5 October 2005 | theowinthrop
Sir Noel's Acting Limitations
Years ago, when I was in high school, I read a book that evaluated the leading West End acting giants of the first half of the twentieth century (or more exactly, those who were the big names from 1925 - 1971). They were Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir John Guilgud, Dame Edith Evans, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and Sir Noel Coward. The appearance of these seven stars guaranteed large public interest and box office in those years. One could probably add Sir John Mills, Sir Alec Guinness, and Dame Sybil Thorndyke to this group. What is curious about them is that they were not equally successful in movie careers. Evans gave some nice performances (her role in "Tom Jones" was very funny, as was her classic Lady Bracknell in "The Importance Of Being Earnest") but outside of England she never caught on. Same with Sybil Thorndyke, and Peggy Ashcroft only achieved really good international fame in her late years for her Oscar performance in "A Passage To India". Of the men, Olivier and Guilgud won Oscars (technically Olivier got two, one for his career and one for best actor in "Hamlet"; Guilgud got one for best supporting actor in "Arthur"). Mills and Guinness would also get Oscars (the former for best supporting actor for "Ryan's Daughter"; the latter for "The Bridge On The River Kwai" and for his career). Richardson and Redgrave got nominated, but never won the award.
And then there was Sir Noel. Of the group he had the best theatrical reputation of all (even more than Olivier, who was a director of the new National Theater in the 1960s). After all Coward wrote plays and operettas, and composed music. He was a successful cabaret singer. He did win a special Oscar (for his wartime film, "In Which They Serve)." As the second most successful 20th Century English dramatist after Shaw he was established. There was just one fly in the ointment. Except for a handful of films in his career that he appeared in, he was a terrible film actor.
If you doubt this think of the movie credits of Olivier, Redgrave (yes Michael Redgrave), Richardson, Guilgud, Guinness, and Mills, and compare them with the paucity of titles for Coward. His two movie roles of note are "Bunny Lake is Missing" (where he plays a pervert), and "Our Man In Havana" where he plays a middle management spy master - and is somewhat cornered by the lies that Alec Guinness has submitted in his reports. You might, if you are willing to give him some brownie points, acknowledge "The Scoundrel", where he is a nasty, egotistical publisher - he is allowed to play a bit with the role, but he has not written the bon mots that are dropped by his publisher (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur did).
There is nobody to share the blame for this movie with. Based on a play by Coward, you would think that it is worthwhile. Ah, but his best plays were comedies like "Hay Fever" and "Blithe Spirit". His most successful dramatic play was "Brief Encounter", which was brilliant when David Lean directed it with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But Lean is not directing this, and Coward is playing the lead part.
The problem with Coward is he tends to the sentimental. Even though he writes very funny, brittle dialog he does not resolve issues in a normal way at all. The conclusion of "Blithe Spirit" is Charles Condimine leaves the house with the spirits of his two warring ex-wives to fight it out while he sees the rest of the world. In the movie this was changed, but the stage production ends with Charles triumphant over two warring ghosts! Hardly realistic that. "Hay Fever" ends with the guests of the four members of a theater family sneaking out of the house to avoid spending another moment with these selfish nuts if they can avoid it. But the nuts learn nothing from this - they will continue forever as before. Somehow another dramatist might have had one of the nuts realize who was actually to blame.
In "The Astonished Heart", Coward plays a psychiatrist who is wrapped up in his work. He does not really notice his wife's old friend when he is introduced to her, but rather continues his researches and writings (he also reveals that the title comes from a passage in the Old Testament referring to "astonishment of heart"). Eventually Coward does develop an interest in the old friend, so they start an affair. The film follows the problems between the three points of the triangle, and the eventual tragedy it leads to.
The actors try, but the audience really cannot get into them or their conflicts, although the gradual cooling of the affair does strike one as a most honest and realistic touch. That is only because the psychiatrist is such a pitifully dull fellow one can't see what the friend really saw in him. The film leaves one pretty cold. Sir Noel would return to his stage and cabaret work, which was far more rewarding than this. I'm glad for his sake he did. Unfortunately he still made occasional film appearances, most of which were eminently forgettable.