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So bad he's good

High Museum celebrates endearing cad, James Mason


It is no small coincidence that Jeremy Irons played the James Mason role of Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne's 1997 remake of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. Like Irons, who also carries a hint of cad beneath his refined demeanor, actor James Mason (1909-1984) had an almost sado-masochistic appeal.

There are very few contemporary actors who could carry off the blend of erudition and carnality that Mason, featured in a retrospective film series at the High Museum this month, managed to bring to Kubrick's Lolita. Mason was so right in that role, Irons often seemed more a response to Mason than the Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's text.

Debonair, but with the shrewd, calculating manner of someone harboring myriad agendas, Mason's actorly persona was rife with the kinds of contradictions that make for a fascinating screen personality. Polished and good-looking, with the wet brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair of a very good-looking daddy, Mason's physical features suggest an element of kindness, control and refinement that often was countered by the roles he played.

In Odd Man Out (1947), directed by Carol Reed, Mason played an Irish partisan bank robber who becomes separated from his gang after a heist and wanders the dark, rain-slicked streets of London, helpless and wounded. The film featured Mason as a hunted, pathetic animal cast out from the community of humans, who are shown in their very worst light, refusing to help a fellow man for fear of the authorities. Still gripping some six decades later, Odd Man Out was an early indication of how much Mason could convey in facial expression alone, considering how little he speaks over the course of the film.

An actor of impressive range, Mason played a drug-addicted family man, a ghost, a bureaucratic sadist and, in Max Ophuls' 1949 The Reckless Moment (recently remade as The Deep End), a blackmailer. Mason imbued such performances with a complexity founded on that silken whisper of a voice and the soft, thoughtful crinkles that break from his tender, expressive eyes -- coupled with some very nasty deeds. Conveying great emotional depths with a raised eyebrow or subtle frown, Mason managed to suggest festering desires, greed, lust and rage beneath that relatively immobile facade.

Mason's career path often was critiqued for its eccentricity; the actor seemed unable to say no to any role, no matter how mediocre or forgettable. Though his career was admittedly eclectic, incorporating both trash and classics, a common thread united his oeuvre. Mason often specialized in playing men undone by their own greed and delusions.

But even the most sinister of Mason's roles was not without his characteristic charm, as when his criminal mastermind Phillip Vandamm quips to the government agents who killed his henchman, "That's not very sporting ... using real bullets."

Only Mason could have made the pretentious pedophile/murderer in Lolita, somehow endearing. It is no doubt his single greatest accomplishment as an actor. Stanley Kubrick brilliantly exploited the element of pathos, neediness and outright lust lurking beneath Mason's saturnine exterior. In what French critic Michel Ciment calls a film with an "undeniable malaise," Shelley Winters plays excess to Mason's repression as the frumpy mama guarding the gates to Lolita (Sue Lyons) while harboring a lewd crush on Humbert.

But Charlotte Haze (Winters) proves no match for a man who hides every trace of selfishness and hatred so expertly beneath his British reserve, and whose every vicious, barbed putdown comes wrapped in a velvet box. "The handsome face gloats in a rotting smile," says Pauline Kael of Mason's Humbert, whose expressions suggest a man who's just gotten a whiff of something rancid as he watches the clueless Charlotte go about her courtship dance.

Mason is delicious in the role, a mannered, elitist European amused and revolted by the spectacle of Charlotte's gauche middle-class social climbing. But the beauty of Mason's performance lies in its pathos. Though he manages to hide his disgust with Charlotte long enough to gain his coveted Lolita, he soon finds himself on the receiving end of Lolita's own lip-curling revulsion at his pawing, middle-aged sexual desperation. Kubrick's vermouth-arid sense of humor is matched perfectly by Mason's own brittleness and the cruel irony that even this clever, sophisticated man is finally undone by the most carnal, animalistic wants.

What is most memorable about Mason is, for lack of a better word, his human quality -- a sense that he is more like us than other celluloid apparitions. One minute he is self-involved and cutting, the next moment he pays for every pretense when he suffers wounding, devastating blows to pride and heart. In Lolita, we delight in his cruelty to the hapless, doughy Charlotte, then suffer the depths of misery when Lolita gives him the same treatment. The human animal is a cruel and tender thing, Mason suggested again and again in his films, prone to delusion and fantasy and yet, capable of being brutally crushed when such sugarplum dreams don't pan out.



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