Actor Malcolm McDowell discusses his star turn in the controversial film A Clockwork Orange, which remains a classic 40 years after its release.
Actor Malcolm McDowell
Tavis: But you’re an actor, though. Malcolm McDowell is a talented actor whose many notable roles include the Stanley Kubrick classic “A Clockwork Orange.” On May 31st, a special 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition will be in stores commemorating the groundbreaking film originally released back in 1971. Here now, a scene from “A Clockwork Orange.”
Tavis: I was saying to you that when I looked at this, Malcolm, the cover of this Blu-ray edition of “A Clockwork Orange,” the photo grabs you. I don’t know if the camera can actually see that, but you have this interesting eyelash, but only on one eye, and I was commenting on that to you and you said – you were about to explain it to me, and I said, “No, no, hold it for the air.” So what’s the story behind this photo?
Malcolm McDowell: Yes, that’s – well, the story is I was walking up Church Street, Kensington, which is right near where I lived then, and past this shop called Beeber (sp). And I went into the store, it was like a boutique. This is 1970, I guess. Right by the counter was a yard of eyelash, just one long, huge eyelash, and I thought, oh, my God, I’ve got to get that for Stanley, because I was going out to see him.
I went out and I showed him this thing like this, and he said, “Oh, that’s great – put it on.” (Laughter) I went, “Oh, okay.” So I put one on and he took a photograph. Then I put them both on, and he took a still photograph.
He called me the next day and he goes, “I don’t know, there’s something really weird about that one eyelash.” He said, “We’ll use just the one eyelash, because when you look at your face and there’s something not quite right.” That’s why we used that eyelash.
Tavis: It is amazing to me, phenomenal, in some regards, when you hear these stories about how things came to be in films that go on to be classics, but you’re walking down the street, you get this for him, and it ends up being part of the character’s look.
McDowell: And a very important part, because – and he’s right, though. It’s sinister without shoving it down your throat. It’s like when we did – which has become a real classic – is we couldn’t figure a way to do this beating up of the writer without being this naturalistic and boring kind of just fight scene.
So we sat on the set for five days and he wouldn’t turn the camera until he found the answer to it. He came up to me on the fifth day and said, “Can you dance?” By this time I leapt up and said, “Can I dance?” (Singing) “I’m singing in the rain.” Wallop. And he went, “Oh -” grabbed hold of me, stuck me in his car, we drove back to his house and he bought the rights to “Singing in the Rain.”
We went back and we did the whole sequence. It took a week to shoot, and it made the – well, it didn’t make Gene Kelly very happy, but (laughter) I’ll tell you that it became a very important part of the movie and it was just from – just an improv that suddenly – if you have a director that’s open to that and completely open and not bound by – he was lucky. It’s Kubrick. He could take as long as he wanted.
Tavis: To your point now – I want to get back to the movie in just a second, but since you’re talking specifically about him, he’s obviously regarded as one of the best ever in this business. Tell me about Stanley Kubrick.
McDowell: Well, he was an extraordinary intellect. He wasn’t really – I like to say he was a satirist rather than a humanist. A brilliant stills cameraman who – and you could see that in his movies.
What is extraordinary about Stanley, I think, is that he didn’t just do a one-genre movie. He didn’t just do science fiction or horror or anything like that. He did everything, and he mastered them. He did costume pieces, period pieces, comedies. The run that he had, from “Paths of Glory,” anti-war film, with Kirk Douglas, to “Spartacus” to “Lolita,” “Strangelove,” I think it’s – “Strangelove,” to me, is a total masterpiece.
Tavis: “The Shining.”
McDowell: And “2001,” the Clarke – “The Shining,” exactly. So he took every genre. It’s so different, and he made one of the great movies in that particular genre. So we’re talking really – look, John Ford is my favorite movie director of all time. He’s a god to me.
But John Ford sort of stuck with the western, pretty much – pretty much, although of course he made other films, too. But Kubrick never – he never really repeated, and it’s pretty amazing, really, that he had such an immense intellect.
What was interesting about him is that he’s the only director I ever worked with who would invent something new in the genre of filmmaking itself. In other words, “2001,” he invented certain cameras, certain this, that and the other to accommodate what he wanted, and all the lights in “Clockwork Orange,” for instance, it’s one-source lighting.
What you see on the screen, the lighting, is what it is. There’s no bounced light or filler lights, and he got these very high-energy bulbs from Germany and he used them in the movie. And so we could shoot in very low light, and it was amazing.
Tavis: For you Stanley Kubrick fans, it’s not just that “A Clockwork Orange” is out on the 40th anniversary in Blu-ray, there’s a brand new limited edition collection of some of his best stuff that I am lucky enough to have a copy of that’s going home with me tonight.
McDowell: Good, good. (Laughter)
Tavis: Thank you for bringing that. I appreciate that. Back to the movie, though, specifically, “A Clockwork Orange,” obviously you do, but recall for me how controversial this film was. It ends up ultimately being nominated for four Academy Awards, but it was a controversial film, namely around the issue of violence. Rated X here in the United States.
McDowell: It was rated X, yes. It was silly, really, because – and I think Stanley cut 12 seconds to get an R rating, just 12 seconds. It was silly. But of course, it’s not violence in the ketchup sense – blood and gore – it’s violence psychologically, and that’s what was disturbing, the psychological element of it. Listen, it’s a film that will last forever because of its content, because it’s always relevant because basically, put down to one sentence, you say, “Well, what is this film about?” It’s about the freedom of man to choose.
Now, Burgess makes the antagonist an immoral man, which is a dilemma for us because us liberal thinkers think that how dare – surely if the man is a murderer, why should we make freedom his condition? But the thing is, it’s very important that we don’t allow big brother, the state, to take over whatever it is. A man should be free to choose, and that’s what this is about.
Tavis: What did playing this character, Malcolm, do to you or for you in terms of us seeing you as a sinister and shadowy character?
McDowell: Well, my mother wasn’t too happy with me. She said, “Can’t you ever play any nice parts?” I did have to admit that she had a point, but I do remember I lived in Notting Hill Gate in London at the time and I used to go in to the news agent to get my paper every day. I knew them for four or five years before the movie came out.
When the movie came out I went in to the news agents and saw the same guy, and he literally went, “Ah!” (Laughter) I went, “What? It’s me.” He goes, “Oh, I had no idea you were like that.” I said, “No, no, I’m not like that. God’s sake.” People just think that you’re – which I suppose is a backhanded compliment, is it not?
Tavis: Well, it is, it can be, but it can also lead to typecasting in this business.
McDowell: Well, hello. (Laughter) I’ve played one or two heavies since I played -
Tavis: Yeah, you’ve played a few heavies, exactly.
McDowell: Yeah. They won’t – unless you do a sort of straight romantic role and it’s a huge hit, they’re not going to ask an English person, by the way, to do too many of those. We make great Germans, Russians, any heavies – dope dealers, (laughter) serial killers. I’ve done them all.
One I did a few years ago, I had to go to Kiev in the Ukraine to play a serial killer who was a pedophile and a cannibal. He ate his victims as well. And it was based on a true character.
Tavis: While I got you here, before I lose you, right quick, tell me about “Never Apologize.” Well-received at Cannes.
McDowell: Yes, this is an amazing story, because it’s this little film that could, and it’s a documentary directed – my dear friend, Mike Kaplan, who I met on “A Clockwork Orange,” actually. We did this at the Edinburgh Festival. It’s really about my relationship with Lindsay Anderson and I wanted to do this.
I wanted to tell people who he was because I felt that he was a real genius, and people had forgotten the movies I did with him – “If,” “Oh, Lucky Man,” and “Britannia Hospital.” So I did a one-man show on stage, played 35 characters, including Bette Davis and you name it, and so it’s my tribute, really to my relationship with him and to him, using his diaries and clips and all – a menagerie of stuff.
It was very well received at Cannes, and in fact I went to the premiere with Quentin Tarantino, who at the end picked – he’s quite a bit guy. He picked me up like this, so I know he loved it, so that’s a recommendation.
Tavis: Speaking of tributes, it is a tribute to all things Stanley Kubrick. There is a new limited edition collection of some of his best stuff, and some of his best stuff includes “A Clockwork Orange.” Forty years later, now out on Blu-ray, starring, of course, one Malcolm McDowell.
Good to have you on the program, sir.
McDowell: Tavis, thank you so much.
Tavis: Thank you for your time. Good talking to you.
McDowell: Thank you. You, too.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.