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‘Actorly forthrightness on such a scale is, frankly, rather refreshing.’

At this time of year, it’s usual to see a celeb memoir or two high in the bestseller list. David Robinson reads two that are well worth a spot on your lists to Santa.

 

 

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat: My Autobiography
By Brian Cox
Published by Quercus

Baggage: Tales from A Packed Life
By Alan Cumming
Published by Canongate

 

HOW do you become a star? How do you fascinate, cast an eclipsing spell, persuade the audience that whatever you are making up is really true? Is it all just a matter of getting the biggest, showiest, roles at the right time? Can it be taught and if so how?

These questions lie at the heart of two memoirs published this month – by, as it happens, two Scots who best know the answers.  Losing self-consciousness is, Alan Cumming and Brian Cox concur, the key to great acting.  Yet as both their books show, their childhoods gave them an awful lot to be self-conscious about.

For Cox, growing up in Dundee’s Brown Constable Street was carefree until he was eight. His debt-laden father’s death plunged the family into poverty and his mother into mental illness (she was hospitalised for over a year when he was ten). Yet Cox has been a star for so long, and been interviewed so often, that much of this is already widely known. So what does his memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, tell us that isn’t?

First of all, because he clearly hasn’t used a ghostwriter, we get a sense of how his mind works. This is no bland chronological, punch-pulling narrative, and instead hops back and forth across decades. The chapter on his schooldays, for example, leaps ahead to 2010 to make a good point about the naturalness of child actors, then we’re back to Cox daydreaming his way through secondary modern in 1960, and to his love of comics, in particular the  Classics Illustrated series. Within a few lines, we’re fast-forwarded to 1997, when he’s filming The Boxer in Northern Ireland and watching its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, carry method acting to extremes. Why? Because twenty years later Day-Lewis gave up acting to become a cobbler and the Classics Illustrated version of A Tale of Two Cities reminded him of that.

This may be convoluted, but it rings true: big themes (here, method acting) often are triggered by the smallest details, and sometimes these can be fascinating. His parents met, he explains, because both their fathers died around the same time. In 1927, that meant three months of wearing a black armband and not socialising. If you wanted to go to a dance, for example, you had to leave town (Dundee) and go to a distant dancehall (Montrose)  – which is what they both did, and where they first met.

Yet none of this gets in the way of Cox showing the key turning points in his life, like when he first watched Nicol Williamson at Dundee Rep and discovered the meaning of ‘theatrical presence’ and how a good actor ‘can displace the air’. He’d already got a hint of what was possible from cinema: Spencer Tracey, his mother’s favourite actor, was  his too.  Studying acting at LAMDA in the early 1960s, a host of other greats soon followed: Olivier, O’Toole, Glenda Jackson, Maggie Smith. All the time, he was watching and learning, catching them in rehearsal as well as performance, just as (fast forward again) he has spent the pandemic months catching up on indie cinema.

He was also working out a lot of things for himself. Brown Constable Street had given him a strong personality, but he had to stop it getting in the way of his acting. School didn’t instil an ability to focus, so he had to learn it. Fulton Mackay, a mentor and friend, taught him not to aim at stardom: just being a good actor was ambition enough. From Michael Elliot and Lindsey Anderson, he learnt how much a good director – one who digs deep into the text rather than fussing about lighting or camera angles – can bring to a production. Anderson, in particular, taught him stillness, how to let the audience come to him rather than demanding its attention – all encapsulated in his classic note: ‘Brian, don’t just do something, stand there.’

Put all of that together, and you can see why Cox is the kind of actor he is.  Shakespeare, he says, is spot-on in Hamlet’s advice to the players: holding the mirror up to nature means just that: instead of muddying the text with what he calls ‘front foot acting’, actors should just be its conduit. Acting should be about expiation, about allowing the stage magic hinted at in the book’s title to happen: what it’s emphatically not about is surface show.

Cox doesn’t mince his words here. No matter the megawattage of the star involved, if he doesn’t believe in a performance, he’ll say so. Johnny Depp? Overrated. Tarantino? Meretricious. Kevin Spacey? A great talent, but stupid. Michael Caton-Jones? Doesn’t care enough about the script. Ed Norton? ‘A nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse’. Gary Oldman’s Darkest Hour? ‘A shallow, crowd-pleasing farrago’. Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill, of course, won him the Oscar in 2017, while Cox’s own ‘more honest’ and ‘better researched’  Churchill that same year did not.

Normally, I would put Cox’s reaction down to sour grapes, but he makes a plausible case for his own film being better. And because of the candour he shows him in other judgments (not least his self-criticism over his failings as a father and husband), I’m inclined to believe him. Actorly forthrightness on such a scale is, frankly, rather refreshing. Where else, for example, can you expect to come across a chapter which opens like this: ‘To explain what I mean about “doing a schtick”, it’s worth looking at the example of Sir Ian McKellen’?

For all his many triumphs – not least, right now, his towering, Golden Globe-winning lead role as media mogul Logan Roy in Succession  – he admits that he never has found closure (‘and never will’) over his father’s death. This is something echoed in the very title of Alan Cumming’s book Baggage. The triumphant ending of his 2014 memoir Not My Father’s Son, which seemed to exorcise the ghost of his abusive father was, Cumming now implies, a  cop-out. ‘I am a survivor,’ he writes, ‘but not cured’: even at the moments of his greatest triumph, he has felt unhappy and confused, and he still thinks about his father almost as much as he ever did.

The book’s message, he says, is ‘Don’t buy into the Hollywood ending’: damage done in childhood will always be there as ‘a residual virus’: one has just to learn to live with it. And yet, as he charts his career from the collapse of his first marriage to contentment and freedom in his second, from his Broadway-conquering emcee in Cabaret to his starry, fully-packed life today, he makes the Hollywood ending sound completely credible. If his first book showed him confronting his bullying father, in Baggage he not only stands his ground against Stanley Kubrick (‘who found me intriguing because of it’) but also co-leads an actors’ mini-rebellion against  X2 director Bryan Singer. It may not be happy ever after, but it sounds close enough …

Then again, two anecdotes from Baggage made me wonder just how accurately art can ever mirror life. While staying  with Gore Vidal – a boor when drunk, apparently – he hears him confess that he never was really in love with his school classmate Jimmy Trimble, no matter what he wrote in his memoir Palimpsest. And then there’s Cumming’s Liza Minelli story.

He’d watched one of Minelli’s one-woman shows in New York, in which she told a story about how, when she was 16, she’d invited both her mother (Judy Garland) and godmother to see her perform, even though it was only a ten-second dance solo and miles away. The two women turned up, watched the show,  and were in tears afterwards. Neither had a hankie, so Garland got out her powder puff and they dabbed their faces with it. Going backstage, they told Liza what they’d done, and then gave her the powder puff, still stained with her own and Liza’s godmother’s tears.  ‘And I still have that powder puff to this day,’ Minelli told the crowd, to cheers and applause.

After the end of that show, Cumming asked her whether that story was true.

‘No darling!’ she replied. ‘None of that ever happened!’

‘And that, ladies and gentlemen,’ he concludes, ‘is show business.’

 

 

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat: My Autobiography by Brian Cox is published by Quercus, priced £20.

Baggage: Tales from A Packed Life by Alan Cumming is published by Canongate, priced £18.99

 

 

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