Some actors become the focus of public sentiment. We love them, hate them, laugh at them – not as the characters they play, but in what we perceive to be their real life. Few actors continue to inspire such respect after their death as Peter Cushing, and the strength of this account of Cushing’s life and film roles is that it understands the admiration we feel for him, as an actor, and as a human.
Peter Cushing: A Life In Film is being published to coincide with the centenary of Cushing’s birth, and writer David Miller brings together a thorough and fascinating collection of anecdotes and memorabilia in this chronological journey that focuses on the progression of his career, from the early days in regional theatre to the successes on BBC television and Hammer, ending with the less than inspiring roles that he was offered at the end of his life.
There is attention paid to the big roles: Van Helsing, Frankenstein, Grand Moff Tarkin, which are discussed with enthusiasm, but Miller also gives us careful summations and points of interest in lesser-known roles, making for a book that should appeal to ardent fans of Cushing as well as those who are new to his legacy.
There are gems of information in there: Cushing’s time in the US before and during World War Two (he was declared medically unfit for active service) where he worked in the Hollywood system and appeared in small roles in movies such as Laurel and Hardy’s A Chump At Oxford (1939); the tussles between the BBC and Hammer in the 1950s to gain his attention at a time when he was arguably the face of the new medium of television drama; his friendship with Laurence Olivier that led to an Australasian theatre tour and a nervous breakdown. The path of Cushing’s life was not an easy one, and the roles he took were often to accommodate personal issues, such as the health of his beloved wife Helen or his own devotion to the quiet life in Whitstable.
Here’s where the book excels – Cushing’s personal life is interwoven into his work, and we get a real sense of how one affects the other. This illuminates the quality he was famous for, and why Christopher Lee describes him still as a ‘gentleman’. It’s easy to see, in what becomes a very sad story, how Cushing might have become bitter about the opportunities that he was unable to accept, or the typecasting that affected him, but instead he maintained his professionalism and a dedication to his job. Reminiscences from fellow actors emphasise how his manner remained gracious even after the death of his wife and the years he spent working in any role simply to kill time until he could join her.
There are moments where Miller touches on a darker side to Cushing, and these offer intriguing glimpses into the depression he fought, and the motherly role Helen took towards him. Suicide attempts and a hint at affairs are dealt with in a few paragraphs, and thankfully don’t overshadow his legacy of riveting performance. The reproduction of a script upon which Cushing had doodled costumes and made character notes is particularly insightful, and confirm his artistic skill. As a great watercolourist, it would have been interesting to see some of those paintings reproduced here amongst the colour plates, to give a fully rounded sense of his joy in the arts.
Still, the delight in Cushing’s early life and his heyday comes across clearly, and makes you want to sit down and watch some of those classics again, particularly the Frankenstein films, where the strange laboratory sets looks so great in the photographs. After reading, I decided to watch Frankenstein Created Woman once more, and was struck by how much Hammer relied on Cushing’s steely, committed characterisation to carry a film. He was a wonderful actor. Reading this book makes it easy to remember that fact.
Peter Cushing: A Life In Film is out on the 19th April courtesy of Titan Books.
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