What a Droog It Is Getting Old
Certain fascinatingly idiosyncratic actors make such an impression in an early, fascinatingly idiosyncratic role that forever afterward they are . . . well, not typecast exactly, but they can spend the rest of their careers knocking around in oddball character roles that for the most part don't live up to their obvious talent.
Tim Curry, for instance, could hardly be said to have been typecast by his star turn as the Sweet Transvestite who absolutely stole The Rocky Horror Picture Show; he has played a wide variety of parts since then, ranging from the manic butler of Clue to the spooky-as-hell satanic baddie at the heart of Ridley Scott's Legend. But still, nobody who saw Rocky can ever see Curry again without remembering him doing his glam rock, Joan Crawford strut—even all these years later, when the actor has become, by his own appraisal (and frankly, everyone else's as well) "chubby and plain." No matter if Curry someday takes home a big sack full of Oscars, they'll still put Dr. Frank-N-Furter on his tombstone.
Malcolm McDowell is another compulsively watchable actor who has never quite escaped the long shadow of an early role; in McDowell's case, the role was Alex, the detestably smug rapist/murderer/asshole-for-all seasons at the center of Stanley Kubrick's dystopian masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange. McDowell brought eerie conviction to Alex's antics, so much so that years later, after one of his wives saw the film, McDowell was able to send the woman into spasms of fear merely by purring, "Well, well, well" in that unforgettable droog voice. The fact that McDowell apparently still gets such a kick out of telling the story of his poor wife's Alex-induced hysteria tells you something about the streak of jolly cruelty that runs through the man; in his appearances on the just-canceled Politically Incorrect, he invariably pounced upon whomever was in the vicinity and tore them a new one—sometimes several new ones. In late middle age, with his hairline headed due north and with his youthful, Cagney-esque good looks having gone all British schoolmaster on him, McDowell is still as horrifyingly punk rock as Johnny Rotten in his prime.
It was McDowell who perfected the Kubrick leer; chin down, peering out through lowered brows, a smirk that told you something truly awful was about to happen. Brrrrr! Kubrick later attempted to coax this expression out of a number of remarkable actors—among them, Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket—but while they were usually able to pull it off with a certain flair, it never sat on them as naturally as it did with McDowell. As Alex, McDowell didn't simply brutalize; he brutalized with an awful exuberance, bringing a real joi de vie to the old ultraviolence.
McDowell has gone on to play mostly villains, and he's played more of them in more mediums than anybody this side of, well, Tim Curry. McDowell has been a prick in countless guest-starring parts on awful TV shows, in movies great and small, in cartoon voice-overs and even in video games. When he's not a villain, he's a king, or, once a century or so, a nice guy. Come to think of it, he and Curry must be up for a lot of the same parts; it's all too easy to picture McDowell flinging the phone at the wall of his hotel room when he gets the call from his agent saying that they're going with Curry for Mister Magoo II.
In Gangster No. 1, a British indie currently in release, McDowell has a ball parodying the role that made him famous, as an aged but still vicious thug who recounts his youthful adventures in the thug trade. Paul Bettany plays McDowell as a young man, and while he doesn't quite look like the young McDowell, he somehow looks exactly like a guy who would grow up to look like McDowell looks now. Between them, it's almost like seeing Alex reborn, timelessly sociopathic and cheekily repulsive. In a way, McDowell has come full circle, but if he feels like he's closing the book on Alex, he's got another think coming. The man can still dazzle us with his carefully enunciated rottenness (the way he snarled, "Time is the fire in which we burn" at Patrick Stewart is the one thing most people remember from Star Trek: Generations), but every role he plays will be forever shadowed by Alex, the monster who made McDowell's name.
No matter what the part, no matter what the medium, McDowell remains the once and future droog.
A Clockwork Orange screens at the Bay Theatre, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Sat., 10:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 8:15 p.m. $5-8.
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