Friday, June 03, 2011

A glass of bourbon for David Hemmings

A recent viewing of Argento's Giallo classic Profundo Rosso starring 60's prince of mod David Hemmings inspired our most recent recipient of the glass of bourbon. Unconventionally handsome as a young man with a distinct sense of fragility in his voice and face, Hemmings was the perfect representative of the 60's counter-culture, a slightly younger but just as alcoholic Peter O'Toole or Oliver Reed.

David Hemmings in the 1960´s

Let's begin with a few tidbits from the combined forces of Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database: Born in 1941, Hemmings began his artistic career as a boy-soprano of some note, interpreting works by celebrated composer Benjamin Britten. He showed some talent as a painter but went on to pursue a career in film. His first starring role was in The Rainbow Jacket in 1954 for Ealing studios. A series of films centered around the pop music of the day followed, including 1964's Sing and Swing. Most of these films garnered some box office success though they were largely dismissed by critics as cheap knock-offs of superior Hollywood musicals targeted at the swinging 60's audience of young Londoners at the time. Hemmings exposure in these films paid off when he had a chance to audition for the role of the protagonist of Antonioni's Blow-Up, an excellent but sloppy art-house hit that came to symbolize the culture and fashion of 60's London. A funny story recounted in Hemmings obit from the BBC tells how he was sure he had blown his audition for Antonioni since the director kept shaking his head during Hemmings performance. Upon being offered the role Hemmings realized that Antonioni suffered from Tourette's which caused him to incessantly move his head from side to side.

An iconic image from Antonioni´s Blow-Up

After the success of Blow-Up Hemmings was the toast of British cinema for a while. Hemmings was rumored for the role of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, along with such notable actors as Oliver Reed, Tim Curry and Jeremy Irons. The director of Clockwork, Stanley Kubrick, had reportedly also considered Hemmings for the role of Napoleon Bonaparte in his failed attempt to film Waterloo. Hemmings played Dildano in Roger Vadim's classic Barbarella and starred in Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, both in 1968.

The seventies saw Hemmings role start to dwindle in number and quality. He had also started to lose his good looks due to excessive smoking and drinking. Hemmings directed his first film in 1972, Running Scared, starring his then wife, Gayle Hunnicutt (Hunnicutt would play a variety of roles but to any fan of Sherlock Holmes she is probably best known for her portrayal of Irene Adler in the very first episode of the acclaimed series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett). Hunnicutt and Hemmings divorced in 1974.

Hemmings had moved with Hunnicutt to L.A. and in the late 70's and early 80's he increasingly turned towards directing American television series. His credits include The A-Team, Airwolf, Magnum P.I. and Quantum Leap (including the pilot episode).

Hemmings made an attempt to return to acting in his later years, starring in Ridley Scott Gladiator in 2000 and Scorcese's Gangs of New York in 2002. At this point he looked quite different from his appearance in the 60's and many people did not recognize him as the star of such films as Blow-Up. Hemmings died of a heart attack in Bucharest, Romania  in 2003 after filming his scenes for the film Blessed. Hemmings was the father of six children, including actor Nolan Hemmings (named after Hemmings character in The Charge of the Light Brigade). His son is perhaps best known for his role in the HBO series Band of Brothers. 

David Hemmings with his distinctive eyebrows late in life, shortly after the release of Gladiator

Watching Argento's Profundo Rosso I was struck by Hemmings old-fashioned acting style, a very theatrical, almost operatic style that is about as far removed from the "method" influenced acting so predominant in American film, theater and television as can be. In fact, Antonioni, who reportedly detested method acting, chose Hemmings in part due to how different his style was from many of the younger performers auditioned. The effect in Blow-Up is that Hemmings character seems frighteningly aloof from what is happening around him, a pure observer, the ideal photographer, a perfect stand-in for the film camera (and by extension, the audience). It is an aloofness grounded in fear. The best thing about Blow-Up may be the voyeuristic element Antonioni creates with Hemmings, a precursor to the coming paranoia of the late sixties and early seventies. It is also very interesting to compare Hemmings portrayal of Thomas, the photographer, with John Travolta's wonderful performance in DePalma's Blow Out. Both portray desperation, anxiety and paranoia but in very different ways, perhaps reflective of the different political and cultural landscapes the films are reflecting upon. 

Here's a toast to an excellent actor and director. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to discuss more of his films here at Light Within Light in the future. Until then we raise our glass. Skál!

1 comment:

KateM said...

I love that you chose to identify Gayle Hunnicutt by her one Sherlockian credit, rather than mention she was on Dallas. :)

Of all Hemmings' works, I've only seen Quantum Leap, which I really enjoyed. Please tell me Airwolf is about a pilot who's a werewolf.