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Malcolm McDowell: ‘Clockwork Orange’ Star Crashes Showbiz

He didn’t become a dustman: Actor Malcolm McDowell is interviewed on his introduction to theater and how he approached ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Malcolm McDowell

English actor Malcolm McDowell, circa 1972.

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

Malcolm McDowell squinted into the sun. “Oh yes, it’s dead easy to sit by the old swimming pool here in Cannes and be flippant about it all.” He put a finger into a glass of wine and swirled it around. “Not bad,” he said, smacking his lips like a television gourmet. “Cheeky little number, perhaps a trifle fresh … but I can remember the first day of If, when we started shooting, like yesterday. I thought, ‘Hello, this is it, this is what it’s all about.’ Bloody torture, real bloody torture.”

The Riviera sun had already drawn a pink flush to McDowell’s chest, which had greeted the day with the pallor only the English possess. He scraped his chair closer to some shade. “Don’t get me wrong about that torture thing. I’m not talking about the same thing that those actresses go on about. You know, the agonies of the theater. I loathe that kind of attitude. Actorish actors.” Malcolm rolled his eyes and deadpanned a melodramatically demented expression. “It’s not difficult to have a nervous breakdown in front of the cameras. That’s just the way to win an Oscar. We can all do that. But they’re not the performances that people remember in 10, 15 years.

“It’s difficult to talk about this side of the job because the good ones make it look easy. Cagney, Bogie, Stewart—Fonda, too—it looks like they’re not even trying. I’ve only just started to appreciate that fact.” McDowell taps the side of his head. “It’s up there, the torture. It’s ‘Can I do it? Can I pull it off?’ “

A weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune was lying on the stone paving by the side of the pool, soaking up splashes like blotting paper. McDowell picked it up. “Have you seen them?” he asked, leafing through the soggy pages. He found the financial page with the stock market listings. “Poor fellers, here they are in lovely Cannes and every morning the first thing they do is look at the stock market figures. Mustn’t laugh, though, we all need them.”

He was in Cannes with his new film, O Lucky Man!, the official British entry for the Festival. Directed by Lindsay Anderson, whose two previous major films—The Sporting Life and If—both won prizes at Cannes in previous years, O Lucky Man! is a contemporary epic, a three-hour Pilgrim’s Progress which plots the picaresque ups and downs of one Mick Travis, a former coffee salesman whose ambitions lead him through corruption in business and politics and finally to prison. He leaves prison still curiously innocent, believing, like the hero of Candide, that everything is for the best. Travis is not only played by McDowell, but the original story concept is also his. It’s been a four-year project, ending with a $1.8 million shooting budget and a letter virtually every day from Warner Bros, nagging about the R rating demanded by a production clause.

Like the film’s central character, McDowell himself was once a coffee salesman. And a good one. He knew how to “chat them up.” A firm but deferential handshake and a gauche, respectful smile for the unctuous manager of a four-star hotel. Risque patter and a leer for the blousy canteen supervisor. The public relations woman at the coffee company once told him, “Malcolm, you’ll either end up a duke or a dustman.” He was the sort who could attend a diplomatic reception with holes in his socks and get away with it. Always what you would call ambitious; pushy perhaps, but a charmer as well. Even now it shows in his walk—long, bouncy strides with the rolling shoulders of a sailor.

The job was OK, plenty of time on his own, driving around the countryside making calls. Driving was the best part. McDowell grew up close to the car-racing track near Aintree, on the outskirts of Liverpool, and cars have always been a fascination. The Aintree scene was strong stuff in those days, with an aging Fangio dueling with the up-and-coming Stirling Moss. After McDowell finished his first television series, he pooled his savings in a track-prepared sports car. The drag was his partner, who had put up the bigger bankroll and wasn’t keen on blowing his investment on one glorious if vain race. McDowell persuaded him to enter the Nuremburg 24-hour race. They never finished, the car limping off a clanking mass of blown valves and strained pistons, to be sold for spares, but it was great while it lasted. McDowell still remembers the race. Taking a corner one time and slipping through like a vaselined bee, then being a foot out of line and bucking and twitching to roar through. A peek in the mirror and a missed heartbeat as a blurred shape, another car, tags your tail.

These days he drives a BMW saloon, no longer the boy racer but still handling the wheel with a racer’s flair, mouthing roadsigns as they flash by. “Grit for icy roads,” he would announce rolling the words.

The Liverpool accent only shows ’round the edges now, smoothed out by a public school education. He was sent there by his father who paid the fees from his earnings as a publican. The kids used to piss-take his scouse accent. He learned how to get along: Trust people only after they’ve proven themselves.

His first job was in Liverpool as a junior exec in the time and motions department of a mail order company. The days spent with a clipboard and stopwatch have left their mark, McDowell says, in the way he organizes the mundane details of life. He’ll never make two trips while clearing up a table when careful stacking will save one. “Conservation of energy, knowing when to rest, is very important. It’s no good being alight all the time. It’s that minute in front of the camera that counts. Going for the biggie. But you can’t keep it up the whole time.”

The day before, George Segal was introduced to him over a lunch table. Segal leaned across, shook hands. “Hey, Malcolm,” he said. “I hear you’ve got a great film. Tell me, though….” Segal’s voice was full of concern, “what do you do between films? Don’t you just hate it?”

“Love it. Love every minute. Get up at 10, potter around the garden, have some tea. That’s the life, hey?”

“Americans,” McDowell said later. “They hate not to be working and so they hate turning down films. I reckon since Clockwork I’ve turned down about a million dollar’s worth of filming. I won’t tell which films, that wouldn’t be fair, but between them they’ve collected eight Academy Awards. That’s the way it goes, but I felt that none of them were right for me. You have got to be choosy. I mean it’s your face on the screen. You own it. It’s no use saying afterwards, ‘The director made me do this, made me do that.’ Nobody need make you do anything you don’t want … oh boy, I soon learned what all that was about. You should see my billing contract now, it’s seven pages long. That may seem ridiculous, but I’m serious about this business, even though I’ll send it up most of the time.”

The sun had started to go down. People were leaving the pool and the bar was filling up. The other night David Niven had walked through, dapper in a navy blazer, while James Baldwin was on a stool by the bar, laughing a lot and making loose gestures with his arms. Outside the hotel, on a boule pitch, Yves Montand was having his usual evening game with the locals. Two long-haired French boys, in peasant sandals and faded jeans, played a wooden flute and guitar while a tousle-haired girl in a cottage-made smock collected coins in a tambourine.

McDowell stretched his arms, looked around and smiled. Eye contact first, held until you are locked into his face, and then a slow build-up. A 10-foot version of a slightly different smile, taken from a still from O Lucky Man!, is stretched across a 96-sheet billboard in London. A woman whose home overlooks the billboard could only stand it for a few days before complaining to Warner Bros. that it was getting her down. A young French ballet dancer will also remember the smile. She was pirouetting and strutting around the courtyard of a hotel in Cannes, halfway through a routine for a live French television show. McDowell, who was inside the hotel, rapped lightly on the window to catch her attention. He pushed his face to the window and grinned at her. She flustered for a second, missed a step and grinned back before a petulant frown flashed across her face.

“People,” says Malcolm, “keep telling me I’m lucky. But I can’t really believe in luck. It’s a question of instinct. You can read a script and let it all sink in but you must still use your intuition. Take Clockwork Orange. At some stage I had to decide which way to play it. There was the obvious way. In the first part, where Alex is into his ultra-violence, you could play it like for real, and then show him turning into a cabbage under the aversion therapy. Instead my instinct said, ‘No, play it the other way.’ Play the violence bit stylistically and then when he has had his treatment play it naturally so that he’s all nice and pleasant and normal. That way the audience will feel inside that they preferred him when he was violent and cruel. That’s a strange emotion for people to feel and that was the contribution I wanted to make to the film. At the end of the day you have to rely on instinct and play it your way.”

McDowell has been in Cannes before. The first time was when, after a good season of coffee-selling, he decided to splash out and try the Riviera with a mate. “We thought we had it made, know what I mean? Young English blokes in a red MGB. Thought all we had to do was stroll down the seafront and they’d be falling over us. No such luck. Three weeks gone and nothing, the money was getting low so we moved into this farmhouse, living as one of the family. One night I was sitting there, with the family, can’t speak a word of French except ‘Bonjewer, mushewer’ and I was drinking wine, which was going to my head. One by one the people started to leave the room to go to bed until there was only the grandmother and me left. Well, she looked at me and I looked at her. To be fair she was young-looking for a grandmother, quite trim. So I opened another bottle of wine and thought, ‘Why not, why not … she’s French isn’t she?’

* * *

When I was selling coffee, I had this girlfriend called Patricia, always had a soft spot for her, and she used to go away on Friday nights. I used to get back Friday and used to phone her—never there, never fucking there. Every Friday night, pay night … and so I kept saying ‘Where do you go then?’ but she wouldn’t tell me. She was embarrassed. Anyway I got it out of her that she was going to this drama teacher called Mrs. Harold Ackley, above the Crane Theatre on Bold Street in Liverpool. She said, ‘Why don’t you phone her up? You should try it, it’s great fun.’ I said, ‘Errgh, fucking pansies.’ So, anyway, I thought, ‘I’ll give her a ring.’ So I phoned her up and said, ‘Are you Mrs. Harold Ackley?’ She was a widow, 82 years of age, and on the brass plate it was MRS. HAROLD ACKLEY. I used to call her Harold. Anyway, I talked to her on the phone and she said, ‘You have the voice of an actor.’ Just like that. So I went to see her on Friday nights. Amazing woman, she was practically blind. The first day I ever met her, I came up in the lift, she was on the third floor, the door was slightly ajar and I opened the door, and … there was this woman under this table. I said, ‘Do you know if Mrs. Harold Ackley is here?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Have you lost something?’ She said, ‘No, I’m frightened of thunder.’ There was a really extraordinary storm going on outside. I got talking to her. She used to tell me about the silent screen and all that, and really get me going. Used to listen to her while she offered me a Craven A cigarette and a glass of Bristol Cream sherry. All very nice. That hour I had with her, I used to look forward to very much. She gave me these pieces to read for her, which I did, very badly. She said, ‘Oh, there’s definitely something there.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I’m enjoying this, so I’ll stick with it.’ One day she said to me, ‘I think you should go in for the LAMDA [London Academy of Music, Drama and Art] exams.’ I said, ‘All right. Why not? Yeah!’ And she said, ‘Well, if you take the bronze medal it’ll cost you two guineas entrance fee; the silver is five; the gold is eight.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna try for the gold, it’ll save money in the end [laughs]. And I was only earning 12 pounds a week or something. So I learned these three pieces. I had to go in; you had a number. A woman came from LAMDA in London and sat in the Crane Theatre, nice old theater. I came onto the stage and said, ‘Good morning, Miss, my name is Malcolm Taylor and I …’ and she said, ‘You’re not allowed to say that!’ I thought, ‘Hello, I’ve had it, that’s it!’ So I did my little numbers and did the old Irish accent and I passed the thing. Mrs. Ackley was delighted.

“I would not admit to myself that I was going to be an actor until I was actually engaged professionally because I didn’t want to disappoint myself. There was probably a secret longing, but if somebody had asked me then I would have said, ‘Oh! No! No way. No way!’ Mrs. Harold Ackley told me that since I’d got the gold, next I had to go in for the associateship, which meant I had to go down to London. I was successful at selling this coffee, so I asked for a transfer to London. I said, ‘If I’m going to be an executive of the company in the future, then I’ve got to have more training and it’s got to be in London.’ I got a letter from the managing director saying he would transfer me to London, and I made sure that it coincided with going down to London for the exam. I arrived there. I had a terrible cold. It was December 31st, New Year’s Eve. I went to this theater, and it was the strangest theater I’ve ever seen, had no sides to it, it was like open, in the round. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t even know a thing. I arrived there completely green. I had to do four pieces altogether. A piece of Shakespeare, a modern piece, and two accents. I did Hindle Wakes, touch of the old ‘Y’know lad, I wuz oop at t’mill,’ and the other was the old Irish again. I’d never read the fucking plays, just these pieces so I had no idea what the plays were about, I thought I wonder what the hell ‘appens ‘ere. One piece I did was called On Monday Next, by Philip King. I’ll never forget this. It was about a producer of a repertory theater coming onto the stage at 10 in the morning and looking ’round and finding the house full, a capacity audience, when he wasn’t expecting it. And saying things like, ‘Oh, excuse me,’ and then walking off, and then walking on again and saying, ‘Er, it’s, er, is it raining outside?’ all that, bit of the old ad-lib, make it up, gee it up a bit. There were only three of ’em out there, the judges, and I heard one of them laugh … and it really got me going … the whole fucking way. Went down off the stage, walked down the steps, pretending there was a packed audience, talking to them. That won me the thing. I was right on top. Right there. Then I had to read this play, which actually I hadn’t had to do before, so I was new to that. And like a bloody idiot I read the characters’ names. Like, ‘George: How are you darling? Jill: Not too bad. George: …!’ [breaks up in laughter]. And that didn’t go down too well, know what I mean?

Then I did my accents, and they were good, I knew they were good. Then they said, ‘Can you do the mime?’ So I said, ‘Oh yeah, what mime?’ They said, ‘The list is in the dressing room.’ I said, ‘Oh dear, can you tell me what they are?’ And they read off this list and one of them was ‘One of the Most Nerve-racking Experiences in Your Life.’ so I just did a mime of making-up for that audition. That swung it. Just a quickie on the spot. The old inspiration. That was good. They called me down and they said, ‘You’ve passed and this gentleman here is Mr. Michael Hamilton, he’s from the Barry O’Brien Management. I think he has something to say to you.’ He said, ‘Would you like to come to one of my repertory theaters for the summer season?’ I said, ‘Yes please, I would.’ That was that. And I had three months of my coffee career to go in London, I spent every fucking day in bed till 12, fiddled all my reports. I’d pass a cafe and write it down and say, ‘Not interested, using rival company!’ I was an actor from that day.

“I went to the rep. I arrived there as the ASM. Well, I hadn’t got a clue what that was. I had to ask and they said, ‘You’re assistant stage manager, what are you talking about.’ I went over on the boat to Shanklin, Isle of Wight, and I saw these two funny fellers in the bar … the leading man and the character lead, as it turned out. I knew they were actors somehow, something told me. They just looked like actors. They were very brown, you know, been doing summer seasons for 20 years. Went to this boarding house, run by the stage manager, five quid a week, all in, out of eight quid. I’d been told that I’d be playing the part of Brian Preston in a play called Woman in a Dressing Gown by Willis Hall. I arrived at the rehearsal and had no idea of what a rehearsal was, all these chairs around, bits of tape, I thought, ‘What is going on?’ I couldn’t visualize what it was all about, just bits of tape and chairs. The leading lady was a bit rasping; it turned out she became a girlfriend of mine, we had an affair for about two years. In fact, one morning the stage manager came in and caught me in bed with her, and he gave me hell from that day on. Anyway, I bungled my way through this rehearsal not knowing what was what and they all thought, ‘Allo, he’s a disaster, this one.’ I was the only male in the company, if you know what I mean. I remember the juve lead taking me for a long walk one evening, thinking ‘Allo, what’s going on?’ So, anyway, I gently told him about the fiancée back home, you know, and do you wanna see her picture. One of those little numbers.

“We came on to the opening night, the Mayor of Shanklin, and the whole Corporation all sitting in the front row, chains jingling all over the place, you can just see it …coming on in this old rep. theater, something just happened and I started to mug it, get all the laughs. You know, doing the old bit with the cornflakes, piling them on, bit of sugar, then, er, a bit more sugar … the old leading lady’s talking away … a bit more sugar, the whole fucking audience can’t keep their eyes off me, you know, the old sugar, it’s going on, and they’re laughing like anything. Come off the stage, the leading lady gives me a hell of a ticking off. I said, ‘What’s the matter? Got a laugh, what’s the matter? You know, we’re here to entertain. [Laughs] Every scene I was hamming up like mad, really milking the old audience. Then I got worse and worse at acting, I just couldn’t do it. I had to be disciplined and it really killed me, destroyed any spontaneity that I had. I couldn’t work under those conditions. Very difficult. I got it back towards the end of the season. I did the best performance I think I’ve ever done. It was in a play called Next Door Neighbor, a real North Country farce. I was supposed to be the dopey fiance of the girl and I had to come on and meet the parents and say, as my first line, ‘I’m Green. Sebastian Green.’ I really worked on it and got it dead on and got plenty of applause for it. So they said ‘Would I like to go to Torquay in Devon for the winter season.’ I said ‘Oh yeah, not ‘alf. I really would like to go.’ I’d got the taste then. And I was a professional actor, a member of Equity, having an affair with the leading lady and it was, y’know … I went to Torquay, did the season there, and then I wrote a letter to the Royal Shakespeare Company and they wrote back and said ‘We’d like to see you.’ I didn’t know that they said this to everybody, ’cause they have to, ’cause it’s a national company, and I thought, ‘I’m as good as in. I’m leaving ‘ere now.’ I gave my notice in and they wouldn’t talk to me for the two weeks notice. I used to send those actors up rotten in the end. Used to go in the dressing room deliberately whistling and saying, ‘Well, Macbeth tonight then.’ They used to go, ‘For God’s sake, go outside and walk ’round three times!’

“I get to London, go to the RSC, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not auditioning right now.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon, I’ve come all the way from Torquay and I’ve got the letter here.’ They said, ‘We’ll be casting in three months time.’ I started to work as a messenger boy for a firm of solicitors in Victoria Station. Got £10 a week, which was two more than I was earning before. And my aunt Terri gave me a present of £20 to an actor, an old RADA actor, so that he could teach me how to audition. Not to act, just audition. I’m really glad I went because I’d never have got into the RSC if I hadn’t.

“He just found me a piece of Shakespeare that nobody had ever ‘eard of, so that they wouldn’t be bored out of their minds. They wouldn’t switch off immediately you came in and said, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ ’cause as soon as they hear that, that’s it, finish, forget it. Or a touch of ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more,’ they fall asleep. Well, I did the prologue to Henry the Eighth, which is a very unknown play. It started off, ‘I come no more to make you laugh.’ No, it was a serious bit. I got in. I thought now that I’m in, I’d be playing a part. They were doing Henry V with Ian Holm as the king, so I read the play … and thought, ‘Hello, um, well what am I playing? Well, it must be the chorus.’ Then somebody told me that Eric Porter was playing the chorus, and I thought, ‘Well, what the hell am I playing?’ So, there’s a first read-through rehearsal, and I suddenly realized that I’m not playing anything. There’s a bench of 12 of us that don’t say a bloody thing, and I realized that we were moving the fucking scenery.

“I never had a chance to do anything. I never spoke a word all season at the Aldwych. However, I met this bloke who became my agent, and he put me up for a television job and I got it. And I must say I was really good. Something happened as soon as I got in front of that old camera. And on camera rehearsal, Christ, I gave it all. I really gave a great performance on the camera rehearsal, which was a big mistake, because by the time it came to doing it I was a bit flaked-out. I was about 22 at the time. Then it was the end of the season at the Aldwych and I went up to the casting lady—they were going to do Henry V again, down at Stratford—and I said, ‘Look, I know this is an impertinence coming in here like this, but I feel that I should be playing the boy in Henry V.‘ His name is Fergus. The casting director looked at me, ‘But Malcolm, that’s a very large part.’ I just looked at her, and said, “Well … fuck ya then,’ and just walked out. She came running after me and said, ‘Come back.’ We had a big row, and I said, ‘How dare you sit up there, you don’t know what … there’s 12 people back there you’ve never even seen act at all. You wanna get down on the factory floor.’ All that kind of talk. And that was it, I walked out. In the end they offered me the Duke of Clarence, in the history cycle. So I go back, get the old Complete Works out, and I’m going through, and I see three lines in Henry IV, Part I, no lines in Henry IV, Part II, and the character’s not even in Henry V. So the next day I went back, I said, ‘I’ve read the part, there’s not much for me is there? I mean it sounds good, the Duke of y’know, but there’s not much to go on, hahaha.’ The director, John Barton, said, ‘I’ll give you a few more lines, from the other brother.’ Of course, what happens is that I get the lines and they take them away, because the brother was higher up in the establishment and he complained about the fact that his lines had been given away, making some excuse like his characterization depended on this line, which was something like, ‘Oh Father, Father stress thyself.’

“For the next six months at Stratford on Avon, I can tell you, it was bloody terrible. This is when I started writing The Coffee Man, which turned into O Lucky Man! I thought, ‘I’m going the wrong way here, they’re really knocking my confidence.’ I felt angry. I used to get really pissed every night, the whole bit—have an affair, anywhere, around the place, do the whole Stratford scene, gambling … I was six weeks behind on payments of gambling debts. I thought, ‘Gotta get out of here.’ There were five of us in the Dirty Duck pub one night and we all had a letter to go and see Peter Hall, the boss, to discuss our contracts. So, five of us, all mates, agreed, no way are we going back to this, ’cause we’re dirt, we’re just here to move the scenery around and to stand there, in armor in the summer, to look decorative. Now that’s not an actor’s job, that’s a bloody moron’s job.

“I was to see him first, 10 o’clock—it was like at 10-minute intervals. I had to go in and I said, ‘Mr. Peter Hall, I’ve been in your company 18 months now and this is the first time I’ve met you, and I’m very pleased to meet you.’ I thought I’d just try it on first, heehee. Unfortunately, he said, ‘Well, we can offer you the same kind of roles, perhaps a little better, next year, at the Aldwych. I said, ‘Mr. Peter Hall, I’m sorry, I’m leaving. I’ve gotta tell you that I can’t stand the way this company is run. It’s full of arse-creeping actors and I don’t like it and I’m leaving.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going into films.’ Just for something to say, getting a dig at him, get the pride going a bit. Walked out feeling fantastic. Went over to the pub, they went out one by one, they all came back, and said, ‘Well, he offered me …’ They all chickened out and were there for another year doing the same. I really felt good, really good. Went back to London … out of work for six months. Back to the old messenger job, same firm, and really thought that was the end. Eventually I got a television part—three lines but a hundred quid! Suddenly got another television, a little bit better. Then I did a Dixon of Dock Green episode, and I was really good in that, a sensitive part. Feller puts girls in the club, big row with mum and dad, has to steal. So, terrific. Did that and then I got a series. The scripts were really bad, and they started to cut the budget. But I did 13 shows, an hour’s television per week, and it really taught me discipline, how to turn it on and off. The number one thing. Then I got this call to go to the Royal Court to do Twelfth Night. Had the worst part in it though, Sebastian. You try and get away with that one. The end bit: ‘Is it, can it be?’ All that. It wasn’t bad. Did the old performance, stamped the foot, got the round of applause. There was a real esprit de corps there. I didn’t really understand the theater could be this nice.

Got this call from the agent, a film, If … usual thing, another audition. I’ve done hundreds of auditions … nothing. Did one audition for the Bristol Old Vic, had to wait half an hour for this other actor, went on a bare stage and I was supposed to be sitting down. I said, ‘Is there a chair around?’ ‘No, there isn’t.’ ‘Oh, well, I’ll do it standing up then. Hahaha.’ This is Harold Pinter’s Homecoming. I had to say, to the character that was supposed to be seated at the table with me, ‘Is that a glass of walt-er?’ Bang. ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, that was a pause, a Pinter pause.’ They said, ‘We’re fine thanks, we’ve cast all our younger members.’

“I went to see Lindsay Anderson. I arrived very late and stood at the edge of the stage. I looked down and I could see this man in his red shirt, saw him looking up at me like I was a piece of meat, and I thought ‘You … well, I’m hard enough for that now, don’t give me any of that claptrap.’ He came up and said, ‘I’d like you to read this.’ And I said, ‘Well, frankly, reading it is not really gonna do much, is it? How can I give you a character by just reading it? I think that’s grossly unfair.’ And he said, ‘Fine, I understand that, but I’d like you to read it nevertheless because that’s the only system we have.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and it’s a bloody awful system,’ or words to that effect. Lindsay said, ‘OK, don’t worry about it, just read it, it doesn’t matter, just read it, go on, you can do that for God’s sake.’ So I read it. It was the first scene in If with Mick and Johnny, and Mick was saying a bit of the old public school dialogue. I thought ‘What’s all this about, all this stuff?’ I didn’t know what was going on. I read it like I didn’t know what it was, too. Lindsay said, ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’

“I phoned up my agent a couple of days later and said, ‘How was that Lindsay Anderson thing?’ My agent said, ‘They’re 90% sure. They don’t want to take another job for you.’ I knew then I was going to get it. Suddenly I get a call to go to the Shaftesbury Theatre to meet Lindsay again. Christine Noonan, the lead girl, was there and she had learnt her lines … it was the cafe scene from If. We arrive on a motorbike at the cafe and we roll around nude. They gave me the script, I went in the corner, read it over very carefully, thought, ‘This is much more my cup of tea. It’s like a Western.’ So I’ve got the script, ’cause I haven’t really learnt it, and I’m just looking at the lines—you don’t look at anything else, just the lines, just get those lines in. It was really nice because they were short lines like, ‘Sugar …’ and all that, real touch of the belligerent about it. I read on and it says in the script, ‘Mick grabs girl and kisses her passionately on the lips.’ So I grabbed her, and I really put my tongue down her throat. I didn’t read the next line which was, ‘Girl slaps Mick violently across face.’ And I must say this for Christine Noonan, she hit me across the face so hard my eyes welled up with water, I was stunned, and I was gonna hit her. I was really … I just … went … into … another dimension. And it was el … ec .. tric! Electric, from then on! The rest of the scene. She has this speech about, ‘Look at my eyes, they’re like a tiger’s. I could eat yer. D’you wanna kill me?’ All this kind of … I gave her the old look. At the end of the morning Lindsay jumped on the stage and he said that was good, that really worked. And I thought, that’s mine, I’ve got that.

“I went out very confident and I went back to the theater that night. I didn’t say anything, did the show. The curtain had just come down and there was a phone call telling me I’d got the part. I couldn’t stop talking, asking the casting director, ‘Can I buy you lunch next week?’ I’ll tell you this, I have never experienced such elation or joy. I’d just finished a show as well, so I was really like that, man, I was so elated it was unbelievable. So I go up to the dressing room—nobody there, they’d all gone home. Get out of me stuff, take off the make-up, run into the pub next door—the pub is closed. Run over to the Royal Court Hotel, into the bar, order a bottle of champagne, look around, who is there? There’s a musician feller who played the guitar for the cabaret. I said, ‘We’re gonna celebrate. I’ve got the champagne here; drink it with me.’ And we sat there in this bar with this feller I’ve never talked to before, just drinking away, saying I’ve got this part in this film … and he’s going, ‘Oh yeah?’ One of those scenes.

“I stayed with Lindsay for a month, before shooting, through planning meetings, all that kind of thing. He encouraged it really. I knew that I wanted to be committed to it. A tremendous role. Plenty of magic moments. I remember the first shot we did was when the three of us are sword fencing and we run into a squash court. We practiced this, got it really good, and Mick holds up his hand … he ends up in a corner, he’s been cut on the hand, he looks up at the camera and says, ‘Blood, real blood.’ It’s my first shot. That’s a very moving moment in the film.

The film came out and I was quite taken aback at the reviews, suddenly you were hot, people wanted to know you. It was really strange, and actually I was on national assistance by this time. I then decided that I had to be very careful about the work I did. And I have been in the main. After If I did a film called Figures in a Landscape with Joe Losey. End of comment. The film after that was The Raging Moon. They sent me the script when I was in Spain shooting Figures, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to do a bit of acting soon, because I’m not doing any here.’ That experience shook me up. It was from that, that I thought, ‘You’ve got to be more professional, McDowell, you’ve really gotta fight for your own here, otherwise that’s the end of your one little break.’ I read the script for Raging Moon. It’s about a cripple, and I refused to be sentimental, and was very uncompromisingly hard. I was really bolshie in that wheelchair. Lindsay came the first night, dressed up for me and everything and he said that I was great in it. And he would tell me the truth. That meant more to me than anything. But who wants to go and see a film about cripples? Be honest. No laughs there. There were a few though. I love it at the beginning when he’s got this marvelous speech at his brother’s wedding, and he’s the best man. It’s a northern wedding and it was all, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ and looking down at the bride … ‘and those of you who had the operation …’ that kind of stuff. I enjoyed that. “And then Clockwork came up. As I was making that film I got a call from Stanley Kubrick, and he said, ‘Gee, Malc, it’s taken me a week to find you. Your agent said you’d gone north with family trouble.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve changed agents.’ My old agent had told him I was uncontractable.

“I went to see Stanley and he said, ‘I’ve got this book for you….’ When I read the book I found it very hard going, first time. I thought, what is all this ‘malenky’ and ‘droogies’ nonsense. I read a great part here. And I put on the Beethoven at home and when the music started something happened. A touch of the ultra-violence came over me. We didn’t start shooting till September, and I went out to his house pretty well every day from June on, played about a million games of table tennis against him. He’s not that good. We talked a lot about costume. I’d bought some make-up and lashes to try and find the futuristic bit. I was putting on one pair, and he said, ‘Let’s just take a still of that.’ Saw the still and that was it. I said, ‘That’s all Alex wears, none of the colors, that, only that.’ He said, ‘Oh, would you like black lips or something?’ I said, ‘No, just the one eye, ’cause when they see the face, there’s something wrong and they’re not quite sure what it is at first.’ I was very pleased with that.

“The ‘Singing in the Rain’ sequence was extraordinary. We had come to this set, looked at it, sat down for the whole day, said nothing, did nothing, nothing happened. The next day, the same. On the third day Stanley said, ‘You come in, kick the feller down, can you dance?’ So I came in, kicked the feller down the stairs, suddenly went into … ‘Doobie-do-dah-bah-doobie-do…. I’m Singing in the Rain…. Just singing in the rain.’ And it just went through, like that on a rehearsal, right the way through to the end. ‘Gee, Malc, come in the car, come on, let’s go.’ Drove to the house, dear old Stanley never went above 30 mph, on the phone to the New York office, ‘Get me the rights.’ Sat there for an hour waiting for the return call, $10,000 to use it for 30 seconds. That was it, end of our problem.

“The thing with Stanley is that you have to be on form, bouncing with vitality at eight in the morning—there’s no walk-through rehearsal with him, you have to zing it—and over seven months, every day, work. He’s funny, he used to like the way I could belch on demand. I used to have him in fits, standing behind the camera with a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth. There was quite a lot of ad-libbing in the film. The psycho test, where they show you the ink blots and ask you to do the first thing that comes in your head. What you heard on the film were the first genuine things that came to mind.

“But the best scene I play in Clockwork is one where I hardly say a word. Dialogue is nothing in filming. It’s the way you are, being able to convey in a look what you might normally say in speech. Remember the prison scene where I’m being checked in and the warder makes me stand behind the white line. This is crunch time for the character. The warder says, ‘When you address me, you call me sir!’ Alex says, ‘Yessir.’ I could have played it straight: ‘Yes, Sir!’ But what I had to do was to convince the warder that I had buckled under and was going to be a good boy while at the same time giving the audience a signal, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it all measured. I’ll be all right.’ I’m not a mugging actor, don’t like pulling faces. What I like to do is create a force rather than a straight character. Alex was the only person in that film to show any vulnerability, any weakness. I think that’s important for an actor … for anybody who’s a human being, for Godsakes. You do know when you’re giving a good performance. What you’ll never be able to appreciate, and it’s rather sad, is your own personality, which is really what’s keeping it all going.

“The thing about acting is that what’s going on in your head, trying to work on different levels, isn’t what the audience sees. They just see the scene. There are some actors who act like that—scene actors. The trick is to tie all the scenes together. You must be affected by all the changes that you go through in a film yet remain the same person underneath. Like when you walk in a room, you take in the surroundings. Just one expression has got to tell the audience how you are reacting to the situation….

“… Oh well, all that seems a long way from Cannes and the old merry-go-round. I was doing the conveyor belt interview routine today. I went over to one table, full of these Americans. I said, ‘Good afternoon. Don’t bother telling me your names because I’ll forget them. My name is Malcolm McDowell. I hope you’re enjoying yourselves, but please don’t tell me your names.’ And I looked around and saw all these hurt faces and I thought, ‘All they want to do is introduce themselves, and I’ve offended them.’ I thought, ‘That’ll mean spending an extra five minutes with this lot.’ Big mistake. But it worked out.”

In This Article: Clockwork Orange, Coverwall

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