Monday, August 24, 2015

An Ode to Robert Newton, 'Arr Matey

This is Robert Newton:

I love Robert Newton. He is perfect. Look at that ruddy face, that feverish glare, those flared nostrils and beetled brows. He is the quintessential rogue, the consummate scalawag, the peerless rascal. He eclipses Charles Laughton, Geoffrey Rush, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Johnny Depp, and even my beloved Peter Ustinov, for in this crazed, hammy lunatic we have the most perfect of pirates.

Newton created what today we consider the archetype of the pirate, especially the heavily dialectic speech patterns of his thick West Country accent. He's the unofficial patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day, celebrated on September 19. Though his pirate voice is his most obvious legacy, the dimensions he gave to his most famous characters, Long John Silver (in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, as well as a number of unofficial sequels) and Blackbeard (the titular role of the 1952 film) have determined pretty much every aspect of cinematic pirate characters. His triumph, however, was also his downfall, since most viewers today see his performance as unoriginal and cliché, not realizing that his performance is the original, the one that established the clichés in the first place. 

Newton's is a hammy performance, but anyone who has read Treasure Island should easily recognize how rooted in Stevenson's literary portrait Newton's Long John is, a pirate whose success depends on his ability to enthrall, to thrill and tantalize, since physically he is no match for the seasoned cutthroats under his command. Similarly, the legendary Blackbeard has attained such a monumental cultural status in large part because he was a ridiculous ham - this is a guy who literally set lit fuses in his beard (or hat, depending on the source). Newton was born to play these characters.

Of course, Newton became typecast as a pirate in the wake of his success and today is remembered almost exclusively for his performances as Long John Silver and Blackbeard. But Newton was an extraordinarily accomplished actor, with a wide and varied repertory of stage roles, including Horatio (Hamlet) which he played opposite Laurence Olivier in the titular role, and dozens of screen roles, ranging from villainous murderers and thieves to the most principled and upstanding of policemen. As Pistol in Henry V (1944), he is deliciously droll opposite the pomposity of Olivier as one of the most successful monarchs of English history, and the performance gives us a taste of how great Newton must have been on the Shakespearean stage.

Perhaps his most interesting on-screen performance is as an obsessive and almost demonic painter in Odd Man Out (1947). Carol Reed's film is generally overshadowed by The Third Man, which enjoys critical adulation and is nearly always cited as Reed's best effort, but this film is a much more complex beast, less broadly entertaining, not so much a thriller as a meditation on human compassion and justice. Newton is given an opportunity to chew up the scenery and yet, despite the theatricality of the performance, its believability is key to understanding the entire film. Its power rests on ambiguity, on the conflicts between selfish desire and altruism, political idealism and pragmatism, obsessive madness and steely-eyed determination, all the grey areas where moral truths slip away like eels and the absolute loses all significance. Newton's character wants above all else to capture on canvas the last moments of a dying man, and, believing that he has found his model in Johnny (James Mason), the fugitive leader of an IRA-like partisan group, he is loath to lose his perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What fascinates about the performance is how quickly and evasively the character seems to flip-flop between qualities that nearly merge. Is he mad or brilliant, or both? Is he moral or amoral or does he occupy some twisted middle ground? Is he protecting or exploiting his subject, or vacillating between motives? It's an ostentatious, histrionic performance, but its jagged, profound complexity renders it anything but artificial.

Sadly, a familiar foe, one that dogged the pirate characters he so brilliantly played, ultimately destroyed Robert Newton, who died in 1956 at age 50 of a heart attack, after a long, losing battle with alcoholism. Alas, a pirate may love his bottle of rum, but rum makes for a treacherous lover, a verity that the liver of every pirate learns to its peril.

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