Baltimore Sun

DVD/Blu-ray of the week: 'Never Apologize' with Malcolm McDowell

"He's a charming, charismatic, deadly character - but he's wonderful because he is so smooth. He is like Teflon and whenever he's attacked he just smiles and deflects everything," Malcolm McDowell said of a slippery recurring character he plays on CBS' "The Mentalist."

Even in episodic TV, whether on a pleasantly gimmicky crime show like that or an aggressively inside HBO series like "Entourage," McDowell has never lost the aura of danger -- and the acting appetite and skill -- that made his first and breakthrough movie director, Lindsay Anderson, cast him in "If..."


In Robert Altman's "The Company" -- the ballet movie that should have won the audience that went to "Black Swan" -- McDowell was tremendously engaging as the artistic director of Altman's fictional version of the Joffrey Ballet. McDowell gave the lie to the old canard that when you can fake sincerity you've got it made. In "The Company," McDowell lets loose with flattery so transparent that it's funny, but what counts is that everyone realizes the impulse behind it -- his need to succor his company. And when he's dead-honest he's lethal.

McDowell gets the role of his life -- himself -- in "Never Apologize," Mike Kaplan's dynamic, exquisite film of McDowell's one-man stage tribute to director Anderson.


This story of the life of a director is also about the life on actor. It shows how McDowell has thrived on collaboration -- and how his most intense and personal artistic partnership, with Anderson, informed every part of his life.

Beginning with McDowell's engaging account of why he got the part of the rebellious schoolboy in "If...," and ending with Anderson's funeral, it allows the actor to run the gamut from mischief and naivete to wisdom and rue.

McDowell used to be compared to James Cagney for his dynamism and his sometimes feral, sometimes charming smile. Especially in this film, he follows Cagney's famous dictum about acting: "You walk in, plant yourself squarely on both feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth."

He reveals himself as a wizardly mimic with astonishing range -- from John Ford (Anderson's idol) to John Gielgud -- and a performer equally deft at slapstick, satire, pathos, tragedy, and the daily human comedy. He's such a natural outsize personality that even when he moves to a lectern he hardly seems to be performing at all.

Director Kaplan showcases him beautifully. He fills out the show with cunningly placed clips and stills and cleverly timed headings that highlight and clarify -- never obfuscate -- the performance. Kaplan comes up with simple yet daring solutions to storytelling difficulties -- for example, he cuts between different camera angles on McDowell to make sure we know when he's speaking as himself and when as Anderson (partly from the director's own papers and published work). The result has the immediacy and intimacy of the stage play and even greater lucidity.

Kaplan has been at different times a legendary marketing whiz and/or producer for giants like Stanley Kubrick and Altman and Mike Hodges; he produced Anderson's final film, the elegiac "The Whales of August." He has also become a deft as well as empathetic director. His behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Altman's "Short Cuts" -- "Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country" -- is one of the most revealing and evocative making-of documentaries ever made (it's included in the Criterion Collection edition of "Short Cuts").

Warner Home Video issued "Never Again" on DVD in May, but Kaplan has continued to take it from one festival to the next, where it rouses applause as a film and a fresh, vital piece of movie history. "Never Apologize" would be thrilling enough simply as a chronicle of Anderson. This intransigent, provocative director of films like "This Sporting Life, "If..., " and "O Lucky Man" (the last based on McDowell's experiences as a coffee salesman), also, in the theater, put his talents at the service of Synge, Chekhov, Shakespeare, and his own most adventurous contemporaries, like David Storey.

But this film in effect pays ardent tribute to an entire generation of British artists, including actors like Albert Finney and Richard Harris and directors like Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, who brought English-speaking cinema some of the grit of the Italian neorealists and the poetry and freedom of the French New Wave.


Kaplan reports by email that a July 17 screening at the Maine International Film Festival "was terrific. Audience very appreciative and film played beautifully." He says he "can always tell humor is working with the audience" when viewers respond to McDowell's account of his audition with Christine Noonan for "If...": their mouths clashed during a kiss and Malcolm bled -- but it was OK, he says, because it was "pre-Aids".

The audience laughed just as hard during Anderson's struggle to persuade Lillian Gish that a profile shot of her in "Whales of August" was as expressive as "Whistler's Mother." Gish countered with the most celebrated full-face portrait of all -- "but think of the Mona Lisa!"

Viewers also sobbed and gasped, especially during Anderson's final visit to John Ford, and an unexpectedly poignant anecdote about Princess Diana telling Anderson "I AM AN ACTRESS," and McDowell's "returning to France where Lindsay died. Also there was a semi gasp with Lindsay's observation of the vulnerability of the World Trade Center flying around it with Treat Williams."

Kaplan continues, "Usually I introduce and leave Malcolm for the Q&A but this time, because the Altman [documentary] was also being shown, I had a couple of stories about their relationship (Bob and Lindsay)....Having both 'Never Apologize' and 'Luck, Trust and Ketchup' shown on the same day -- a few hours apart -- was a new experience for me, as relived many years watching them; hearing Lindsay through Malcolm and as happened the last time I saw the Altman at the Berlin Docs Festival, was elated after being with Bob again for 90 minutes, but then saddened he wasn't with us anymore."

Thanks to Kaplan, for the 94 minutes of "Luck, Trust & Ketchup" and the 111 minutes of "Never Apologize," these directors do live again.