Ustinov, Peter

Ustinov, Peter
(1921– )
   Peter Ustinov was born on April 16, 1921, in London. His father, a journalist, was of Russian origin; his mother, an artist, of French descent. He was trained in acting at the London Theatre Studio, and made his debut as an actor at 17. He was successful on the British and American stage and screen. He first made his mark on the screen in British war films during World War II, playing a priest in One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). His first venture into directing was another war film, The School for Secrets (1946), a comedy/drama, for which he also supplied the screenplay. Among the movies he acted in were the British Hotel Sahara (1951) and the American Quo Vadis (1951), in which he portrayed the emperor Nero. He continued to play in movies in America and Britain, and was tapped for SPARTACUS, another historical epic of ancient Rome, this time about Spartacus’s slave revolt.
   Anthony Mann (The Man from Laramie, 1955) was slated to direct, though he would eventually be replaced by STANLEY KUBRICK. Even before shooting began, trouble was brewing, as Ustinov records in his autobiography. For a start, KIRK DOUGLAS, who was executive producer as well as star of Spartacus, had cast some distinguished English thespians in the movie, including LAURENCE OLIVIER, CHARLES LAUGHTON, and Ustinov. The British actors were not impressed with Douglas’s acting abilities, seeing him as merely a movie star. Even during the preliminary rehearsals, before filming began, Ustinov went to Hollywood parties and quipped that “you have to be careful not to act too well” in a Douglas picture, for fear of outshining the star. Moreover, the Brits found Douglas high-handed and pontificating as executive producer.
   Things began to heat up still more when Douglas, who was painfully aware that he was unpopular with the English members of the cast, sensed that Mann was getting on with them much better than he was; he suspected that Mann and the Brits were forming a coalition against him. In addition, a good deal of infighting developed within the “colony” of British actors in the movie. Ustinov writes that the production was “as full of intrigue as a Balkan government in the good old days,” and he was certainly a part of it. A screenwriter himself, Ustinov proposed to DALTON TRUMBO, the author of the script for Spartacus, some suggestions that would enhance his role—much to the consternation of his fellow Englishmen, not to mention Douglas. Trumbo accepted most of his revisions, since he found Ustinov sympathetic to his plight as a blacklisted writer in Hollywood. Because Trumbo had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anticommunist witch-hunt in Hollywood, he was officially unemployable in the film colony. At this point, Douglas intended to make Trumbo write the script under a pseudonym. Ustinov scoffed at Douglas’s “masquerade” about Trumbo’s screen credit as “too ludicrous for words. ” Charles Laughton, always a temperamental actor, jealously complained that, while Ustinov’s part was being improved, his own role as Gracchus, a Roman senator, was being eroded as Trumbo continued to revise the script. Most importantly, he believed that his role was too much overshadowed in the screenplay by that of Laurence Olivier, who was enacting General Crassus, Gracchus’s principal enemy in the Roman senate. Olivier resented Laughton’s grousing about Olivier’s role being favored in the script over Laughton’s because Crassus, as Spartacus’s chief adversary throughout the film, was simply a more important character than Gracchus. Ustinov, a compatriot of both actors,“was picked as a confidant of both. ” So he tried to arbitrate between Laughton and Olivier in this matter, and even revised some of their dialogue to strike a better balance between their roles. Ustinov explains that “I rewrote all of the scenes I had with Laughton; we rehearsed way into the middle of the night,” and the next day Ustinov presented the revised material to the company during rehearsals.
   In JAN HARLAN’s documentary, STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES (2001), Ustinov states that coping with Olivier and Laughton was not easy because the two actors “hated one another. ” According to Ustinov’s autobiography, principal photography commenced on January 27, 1959, in Death Valley, California, with the opening scene of the picture, in which Ustinov was involved. Anthony Mann was at the helm at that point. As the scene begins the camera is trained on Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) as he helps a fellow slave to rise after he has fallen under the weight of the load of rocks he is carrying. A Roman guard orders Spartacus to get on with his own work and lashes him to the ground for good measure. Spartacus sinks his teeth into the soldier’s leg and is beaten by several guards before he will let go. He is then chained to a wall as further punishment. While he is manacled there, Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) examines him, with a view to including Spartacus in the new batch of slaves which he is gathering for training at his gladiatorial school. The fat, foppish slave trader is impressed when he learns that Spartacus is strong enough to have injured a soldier not an hour before. “Marvelous,” he mutters. “I wish I’d been there. ”
   At the end of the first week of shooting in Death Valley, Douglas offered Ustinov and stills photographer William Woodfield a lift back the hotel. En route, Douglas suddenly blurted out, “I need a new director. It’s not working out. ” Mann had implied more than once that Douglas was overacting, particularly when he mauled the actor playing the Roman soldier whom Spartacus attacks. It is surprising that Douglas would have discussed this matter with Ustinov, because one of Douglas’s complaints about Mann was that he had approved changes that Dalton Trumbo had made in the script which improved Ustinov’s role, changes made at Ustinov’s behest. He further thought that Mann deferred too much to Ustinov, who was himself a director, by allowing Ustinov virtually to direct himself in the scenes they were currently shooting.
   At all events, when Douglas asked him to suggest possible replacements for Mann, Ustinov, not surprisingly, suggested British directors like David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957). Douglas responded,“I don’t want a goddamned Englishman. ” Woodfield chimed in, saying,“Why don’t you get the guy who directed the best picture you ever made-Paths of Glory—Stanley Kubrick?” “Because he’s an ingrate,” Douglas answered; “I made that picture at a loss in salary. ” And then Kubrick had declined to direct for Douglas a picture which he thought unpromising. Still, even Douglas was forced to concede that Kubrick had been his first choice to direct the film in the first place; it was the studio brass who had insisted that the more experienced Anthony Mann direct. And so Douglas turned to Kubrick, smugly advising the front office that he had made the right choice of Kubrick at the outset and that they had erred in pressing Mann on him. Douglas fired Mann at the end of the second week of shooting, on Friday, the thirteenth of February. Douglas phoned Kubrick that evening and told him to be ready to start shooting the following Monday, February 16, 1959.
   Ustinov says in Harlan’s documentary that he was pleased to have Kubrick on board because he thought PATHS OF GLORY was one of the best films he had ever seen; he had no reason to change his mind when Kubrick took over, since he “admired the way the young American handled celebrated British actors” like Olivier and Laughton.
   The production moved from the location work at Death Valley to the studio, where Kubrick began shooting the scenes in Batiatus’s school for gladiators. As one of these scenes opens, the new students are granted female companionship for an evening, because they are responding well to their training. Spartacus draws Varinia (JEAN SIMMONS). “I’ve never had a woman before,” he whispers as she enters his cell. But he is overheard by Batiatus, who leers down voyeuristically at him through the barred window in the ceiling of his cell. Feeling more than ever like a caged beast, Spartacus grabs at the bars overhead and shouts, “I am not an animal!” “You may not be an animal,” chortles Batiatus, “but this sorry show gives me little hope that you’ll ever be a man. ” Batiatus’s mincing mannerisms lend a touch of irony to his quip.
   The training school is stirred with excitement when a messenger reports that Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), the distinguished Roman general and senator, is going to pay the school a visit in order to observe some exhibition matches. The agitated Batiatus commands a slave, “Serve my best wine—in small goblets. ” It is Ustinov’s deft handling of such witty lines, in this case showing how Batiatus’s desire to please the visiting dignitary is in conflict with his innate stinginess, that no doubt contributed to the actor’s winning an Academy Award for his performance. Crassus arrives with his entourage: two aristocratic ladies and Glabrus (JOHN DALL), Crassus’s protégé. The general orders the gladiators to fight to the death. Batiatus is once more in a dither:“We don’t fight to the death here; it would cause ill feeling among the students; that is for later. ” “Name your price,” snaps Crassus; Batiatus does. Spartacus and his Ethiopian friend, Draba (WOODY STRODE) are chosen for combat. While they prepare for their ordeal by combat, Batiatus entertains his guests with his best wine (in small goblets). Although Spartacus and Draba were commanded to fight to the death, Draba refuses to kill Spartacus, once he has thrown him to the ground. Crazed with anger, Draba turns his trident on Crassus, who summarily cuts his throat with a dagger.
   Fed up with the inhuman cruelty meted out to him and the other slaves in the training school, Spartacus foments a mass revolt, gathering ever greater numbers of slaves from all over the countryside. They include Varinia (who eventually will bear Spartacus a son). Varinia escapes from Batiatus, who had sold her to Crassus. Meanwhile, the corpulent Batiatus is conferring with the equally obese Bracchus about the loss of Varinia. This scene affords a fine opportunity for two skilled British actors. Pauline Kael writes of this scene, “Peter Ustinov is superb as a slave dealer, who along with his groveling sycophancy and his merchant’s greed has his resentments; and Charles Laughton is a wily old Roman senator (the two of them chat about the beneficial effects of corpulence. ). ” Batiatus confides his hatred of Crassus to his friend, blaming the general for causing the rebellion, which began with Crassus’s insistence that the exhibition match be to the death. The slave trader further bemoans the fact that Varinia escaped before Crassus had paid for her, so it is he who has had to bear the financial loss. Gracchus, ever looking for ways to annoy Crassus, offers to buy Varinia from Batiatus when she is caught.
   General Crassus leads a legion of Roman soldiers into battle against Spartacus’s slave army and totally vanquishes the ill-equipped force. After the battle Crassus asks Batiatus to locate Spartacus among the prisoners. Batiatus reminds Crassus that he should himself recognize Spartacus if he comes upon him, since Spartacus was one of the gladiators who fought before Crassus at the training school. Nevertheless, in exchange for the franchise to auction off the slaves who survive the battle, Batiatus, ever the opportunist, agrees to finger Spartacus for Crassus. When Batiatus fails to do so, the exasperated Crassus has Batiatus flogged out of camp. Crassus eventually does identify Spartacus among the prisoners and orders him to be crucified.
   Meanwhile, Batiatus, smarting under the flogging he received by Crassus’s order, has taken refuge with Gracchus, his old ally, and is tempted to help him make life uncomfortable for Crassus, his perennial enemy. Batiatus informs Gracchus that Varinia has given birth to a son, and both have been taken by Crassus to his household as part of his spoils of victory. Batiatus accordingly arranges to spirit the mother and child away from the clutches of Crassus and to escape from Rome, armed with senatorial papers provided by Gracchus, which grant her and the child freedom from slavery. In this way Batiatus and Gracchus thwart Crassus’s plan to use Varinia and the child as trophies of his victory.
   As Varinia sits in a wagon driven by Batiatus, she spies Spartacus expiring on a cross near the city gates. She stops the cart and shows him his son; she then gets back in the wagon and Batiatus drives down the avenue which leads beyond the gates of Rome, as the picture ends.
   Ustinov notes in Harlan’s documentary, “The great virtue of the film was that it was the only epic of that scale that didn’t have Jesus,” taking place as it did in pre-Christian Rome. Ustinov’s remark is less facetious than it at first might appear. What he is really saying is that Spartacus is a good Roman spectacle because it omits all the clichés associated with that genre: Christian martyrs devoured by lions in the arena, chariot races, and orgies of scantily clad dancing girls. To that extent, the young Kubrick had outdone Cecil B. De Mille (The Sign of the Cross), the scion of the Hollywood costume epic, in making an inventive historical movie.
   When Douglas had commandeered Ustinov for Spartacus, Ustinov was touring the United States in Romanoff and Juliet, his cold-war comedy about the offspring of American and Russian ambassadors falling in love, a play which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Because he had a supporting role in Spartacus, he was needed only intermittently during filming; so he managed to squeeze in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco engagements of Romanoff and Juliet while appearing in the movie. Asked at the time what he did for a living, he replied, “Spartacus. ” Ustinov continued to appear mostly in American films for the balance of his career. He wrote and directed and starred in the film version of Romanoff and Juliet (1961), opposite JOHN GAVIN, who plays Julius Caesar in Spartacus. He then wrote, directed, and starred in his adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1962), a chilling parable of good and evil aboard a British naval vessel in 1797, with Terence Stamp in the title role. He won another Oscar for Topkapi (1964), a caper film about some inept thieves attempting to rob a museum.
   Ustinov played Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in three films, Death on the Nile (1978), Evil Under the Sun (1982), and Appointment with Death (1985), and once on TV in Thirteen at Dinner (1985). His final film was Stiff Upper Lip (1998), a British send-up of English period dramas. He was married to actress Susanne Cloutier from 1954 to 1971. Ustinov is best remembered for his two Oscarwinning films, as well as for Quo Vadis, in which he essayed the role of the emperor Nero in another Roman epic.
   ■ Kael, Pauline, 5001 Nights at the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), p. 699;
   ■ Stratton, David, “Film Review: Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures,Daily Variety, February 20, 2001, p. 20;
   ■ Ustinov, Peter, Dear Me:An Autobiography (London: Heinemann, 1977).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ustinov, Peter — • УСТИ НОВ (Ustinov) Питер (р. 16.4.1921)    англ. режиссёр, актёр, продюсер, драматург и писатель. По происхождению русский. Окончил Вестминстерский колледж и Лондонскую театр. студию. С 1937 театр. актёр. В кино с 1940. У. автор 18 пьес, многие …   Кино: Энциклопедический словарь

  • Ustinov, Peter — ► (n. 1921) Escritor, actor y director cinematográfico británico. Películas: Quo Vadis? (1951) y Espartaco. Autor de El amor de los cuatro coroneles (1951) y El soldado desconocido y su mujer (1967) …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Peter Alexander Ustinov — Peter Ustinov (1992) Sir Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinov CBE (* 16. April 1921 in Swiss Cottage, Camden, London; † 28. März 2004 in Genolier, Kanton Waadt, Schweiz) war einer der int …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Peter Alexander von Ustinow — Peter Ustinov (1992) Sir Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinov CBE (* 16. April 1921 in Swiss Cottage, Camden, London; † 28. März 2004 in Genolier, Kanton Waadt, Schweiz) war einer der int …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Peter Ustinow — Peter Ustinov (1992) Sir Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinov CBE (* 16. April 1921 in Swiss Cottage, Camden, London; † 28. März 2004 in Genolier, Kanton Waadt, Schweiz) war einer der int …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Peter Ustinov — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Peter Ustinov Nombre real Peter Alexander Ustinov Nacimiento 16 de abril de 1921 Londres …   Wikipedia Español

  • Peter Ustinov — [Peter Ustinov] (1921–2004) an English actor, writer and film ↑director. He was best known for playing unusual characters, e.g. in Death on the Nile (1978), in which he played the ↑detective Hercule Poirot. He was also admire …   Useful english dictionary

  • Ustinov — Ustinov, Peter ► C. de Rusia, cap. de la República Autónoma de Udmurtia; 646 800 h. Fábricas de armas. Ind. diversa. Universidad. Aeropuerto. Hasta 1987 se llamó Iževsk …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Peter Ustinov — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Ustinov. Sir Peter Ustinov …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Peter Ustinov — Infobox actor bgcolour = silver name = Sir Peter Ustinov imagesize = 250px caption = in The Sundowners (1960) birthname = Peter Alexander Ustinov birthdate = Birth date|1921|4|16|df=yes location = London, England deathdate = death date and… …   Wikipedia

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