Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000)
- Leslie Howard, Romeo and Juliet, 1936. The obvious choice as he had just conquered London in a stage version except the snobbish Gielgud was convinced Shakespeare was unsuitable for cinema. . In this case he was right. He went to see the film - and left after 15 minutes. Well, the teenage lovers were played by Howard and Norma Shearer - aged 42 and 33!
- Charles Boyer, The Garden of Allah, 1936. A bizarre idea from producer David Selznick for Boris Androvsky, the ex-Trappist monk falling for the beautiful, if“cloistered” (oh hum!) Marlene Dietrich. She would have eaten himalive and spat out the bones and gristle!
- Robert Morley, Marie-Antoinette, 1937. When MGM production chief Irving Thalberg could not land Charles Laughton for Louis XVI, he spun through such possible royals as Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, Oscar Homolka, Conrad Viedt. Every accent except French!
- Harcourt Williams, Henry V, 1944. He refused to be King Charles VI of France, admittedly a tiny role - but wasn’t this supposed to bea propaganda effort?He wanted to be Chorus - reserved for Robert Donat until his chronicasthma knocked him out and Leslie Banks took over. Gielgud said Laurence Olivier (the star and director) would not use him because of an old grudge over Gielgud’s getting better reviews when they alternated as Romeo and Mercutio on-stage in Romeo and Juliet, 1935. And yet, Olivier had Gielgud play Clarence in his Richard III, 1955.
- Claude Rains, Ceasar and Cleopatra, 1945. Johnny refused to partner Vivien Leigh. The reason?Gabby!Gielgud simply hateddirector Gabriel Pascal, one of the many Hungarian exiles hovering around producer Alexander Korda.
- Michael Redgrave, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952. He had played Jack Worthing enough times on stage to know that he was, perhaps, a trifle old- at 48- to do so on film.
- Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1956. Looking for his Nicholson, Producer Sam Spiegel also sussed out: Ronald Colman, Noel Coward, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, James Mason, Ray Milland, Laurence Olivier, Eric Portman, Anthony Quayle, Ralph Richardson - and Spencer Tracy, who bluntly told Spiegel that the mad Colonel Nicholson had tobe an Englishman.
- Jack Hawkins, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1956. “There was some talk:” explained Gielgud in 1971. “but it came to nothing.” Obviously. Can you see Gielgud hiding in the jungle with William Holden and planning to blow (or not to blow) up a bridge?
- Peter Finch, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1959. Johnny said he was originally offered Wilde because of his success directing Wilde’s plays. He passed. “No one could look less like Wilde than I do, not even Peter Finch.”
- Ralph Richardson, Exodus, 1960. One hard day’s knight for another. Otto Preminger did not care which.
- Rex Harrison, Cleopatra, 1962.
- Dirk Bogarde, Mort a Venezia/Death in Venice, Italy, 1971. Before he considered his Damned star, director Visconti (Count Don Luchino Visconti Di Modrone) offered Thomas Mann’s homosexual novella to Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Burt Lancaster.Veteran French director Claude Chabrol called it “one of the most grotesque films incinema history.”
- John Houseman, The Paper Chase, 1973. Gielgud’s health ruled him out of being Professor Kingsfield. After trying to land Melvyn Douglas, James Mason, Edward G Robinson or Paul Scofield, James Bridges chose Orson Welles’ old cohort. And Housemanimmediately won an Oscar for his third film only in 36 years. He made another 40, plus a Paper Chase TV series, during the next 15 years until his 1988 death.
- Heathcote Williams, The Tempest, 1979. For all his Hamlets, Lears and Romeos, Prospero was the definitive Gielgud role. He played it five times between 1930-1974… betwixt 26 and 70. Yet he refused screen offers from the great Michael Powell in the 50s and Derek Jarman in 1979. “Johnny” finally gave in and played the exiled duke (and sorcerer) in Peter Greenaway’s 1990 Prospero’s Books. Not quite Shakespeare - then, nor was Jarman’s (typical) homoerotic take. With Williams as a much younger duke. New York Times critic Vincent Canby found it full of impertinent inspirations, yet “without a single interesting or especially coherent idea.” Now…guess what #15 is…?
- Michael Hordern, The Tempest, TV, 1980. When Alec Guinness quit, Gielgud was asked to be Prospero - he also quit following a dispute about director John Gorrie’s production concept. (Prospero was playedby Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor’s2010 version).
- Burgess Meredith, Clash of the Titans, 1981. “MGM said because we had Olivier we couldn't have Gielgud,” said scenarist Beverly Cross,“as everyonewould think it was Shakespeare" - when it was Ray Harryhausen! “Meredith (71) was good, though he was getting on and slowed the scenesup.”Gielgud was 75.
- John Mills, Sahara, 1983. Makes Caligula look a masterpiece.
- Patrick Horgan, Zelig, 1983. Woody Allen asked Gielgud to narrate the film and found him too “grand” (the reason he was asked, no?).Take Two was with theTV actor who had taped the entire Sherlock Holmes cannon for the blind.He’s also seen - if you know where to look - in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001.
- Trevor Howard, The Missionary, 1982. No! “What stings me more,” said thescenarist-star-diarist of “Mish,” Michael Palin, “is that there was no particular reason given - he just didn’t want to do it.”
- Ray Milland, The Masks of Death, TV, 1984. Change of British Home Sercretary in Peter Cushing’s last outing as Sherlock Holmes. This proved the penultimate film of both actors.
- Patrick Stewart, Lifeforce, 1984. A year earlier, the main cast had been announced as Gielgud, Klaus Kinski, Olivia Hussey. Frank Finlay substituted Kinski, Nancy Paul replaced Hussey (who fled thinking her role was the naked one) and Gielgud, allegedly, wanted more money. A year later, director Tobe Hooper had a choice of 44 UK actors just for the Dr Armstrong spurned by Sir John. As if anyone would pay attention to the guys - when Mathilda May was resplendently naked for almost the entire 116 minutes. (A rare accomplishment, swiftly copied the following year by another Parisienne, Patricia Barzyk - Miss France 1980 - in Jean-Pierre Mocky’s La machine à découdre). Stewart later won a far better sf project, Star Trek: The Next Generation, TV, 1987-1994.
- Michael Hordern, The Trouble With Spies, 1987. Caligula has been enough for the old knight. He wanted nothing to do with what was called in the UK: Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties.
- Dirk Bogarde, Daddy Nostalgie, France, 1989. Realisateur Bertrand Tavernier sent the NAMES scenario to both Gielgud and Bogarde. Neither one replied. Bogarde had retired from cinema after his unhappy experience making Despair for Rainer Werner Fassbinder - and changed his mind, one last time, for his 71st and final film.