraying a gang rape, clearly indicating that these movies parallel the crimes that Alex and his droogs committed earlier in the film. When he watches a succession of similar film clips, a feeling of revulsion slowly engulfs Alex and he begs the attending physician to stop the show, but the movies roll on.
   Later a doctor assures him that, with the help of drugs, his body is learning to respond to sex and violence with revulsion. The next day, while viewing newsreels of Nazi atrocities, Alex is inconsolable when he realizes that the background score for the film is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He wails in agony that it is sinful to use Ludwig Van in this manner, but the doctors remind him that he chose to undergo the treatment and now he must see it through. And so he does.
   The shooting of this sequence was a physical ordeal for McDowell. His eyes were kept open by clamps, as Alex is compelled to watch the films that are part of the Ludovico treatment’s aversion therapy. Kubrick employed a piece of standard surgical equipment called a lidlock; even though McDowell received a local anesthetic to get him through the scene, it was still an unpleasant experience for him.
   McDowell states in JOHN BAXTER’s biography of Kubrick,“I scratched the cornea of my left eye” during the filming of the scene. “It hurt. I couldn’t see. ” When Kubrick saw McDowell with a bandage over his eye, he ran up to him, inquiring, “Are you alright?”Then he added,“Let’s go on with the scene. I’ll favor the other eye,” by shooting McDowell from the right side. McDowell took this as an example of Kubrick’s black humor. “I’m very fond of Stanley, in a love-hate way,” he reflects. “He’s a genius, but his humor’s black as charcoal. ”
   Obviously Kubrick wanted to continue filming, in order not to extend the time spent on this scene, which he was aware was an ordeal for McDowell. Delaying the shooting would have simply prolonged the agony of filming it. One of the worst fantasies one can imagine, Kubrick observed afterward, is being strapped to a chair in a straitjacket and being unable to blink one’s eyes.
   McDowell also suffered some broken ribs when an actor in one of the prison scenes, who was to throw him on the floor and stomp on him, stomped too hard. After principal photography was completed, Kubrick wrote McDowell, expressing his regret at what he had endured while making the picture. Recalling the production period later,McDowell says in LoBrutto’s book,“I was totally seduced by the man. I loved him. I hated him. ”
   As the film unreels,Alex is judged after two weeks of brainwashing to be ready to be returned to society. The treatment has effectively deprived Alex of his free will, and in doing so, transformed him into a clockwork orange, a machine incapable of moral choice. At one point the chaplain warns Alex about the Ludovico technique, and thus expresses the theme of the film: “The question is whether or not this treatment really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness must be chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man. ”These theological reflections elude Alex, since he only sees the treatment as a shortcut to winning his freedom. After his release Alex by chance falls into the clutches of Frank Alexander. Alexander decides to punish Alex, with the help of his cohorts, for crippling him and killing his wife. While Alex is being interrogated by Alexander’s cohorts, he inadvertently tells them how he was conditioned against Beethoven during the course of his treatment. Alex is summarily locked in a bedroom, while Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony resounds around him. Alex hysterically rushes to the window and throws himself through it, just as Frank Alexander had hoped that he would. Alex survives the fall, however, and he realizes during his hospital convalescence that the effects of the Ludovico brainwashing are wearing off. As Alex says in voice-over, “I was cured all right”—meaning that he is returning to his old self, and is fully able to return to his iniquitous behavior. Alex has regained his free will and is no longer a clockwork orange. Because Kubrick was uncompromising in depicting Alex’s depravity, A Clockwork Orange has been a source of continuing controversy. Thus Eric Stein remarks that some moviegoers were simply appalled by the film’s violence, in particular in the rape scene: It is “all narrated by Alex in language crackling with spite, sneers, and animal pleasures,” while his brutality is scored to a cheery rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain. ”
   Glenn Kenny defends the film on the grounds that Kubrick details Alex’s “ignorant brutality,” coexisting so comfortably with raffish charm,“in order to forge an indictment of society’s ability to give birth to such brutality and then have no clue about how to deal with it. ”
   In essence, A Clockwork Orange has been attacked on the grounds that Kubrick glamorizes, even evokes sympathy for Alex, a ruthless criminal. In dealing with this objection, Kubrick told critic Gene Siskel, “The essential moral of the story hinges on the question of choice, and the question of whether man can be good without having the choice to be evil, and whether a creature who no longer has this choice is still a man. ” The fact that Alex is evil personified is important,Kubrick contends, to clarify the point that the film makes about human freedom. “If Alex were a lesser villain, then you would dilute the point of the film. It would then be like one of those Westerns which purports to be against lynching and deals with the lynching of innocent people (e. g. , The Ox Bow Incident). The point of such a film would seem to be, ‘You shouldn’t lynch people because you might lynch innocent people,’ rather than, ‘You shouldn’t lynch anybody. ’ Obviously, if Alex were a lesser villain, it would be very easy to reject his ‘treatment’ as inhuman. But when you reject the treatment of even a character as wicked as Alex, the moral point is clear. ”
   In short, to restrain a man is not to redeem him; goodness must come from within. A Clockwork Orange is thus the deeply troubling story of one who gets everything he thinks he wants, but cannot get the one thing he really needs: redemption. Anthony Burgess and Malcolm McDowell defended the film at the time of its release, as cited in Phillips’s book: “The film and the book are about the danger of reclaiming sinners through sapping their capacity to choose between good and evil,” Anthony Burgess stated at the time. “Most of all I wanted to show in my story that God has made man free to choose either good or evil, and that this is an astounding gift. ” Malcolm McDowell’s own feelings about Alex at the end of the film bears out Burgess’s remarks, as well as Kubrick’s: “Alex is free at the end; that’s hopeful. Maybe in his freedom, he’ll be able to find someone to help him without brainwashing. If his Ludwig Van can speak to him, perhaps others can. ”
   The movie was denounced in Britain, particularly by the religious right, for allegedly inspiring copycat crimes by youth gangs who apparently modeled themselves on Alex and his droogs. Deeply shocked by these allegations,Kubrick withdrew the film from distribution in England in 1974. When one gang of juvenile delinquents committed a serious crime in England while the film was still in release, McDowell pointed out the absurdity of blaming the movie for their actions, even when, according to the yellow press, they were reportedly dressed in the sort of outfits worn by Alex and his droogs in the picture. “If they dressed like Alex,” McDowell remarked, “the police would know where to find them; I mean, in a codpiece and a bowler?”The evidence that A Clockwork Orange encouraged violent crime among teenagers was tenuous at best, since the link between a dress fad on the one hand, and the urge to rape and kill on the other, was a flimsy one.
   The film was finally rereleased in England in March 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death. British critic Danny Leigh wrote at the time, “Viewing a wholly legitimate copy of Kubrick’s long-illicit classic” is accompanied by a sense of relief at “actually being able to make out the visual details so many murky tenth-generation copies obscured. ” The film, he concluded, remains as fascinating as it ever was. Although he defended the film itself against allegations that it was immoral, McDowell had some personal gripes against Kubrick which he repeated in interviews over the years. Kubrick, as we have seen, improvised the action of the rape scene, as well as some other scenes, during rehearsals. Consequently, McDowell believed that Kubrick should not have taken sole credit for composing the script. “I mean, you don’t exactly see any other name, do ye?” he snaps in John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick. The fact remains that, as Kubrick told Gene Phillips, it was Kubrick who was responsible for shaping the scenes he improvised with the cast into their final form and integrating them into the revised shooting script. Moreover, Kubrick, for his part, always was the first to acknowledge the substantial changes that were made in the script during improvisations on the set of A Clockwork Orange, and on other films as well.
   Malcolm McDowell’s previously expressed complaints about Kubrick abated in later years, according to James Howard. “He’s a brilliant director and an extraordinary man, and I loved pretty much 98% of the time I spent with him,” McDowell stated around the time he appeared at the Venice Film Festival in 1997 for a screening of A Clockwork Orange. He remains convinced that this motion picture is “one of the greatest pieces of work that I shall ever do—one of the greatest parts ever written for a film actor. ”As for Kubrick himself, McDowell noted that he loved making films because it enabled him to be in charge of vast numbers of people like a general. In another life, McDowell concludes, Kubrick would have been “a General Chief of Staff. ”
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997), pp. 231–267;
   ■ Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange, with an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972);
   ■ -——,“Juice from a Clockwork Orange,” in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, ed. Mario Falsetto (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 187–190;
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 148–165;
   ■ Herr, Michael, Kubrick (New York: Grove Press, 2000);
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), pp. 117–132;
   ■ Jackson, Kevin, “Real Horrorshow,” Sight and Sound, special Kubrick issue, 9 (n. s. ), no. 9 (September 1999): 24–27;
   ■ Kenny, Glenn, “The Twenty-Five Most Dangerous Movies Ever Made,” Premiere, February 2001, pp. 92–97;
   ■ Leigh, Danny, “Videos: A Clockwork Orange,Sight and Sound 10 (n. s. ), no. 10 (October 2000), 64;
   ■ LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999), pp. 334–376;
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 157–170;
   ■ Siskel, Gene, “Kubrick’s Creative Concern,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 116–125;
   ■ Stein, Michael,“The New Violence,” Films in Review 46, nos. 1–2 (January–February, 1995), pp. 40–48.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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