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Year in Review: Paul Scofield

Of the many artists we lost in 2008, actor Paul Scofield was one of the greats. Our film blogger, Todd Babcock, offers the following remembrance.

Paul Scofield (1922-2008) as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons
Paul Scofield passed away on March 19, 2008. By all regards he was a titan of the theater and rightful heir to the throne held by Olivier and Gielgud in their day, and yet it was a crown he declined not thrice but any time it was offered to him. What was so remarkable about Paul Scofield was how little he was known. Instead of an actor who couldn’t get “arrested” or the find the break he might seek, this was a point of willful intention for Scofield. While the emergent cinema era birthed such vast talents and egos of the likes of Olivier and Richard Burton, Scofield quietly took himself back home to his family with little regard for the spotlight. Rather than recount Scofield’s life (there are plenty of resources) I would simply like to revere here the two roles that resonated with so deeply with so many of us.

My first and most profound encounter with Scofield was as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966). It was one of my brother's favorites on VHS: he could recount line for line the speech where Scofield, as More, listens to a young man explain how he would be all too willing to break every law of man in order to reach the Devil himself. Scofield’s patient and weary stare digests every word until he rises up, with his great voice and conviction, and repudiates the reasoning that a man who would side-step the law at every step to achieve good has nothing left with which to do battle. Robert Bolt’s screenplay is no less relevant today than it was then, and Scofield presents it with ease.

The movie Quiz Show (1994) was one that was acknowledged by industry peers as worthy of Oscar consideration but one the public never really seized onto regardless of remarkable talents like Robert Redford, Ralph Fiennes, and John Turturro attached to it. In the years since its release it has become not only a forgotten treasure but has emerged on my very short list of movies that I can consider perfect.

The movie, centered around the dawn of the now-saturated market of game shows, focuses particularly on 21. What plays out is the moral quandary of Charlie Van Doren, the son of an elite intellectual family, as he is oddly enticed to participate in something of a popularity contest of pop intellect. When the prospect that Charlie cheat to keep a lock on his now ratings-high stretch on the show is presented, Charlie quietly acquiesces to the point the scandal comes crashing down. Underneath the surface, Redford and writer Paul Attansio, illustrate the culture dynamic of having fame for fame’s sake over the authentic, but less dynamic, of authenticity and integrity.

The scene where Fiennes, as Charlie, drops his shoulders and confesses to his father (Scofield) is one we still quote today. The shock and utter disbelief conveyed by Scofield is tragedy encapsulated. “Your name is my name!” he bellows when Charlie wriggles about for moral justification. The heavy-lidded and grey features of Scofield with that twinkle in his eye seems to fall piece by piece with the unimaginable realization of what has taken place. Again, I believe it is a perfect performance and seems so fitting for Scofield to have come out of his theatrical hiding to perform.

In a year when Denise Richards convinced a judge that her 4-year-old “really wants to be on a reality show,” the latest celebrity DUI photo pops up, and the awards shows all started looking the same, Paul Scofield passed quietly, gently, and with great majesty. Because, for him, the only title he wanted was, “Mister.”

Good night, sweet prince.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So glad you wrote about Quiz Show, a long-time favorite and a movie my family and I quote on a fairly regular basis. It *is* a virtually perfect movie.

I recently read The Seven Storey Mountain and loved whenever Merton wrote about his relationship with Mark Van Doren. I couldn't help picturing Scofield every time.

Amazingly, I Netflixed A Man for All Seasons out of the blue last week; I haven't seen it in over a decade. It's sitting on top of my DVD player right now.