Tag Archives: Robert Altman

The Rules of the Park: Gosford Park, The Rules of the Game

23 Jun

Robert Altman famously cited The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu) (1939), by French director Jean Renoir, as his chief inspiration for Gosford Park (2001). That is pretty obvious upon watching both the films. They both involve a large ensemble cast playing servants and masters on a shooting week-end at a country house.

While Gosford Park is bound to the conventions of a murder mystery, Rules is bound to the conventions of a French farce. Both films sport complicated plots told in an oblique way, with little pieces of plot exposition “overheard” in snippets as the restless camera moves throughout these people’s lives.  Altman made this style of filmmaking his trademark. Renoir on the other hand, was a revelation to me. I’d seen his Grand Illusion in a college course. I wasn’t prepared for something as contemporary feeling as Rules delivers. The irony is that part of my feeling is actually owing to my familiarity with Altman, who is borrowing heavily from Renoir.

The two films have many scenes and characters that line up in synchronicity with one another. Both contain a scene in which a servant announces their master’s dietary peculiarities to a bemused kitchen staff. Both films play the scene for comedy, but I find it interesting, if not particularly important, that in the English country house the orders are obeyed, while the French cook sneers that “I can allow for diets, not obsessions.” I think I might get that stitched on a pillow. In Rules of the Game one of characters is Andre, a famous aviator. His counterpart in Gosford Park is Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who like Andre, is also famous, self-made and despised by the titled aristocracy as a climber. Though they invite the outsiders in to add a bit of glamour to their week-end, they make it clear that they exist apart from their so-called betters. Novello is kind to Mabel, a woman whose cash-strapped husband is cheating on her and whose position is so tenuous as to be mocked by everyone including the servants. The moment stands out in a film that is all about the nuances of correct behavior, because it is a rare instance of a person actually being nice. One can be polite, the film says, and be mean as hell. In Rules of the Game, the Marquis takes a shine to a poacher about to be punished for killing rabbits on his land. He not only lets the fellow off but gives him a job on his staff and helps him out of a jam involving a married ladies’ maid. In the end, though, noblesse oblige only goes so far and the Marquis has to dismiss the poacher because the fellow takes it too far, driving the maid’s husband into a shooting spree.

Both films take place in the 1930s, prior or the Second World War and reportedly satirize the upper class that was enjoying its last hurrah before the war and encroachment of the middle class. And both films, weirdly, end up falling a bit in love with the upper class creatures they are meant to savage. After Renoir’s hunting scene, where he shows crowds of bunnies and pheasants blasted by ladies and gentlemen in tweed suits, the director doesn’t really follow through. He shows us these people, warts and all, and the result is that we like them. Altman shows us upper class parodies like Dame Maggie Smith’s Lady Trentham, who is best described as a bitch on wheels. By the end of the film, though, he has revealed her fragility and we see her as a weak old lady who has to rely entirely on a paid employee for companionship.

I was reminded of my one and only experience with the titled aristocracy. My husband, then-boyfriend, and I were invited to spend the week-end at the estate of the Earl of Perth, by the Earl’s grandson. I went into the week-end with an American-sized  chip on my shoulder. On the first evening of our visit, His Lordship did nothing to alleviate my prejudices. He fussed about my drinking a glass of Scotch by addressing my boyfriend as if I weren’t in the room, and gave me a pictorial magazine to look at as if I were incapable of reading a newspaper or joining in the masculine conversation about world events. I fumed privately that the French had the right idea in their revolution. By the second afternoon, I began to change my mind as the Earl, dressed like Bertie Wooster on Jeeves’ day off, announced that we should all go into to town in the Purple Emperor (his name for the purple mini van in which he was driven about the county) to purchase corduroy trousers, an adventure which was quashed (to my eternal regret) by his grandson. Later that day he took me aside to show me his treasured collection of ladies’ scrapbooks, some dating from the 18th century, which held the botanical pressings of generations of the female members of his family. That night, he even let me have my dram of whiskey without comment. In short, it can be difficult to hate the gentry once you get to know them. I feel like that is what Renoir and Altman ended up deciding as well.

Since this will be posted on a Jeremy Northam fan blog, chances are that most of you are, like me, more familiar with the imitator than the original. While Gosford Park stands on its own as an independent work of art, it makes it richer when you understand that it is an homage. I’m loathe to say one is better than the other.  Both are fantastic, inventive and so dense with action and detail that rewards repeat viewing.

by Jenny The Nipper

Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name “Jenny Curtis,” Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as “Nipper.” If you’ve ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember “Jerry the Nipper” on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun.

Jenny’s blog, Cinema OCD, which describes itself as ‘The Aristocrat of motion picture blogs’  is packed with wonderful reviews of classic movies. I highly recommend a visit.

Memories of ‘Gosford Park’ from the Ivor Novello Consultant David Slattery-Christy

20 Jan

When people who are unfamiliar with Jeremy’s work ask me ‘What will have I seen him in?’, it’s always Gosford Park, and Jeremy’s wonderful and much admired performance as Ivor Novello, that I suggest first.

Robert Altman's 2001 masterpiece, 'Gosford Park'.

Robert Altman’s sublime murder mystery set above- and below-stairs in a country house gave Jeremy one of his very best roles to date, and despite being amongst one of the most talented casts ever assembled, Jeremy gave what Robert Altman himself described as ‘one of the, really, best performances I’ve ever seen in a film‘.

Ivor Novello is the only non-fictional character in Gosford Park. To give Jeremy’s portrayal authenticity, David Slattery-Christy, author and playwright, and expert in the life and works of Novello, was engaged as the film’s official consultant. I was delighted when David agreed to tell me about his memories of working on the film.

David Slattery-Christy

I am fortunate enough to have some great memories of my time working on ‘Gosford Park’. The first ever meeting I was invited to, at an apartment in Kensington, London, I shall never forget. At the time I was directing a tribute show, to mark the 50th anniversary of Ivor Novello’s death, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, when I was called and invited to attend the meeting. At that point I had no idea what the film involved. Imagine my surprise, on arriving at the said apartment, to find the likes of Robert Altman, Dame Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, Dame Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Northam, to name but a few. At this moment I realised this would be like no ordinary film.

During the location filming at Wrougtham Park near London I was fortunate to meet and see Jeremy Northam shoot his scenes and witness the resulting rushes. The one memory I was left with concerning Jeremy was his modesty. He quietly went about his scenes and left everyone so impressed with his skill and the depth he brought to the Novello role. Watching the rushes of his scenes was the only time I remember there was total silence in the tiny screening van. He did all this with no fuss or fanfares. He was a very warm and polite man and always had a ready smile for everybody.

Jeremy as Ivor Novello, with Claudie Blakely

Prior to shooting I had compiled a list of all the things that Novello did or didn’t like along with a few insights into his character. Jeremy’s portrayal and performance captured Novello brilliantly, even to the playing of the piano and singing of the various songs whilst shooting the scenes. The only thing that changed was the piano playing – Jeremy’s brother played the piano track we hear in the film.

David Slattery-Christy
Ivor Novello Consultant – Gosford Park

David has written at greater length about his work on Gosford Park in his excellent book on the life and work of Ivor Novello, In Search of Ruritania.

An absorbing and thoroughly engaging read, and a must-own for fans of Altman’s film looking to learn more about Novello and his work … straight from the film’s Ivor Novello consultant.’ Tara O’Shea, Chicago.

You can find out more about David’s book and where to purchase it (I have a copy myself and I highly recommend it) by visiting his website: David Slattery-Christy.

I’d like to thank David very much indeed for taking the time to make this wonderful contribution to the blog.

by Gill


Happy Birthday to Jeremy Northam!

1 Dec

Big, big, BIG Happy Birthday to Jeremy!

This time last year, a few of us pondered how to mark Jeremy’s birthday, and whether or not a gift should be sent. After putting ourselves in his position and suspecting that a gift from some possibly slightly unhinged complete strangers would probably not be deeply appreciated, instead we composed a silly birthday poem, posted it online and sent the link to someone who was working with Jeremy. It’s highly likely that he never got to see it (we never heard), but working on the premise that it’s the thought that counts and remembering that it was fun to do, it’s all fine.

This year, needless to say and rather wisely, the slightly unhinged strangers have not been invited to Jeremy’s birthday party, so we’re having our own celebration right here!

To kick us off in style, here is PrincessAmerigo’s latest video, made especially for Jeremy’s birthday, on behalf of all of us who frequent Jeremy Northam Chat. Thank you Agi!

As it’s close to Christmas, I’m thinking of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (it should be illegal not to watch that movie at this time every year). Can you imagine what might have been had the wonderful happenstance of Jeremy’s birth not taken place? ‘Emma’, without Jeremy as Knightley? They might have cast Hugh Grant instead, the actor that David Thomson describes as ‘an incipient sneeze looking for a vacant nose’*. Or ‘The Winslow Boy’ without Jeremy’s Sir Robert Morton? The whole subtext of sexual attraction between Sir Robert and Catherine would not have been there (that was Jeremy’s suggestion). I can’t even bring myself to imagine ‘Miami Medical’ without Jeremy as Proctor, that would break my heart … Actually, this whole exercise breaks my heart, so I’m going to stop before I become the party’s maudlin weeping drunk! I only want happy tears at this party!

So, let’s get tipsy on reasons to celebrate that this wonderful actor was born 49 years ago today!

Robert Altman, Director ‘Gosford Park’, of Jeremy as Ivor Novello:
I think this performance by Jeremy Northam is one of the, really, best performances I’ve ever seen in a film.

As Ivor Novello in 'Gosford Park'

Norman Jewison, Director of ‘The Statement’:
I just wanted him so bad. I went to him and told him, I didn’t know why, but I desperately wanted him to play this role. He was one of the first people I cast.

Vincenzo Natali, Director of ‘Cypher’:
I cast Jeremy not particularly because he’s British but because he’s one of the few leading men who is also a character actor. We needed those two things in the person who played Morgan Sullivan because he does transform so dramatically through the course of the film. I think if people who haven’t seen the movie were shown a scene from the beginning and then a scene from the end I don’t know that they would recognise Jeremy because he really did disappear into the role. I was very lucky to get him, he did an amazing job.

With William H Macy in 'Happy, Texas'

William H. Macy, co-star, ‘Happy, Texas’:
He’s completely charming, so good looking. He’s got this great mellifluous voice. There’s something compelling about Jeremy, it’s quite easy to watch him … I just loved dancing with him. He’s a tall drink of water. It was a little rough on the do-si-do’s ’cause he’s about 3 feet taller than I am.

Francesca Hunt, Literary Editor at Silksoundbooks, of working with Jeremy on audiobooks of ‘The Aspern Papers’ and ‘The Real Thing and Other Stories’:
We had a superb time working with Jeremy, as I imagine most do … Jeremy was a classic case of a very clever man suggesting some superb choices … He read the Henry James beautifully, he would read a railway timetable pretty well, obviously, but the fact that he knew and loved (the work of Henry) James quite as well as he did added immeasurably to the recording and to the pleasure of preparing the piece. It was such a good experience that we went on to record a second series of short stories with him all suggested by Jeremy himself … He is a lovely and an intelligent man and it was a great pleasure working with him.

Jeffrey Lieber, creator of ‘Miami Medical’:
He’s an incredibly talented man who brought a lot to the show. I, like you, look forward to what he chooses to do next.

And most recently, here is what legendary film writer David Thomson has to say about Jeremy in the 2010 edition of  ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film’:
… In the late 1980s, he had a great stage success in ‘The Voysey Inheritance’ and he played Stanhope in a TV revival of ‘Journey’s End’ (88, Michael Simpson). He is tall, dark and handsome in an old-fashioned way that has brought him a good many period roles. But he has a quietness and an ease that are not just unusual – they are intelligence itself. He is a star in waiting, increasingly versatile and inclined to take big gambles in his material. He runs the risk of making nearly everything seem easy, but proper recognition will come.

He was in the TV series Wish Me Luck (88-9) and then he played Hindley Earnshaw in ‘Wuthering Heights’ (92, Peter Kosminsky); Beacus Penrose in ‘Carrington’ (95, Christopher Hampton); went to America for ‘The Net’ (95, Irwin Winkler), with Sandra Bullock; ‘Voices’ (95, Malcolm Clarke), outstanding as Mr. Knightley in ‘Emma’ (96, Douglas McGrath); ‘ Mimic’ (97, Guillermo Del Toro); ‘Amistad’ (97, Steven Spielberg).

With Sean Hayes in 'Martin and Lewis'

He was funny with Parker Posey in ‘The Misadventures of Margaret’ (98, Brian Skeet) and with Steve Zahn in ‘Happy, Texas’ (99, Mark Illsley), but no one has really explored that potential. So he did ‘Gloria’ (99, Sidney Lumet); Chiltern in ‘An Ideal Husband’ (99, Oliver Parker); the barrister in ‘The Winslow Boy’ (99, David Mamet) – nearly comically cool; the Prince in ‘The Golden Bowl’ (00, James Ivory) – icily hot. He did ‘Enigma’ (01, Michael Apted); Ivor Novello – singing very well—in ‘Gosford Park’ (01, Robert Altman); ‘Possession’ (02, Neil LaBute); ‘Cypher’ (01, Vincenzo Natali).

Then for TV, he did his best work – suave but shy, as Dean Martin in ‘Martin and Lewis’ (02, John Gray) …

And finally, from me … you all know by now (oh please don’t yawn!) that I think Jeremy is an extremely talented actor, one of the very best, and one whose ‘great role’ is still to come (and it will come, I’m sure of that). I hardly need mention his great beauty and presence on screen. But what makes him so special for me? Why is it more than a fangirl crush? I could try to put it into some coherent form, but for me to be too analytical about it might destroy the magic; I’m not sure I really want to know! Whatever it is that Jeremy does and however it is that he does it, all I can say is that I know of no-one else whose performances affect me in the same way. Maybe this quote from my favourite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, is worth adding: ‘Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life.’

So, time to top up those glasses and toast Mr Northam:

Jeremy, we wish you the Happiest of Birthdays, and many, many more, and we thank you for all your wonderful work and all that it gives us.

Please add your own birthday wishes and appreciation for Jeremy by leaving a comment. I can’t promise that he’ll see it, but it’s the thought that counts!

*2010 edition of  ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film’

by Gill

Thanks to Joan aka Hazel P, to Debra, to Martina, and to Linnie, all of whom have provided material used in this post



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