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Nigel Hawthorne

Academy Award nominee for The Madness of King George, and star of The Winslow Boy

If you don't know the name Nigel Hawthorne, Cranky urges you to run down to the local video store and rent a copy of The Madness of King George to see a performance we think was superior to Tom Hanks' Oscar winning turn in Forrest Gump. In New York to promote his latest film, the David Mamet adapted and directed The Winslow Boy, Hawthorne sat with us to talk about this film, his career and Oscar turn, and the brouhaha in the press, after a small magazine decided to out him and his long time partner.
The true story of The Winslow Boy, a lad accused of theft and booted from the Royal Naval Academy without hearing, was as controversial in its day (1910) as anything in the tabloids today. In a world before radio and television existed, where airplane flight was a dangerous experiment and movies were a novelty, the papers were full of tales of The Winslow Boy and his court battle (indeed, it was debated on the floor of Parliament) to "Let Right Be Done," and give the boy a fair hearing. Terrence Rattigan's play won awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and was first made into a movie in the early 1950s starring Robert Donat, Cedric Hardwick and Margaret Leighton. The Mamet version, (It helps to see the film (hint, hint) but there's a summary in Cranky's Review ) brings a top line British ensemble cast to the big screen and this StarTalk guest, Nigel Hawthorne, before our microphones. Hawthorne's familiarity with the stage version is as good a place as any to start this conversation . . .

Nigel Hawthorne: The central character of the father is much more austere than the film and in the stage version. David wanted to show the family side more than the autocratic father that was viewed by the family. I think that there's much more warmth, and that you understand more of what drove him to want to see right done. I think it's a very, very moving story and will always be moving because it's about those values that we hold dear to us and that we often see squandered.

CrankyCritic: There's a moment early on where the father seems surprised that the son is afraid of him.
Nigel Hawthorne: Yes. But you can play quite differently. You can play that the whole family knew, of course, that the boy had returned and had been standing in the rain and were afraid to tell the father because of the repercussions. He then says "or you afraid of me" to the boy. So you could play it that he's the sort of man that a child would fear and maybe he does fear him. Would you fear a father that was a lot older thing you? He must have had him very late in life. Because, I'm 70 now, so I would have had to have had the boy in minded '50s. My own father didn't marry until he was over 40. Maybe that's the sort of thing that has carried over. I mean it's perfectly plausible.

CrankyCritic: How is David Mamet regarded by the English theater scene? Was there any trepidation about taking on this archetypical English story?
Nigel Hawthorne: I don't really think that they know too much about it yet. We haven't done a publicity campaign over there. David is very highly regarded. Oleanna and the things that he's done at the National Theater have been very well received. He has a very good reputation, but only in the theater. I don't think we've seen The Spanish Prisoner there yet. So his film reputation is not on the same level as his theater reputation. I went to a showing of this in London and I didn't know what he had done with it. It could have been disastrous but the reception at the end, the respect that he garnered during the showing of the picture was enormous. Already the London critics have spied it out over here and have reported very favorably.

CrankyCritic: Is there a sense that because he is American he's bringing a different kind of eye. . .
Nigel Hawthorne: Yes. I think that's why I did it, you know. Why do The Winslow Boy, which is a very good story but its been done. If you need a new eye on it, then David's eye is certainly an original one

CrankyCritic: Many many years ago, you had auditioned for the RSC...
Nigel Hawthorne: A lot

CrankyCritic: And every year and they said "no". Nowadays a lot of people consider you one of the great classical actors...
Nigel Hawthorne: Thank you.

CrankyCritic: Given that experience, how does that make you feel about the iffy-ness and the chance of succeeding as an actor?
Nigel Hawthorne: I of course enough alone. There are so many of us and some are somewhat lucky enough to get a break. And if they do get a break, some are not clever enough to take advantage of it. I certainly tried for many years to join the RSC, because I really believe that to want to become a classical actor in the right way. The right way was to go to Stratford and start at the bottom and work your way up. That wasn't allowed, and when the National Theater with Laurence Olivier called, I auditioned for that and never got into that. So that was very disappointing because I could see these great companies, and even the repertory companies -- the big ones -- I never, ever had a chance of working with them. So I didn't have that sort of classical trained background which I yearned for. It never came my way. Then I did a modern play with Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 and on the opening night Trevor Nunn, who ran the Company, came into my room. He was wearing an enormous, white fur coat and threw his arms around me (it was in the '70s) and said "Please, please promise me you'll come to Stratford". When he's gone out of the room, the people in the room said "Oh! He's invited you to Stratford" I said "I've been trying to get to ****ing Stratford ever since I began" in 1951!

CrankyCritic: That couldn't have been fun.
Nigel Hawthorne: Well, I suppose at the time I was a bit angry. But you get to know there's no point in being angry. That's part of the job you've chosen. Now, I'm going to play King Lear at Stratford in August. It's a huge honor to play Shakespeare's greatest play over the millennium at Stratford, his birthplace and where he died. But also Shakespeare was very much a man of the millennium in Britain but it's my first time that I've ever played at Stratford.

CrankyCritic: You've been doing a lot of movies lately, there's a lot going on
Nigel Hawthorne: Yes, the problem is that I'm 70 and you think that there's so little time left. I've wished that I've had at the beginning the opportunities that I have now. They've all the left to the end.

CrankyCritic: Tell us about the film which opened Americans eyes, The Madness of King George.
Nigel Hawthorne: Well, it started here. I did a play called Shadowlands with Jane Alexander and Nick Hytner, who was putting on Miss Saigon on the road came to a performance at the end of the run, with Jonathan Pryce who was in Miss Saigon. They're both quite difficult people socially and we went and had a meal afterwards. It was quite difficult meal because I was doing all the talking. They were just sitting there and saying that they did enjoy it. I was thinking "they're lying" [laughs] and then, a few weeks after that play folded, I went back to England and within a few days I got an offer to do The Madness of King George, or George the Third as it was then called, which he was directing. So, obviously, he had quite liked Shadowlands. But Anthony Hopkins did the movie of that, you know, which I understood.

CrankyCritic: The story has gone around that Alan Bennett had written the play with you in mind.
Nigel Hawthorne: No. No. The fact Alan Bennett had written what he thought, I think, was a satire about the difference between the attitudes of the politicians of the day and the medical profession of the day and through the center of it all was an ailing King. It wasn't until we did the reading for the first time that Alan realized, for the first time, that it was the story of the King that held the thing together. The satirical thing wasn't the satirical thing. It was much more the emotional core of this wronged man.

CrankyCritic: Without sounding rude, because I do that think that you should have received an Academy Award for that role, is there a reticence among English actors to do the campaigning necessary to win an Oscar ?
Nigel Hawthorne: It's very alien to us, you know. It's something that we're not used to. We're used to just getting up and doing the job. If somebody pats you on the back, that's fine. That's extra. As for the campaign, the one that you're talking about, we made the initial mistake of opening the movie here to late. In fact it was so late it didn't qualify for the Golden Globes. It also coincided with the breakup of the Goldwyn Empire and he was having big financial problems. I was brought over to New York for a flurry of interviews. I know that Forrest Gump, which won, sent Tom Hanks on a nationwide campaign and that the publicity cost in this country alone was eight times our entire budget. So you realize what you're against. I knew when I got off the plane in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards that Hanks had won, or that if I had a hope it would have been the very outside chance of winning because it was essentially an American celebration. Okay, I had been patted on the back to what I've done. They said okay you've got the nomination but you're not going any further. And I sort of knew that.

CrankyCritic: Did you enjoy the ceremony?
Nigel Hawthorne: No, it was very uncomfortable.

CrankyCritic: Because you were "outed" just prior to the ceremony?
Nigel Hawthorne: It was kind of difficult because I was taking Loretta Swit, who is a friend, and my partner. We were given three seats and I was told that there would be two seats together and the third at the back. So I had to make a choice. I wrote to Loretta and said 'Look you must understand that we've lived together for 20 years and I cannot not be sitting next to [him]. Would you mind sitting at the back?' And straight away she said "I totally understand. You must do it." But then they changed and they gave us three seats together.
     It was a very difficult situation because I was outed by this magazine called The Advocate. I didn't know the magazine. I don't mix in those circles. We lead a very quiet life. The Goldwyn office asked if I would do an interview with The Advocate and I said I don't know what is. They said it's a gay magazine and it has a small circulation. You have a lot of interviews. You don't have to if you don't want to. I said well let's leave it. I was doing theater in the West End and they approached my producer who told them that I had done 70 interviews and that I was all interviewed out. They said "Well, if he doesn't give us the interview we'll write the story anyway".


 So I called this girl up and said ...
"I understand you wish to write a story about me".
"Yes."
"May I ask you a few questions, first? Have you got a lover yourself?"
"Yes," she had.
"Are you happy?" This she was.
"And how long have you been together?"
"Six years."
"Is it a man or woman?"
"It's a woman."
"Well, now you understand my situation. So please respect it."

We did the interview and, apparently, I never saw it. It was never sent to me but it was apparently sympathetic. But of course the world press got hold of it and it was splashed all over the papers and really horrific. It was terrible. We had to hire four security guards to keep them away from the house. When I came to the Academy Awards, I had to be smuggled to the airport and we were actually checked in in the car park. It was ludicrous because I was then mid-'60s and we'd lived together 20 years. I was doing then what I'm doing now, advertising a movie, and every question was about my personal life. So it was very difficult. Now that that's happened, it's done. So it's fine.

 

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